14-year-old Heman Bekele has been named “America’s Top Young Scientist.”
According to a press release, Bekele’s Skin Cancer Treating Soap (SCTS) has earned him accolades from 3M and Discovery Education in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, widely regarded as the nation’s leading middle school science competition. He is the first Black scientist to receive the honor, according to information provided to AFROTECH.
Bekele, a ninth grader at W.T. Woodson High School in Annandale, VA, was visibly grinning from ear to ear, following the conclusion of ringing the NYSE Closing Bell on Friday Oct. 20.
“It’s incredible and it’s definitely a once in a lifetime type of opportunity and something that I’ll never forget. It’s definitely gonna stay with me forever, but I’m still taking it all in,” he expressed to AFROTECH during a Zoom interview.
Bekele was born in Addis Ababa, Ethipioa, and moved to the United States when he was four years old. His mother and special education teacher, Muluemebet Getachew, describes him as “self-driven” and says he began exploring science at a young age.
Witnessing the accomplishment of her son’s brilliance over the weekend, she expressed feeling, “incredibly happy” and “very overwhelmed.”
Bekele’s achievement was a year and a half in the making. As a 12-year-old, he formulated the initial idea for the bar soap. His curious nature spurred him to explore the topic of skin cancer and its effects in disadvantaged regions.
“I was looking into the issue of skin cancer and the fact that, especially in third world countries, people living under the poverty line just can’t afford the treatment necessary for skin cancer led me to try to come up with a solution and that solution ended up being a Skin Cancer Treating Soap,” Bekele said.
He added, “It took about a year and a half to develop, but it’s at the stage where it’s at today, and of course there’s still a lot left to create this part of soap.”
Bekele worked for four months alongside his mentor, Deborah Isabelle, a product engineering specialist in 3M’s Automotive Aftermarket Division.
She was responsible to provide guidance as he scaled his vision from ideation to a prototype.
“He’s so far ahead of us. It was very exciting to work with him because he’s so passionate and so focused, but he’s also willing to accept suggestions,” Isabelle told AFROTECH. “As mentors, some of the key things is working with them with their projects, helping them figure out what 3M product they want to incorporate into their project, and making connections. I connected him with some of the African American scientists that I know at 3M who are in the medical area. If there were other 3Mers who have areas of expertise, if there were 3M facilities, if there are other things that he can use, making sure that we help make those connections. It’s been amazing to watch him grow, to watch his mind work.”
The backing played a vital part in the development of SCTS, which is described as a “compound based bar of soap charged with different types of cancer-fighting chemicals.”
“It’s supposed to help heal the skin internally, which will then show results externally because the skin cancer will slowly start to fade away,” Bekele explained.
As “America’s Top Young Scientist,” Bekele is now the recipient of $25,000, which has invigorated his vision for a five-year blueprint for the soap that will be shaped around a nonprofit organization.
“More than anything, winning the 3M Scientist Challenge has given me even more motivation,” Bekele expressed. “It’s empowered me to realize that science can get you somewhere and science is a viable option. It’s also taught me that people want to hear about my ideas, and I’m allowed to create. At first, this bar of soap just was a random idea by a 14-year-old and look where it’s gotten me.”
He added, “By 2028, I hope to turn SCTS, which is right now just a passion project into more than that. I hope to turn it into a nonprofit organization where I can provide equitable and accessible skin cancer treatment to as many people as possible.”