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Woodson HS freshman who created skin cancer-treating soap honored by county board

Woodson High School student Heman Bekele speaks after getting recognized by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for winning the 2023 3M Young Scientist Challenge (via Channel 16)

A local teen who was recently named the “Top Young Scientist in America” got a round of applause this morning (Tuesday) from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Heman Bekele, a ninth-grader at Woodson High School, won the annual 3M Young Scientist Challenge in October for developing a soap that could potentially be used to treat skin cancer. He beat out nine other finalists for the 2023 contest’s grand prize, which came with $25,000 and the aforementioned title.

The Board of Supervisors recognized Heman’s accomplishment with a unanimously approved resolution at its meeting today.

“This is a legitimate breakthrough that Heman discovered and produced,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw. “Especially for those of us whose science experiments ended with our ability to glue a picture of a tree on a board, to see and read about what you have done here is really amazing.”

According to the resolution read by Chairman Jeff McKay, Heman was inspired to create his Skin Cancer Treating Soap (SCTS) by his background as an immigrant from Ethiopia, where cancer is a significant but underreported cause of death. Though he was only 4 when his family moved to the U.S., Heman has said that he remembers seeing people work long hours under the hot sun.

Now 14 years old, Heman wanted to come up with a more affordable treatment option, as costs for existing treatments for the most common cancer in the U.S. have climbed.

According to a Fairfax County Public Schools profile, Heman created the soap by experimenting with different chemical compounds like alicylic acid, glycolic acid and tretinoin that can reactivate dendritic cells, which are part of the body’s immune system.

The final product could be manufactured for just 50 cents a bar. The county board’s resolution lauded Heman for his “enthusiasm and dedication, including long hours of researching and testing in his family’s kitchen and basement.”

For the 16th annual 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Heman was paired with one of the company’s scientists and spent four months turning his concept into a prototype. He was named the competition’s winner at 3M’s global headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 9 and 10.

After the board approved its resolution, Heman thanked his parents — including his mother, who works as a special education teacher at Lynbrook Elementary School in Springfield — as well as the teachers who have supported him since he began attending FCPS as a kindergarten student.

“What I’m hoping to do is turn this passion project into more than that,” Heman told the board. “I’m hoping to turn it into more of a nonprofit organization where I can provide equitable and accessible skin cancer treatment to as many people as possible, so that’s the end goal, just to help people, see a real change and a positive impact on the world.”

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