Jack Marcus, a Western Albemarle High School senior, talking at TEDx Charlottesville Credit: Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

When Jack Marcus sat down to browse the website Reddit almost two years ago, he never thought an article he read that day would land him on stage speaking to a packed house at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater.

But as Marcus learned about the prevalence of date rape in society, he decided to use the problem as a catalyst for a science fair project: a testing strip that would allow people to detect the presence of date rape drugs in their drinks.

At 17, Marcus was the youngest of about 25 speakers at Charlottesville’s second day-long TEDx Charlottesville event. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks highlight leading thinkers sharing an idea over the course of four to 18 minutes. Throughout Friday’s program speakers discussed topics that ranged from the power of food to bring people together to cutting-edge cancer therapies.

“Whenever I thought of ideas for the science fair, I made sure to think of actual problems rather than questions, because I wanted to create a project that was useful or meaningful to life outside of the science fair,” said Marcus, a senior at Western Albemarle High School.

Last year, Marcus and his lab partner, Annabelle Castlemen, submitted an abridged version of the project to the regional science fair, where they took second place in the biochemistry category and won a life sciences award from the U.S. military.

This year, he is pushing the idea further.

Marcus said the device looks like the strips used to test pool water, and that he’s in the process of adding layers of chemical sophistication that will detect the most common date rape drugs, such as alcohol, GHB, Rohypnol and Ketamine.

“These drugs are especially dangerous because they are odorless, colorless and hard to detect,” Marcus said, noting that date rape is prevalent among students in his age range.

According to the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, women between the ages of 16 and 24 are four times as likely as the rest of the population to be sexually assaulted. The National Institute for Mental Health and Ms. Magazine teamed up for a study that found that one in four college females will be victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

But progress hasn’t come without obstacles, the main two being the teenager’s lack of experience and resources.

“We had to work in our high school chemistry classroom lab and use the chemicals we had there … but when you go to the science fair you see that a lot of the kids have experience and are doing work in their parents’ labs,” Marcus said, adding that he and Castlemen did most of the initial work running to the chemistry classroom during their study hall and lunch periods.

Despite the challenges, Michelle Karpovich, a Western Albemarle chemistry teacher who is working with Marcus, said Marcus never grew frustrated.

“What I really liked was his resilience,” Karpovich said. “He wasn’t discouraged when things weren’t turning out the way he was hoping they would turn out.”
Karpovich also praised the scope of Marcus’ mind.

“What’s different about Jack compared to the average student is that a lot of kids are thinking about how to pass the next test or how to game the system to get this grade or that grade and get the highest GPA … but Jack is thinking about bigger world problems,” Karpovich said. “The fact that he asked the question and tried to apply the knowledge to a new situation, that’s different.”

Marcus, however, hasn’t forgotten that he’s still a kid who plays rock guitar for fun.

“I know it’s become sort of a big deal in the town and with the people in my school … but I wouldn’t consider myself very special,” Marcus said of his innovation. “When you have an idea and you really want to accomplish it, you’ll be able to do it.”

“Regardless of the limitations that I did have, I was able to do something with it, so I learned not to let limitations or circumstances limit the capabilities or the belief that I have,” he said.

Marcus said he plans to go to college next year, but that his interests are so varied that he has yet to choose a major. As for the project, he said he won’t be leaving it behind.

“I’m not sure where it’s headed, but I’ll just go along with wherever it is headed,” he said.

Reflecting on the experience so far, Marcus said the work has required him to draw on almost every class he’s taken.

“What was cool about this project was that while it was primarily science and math that were involved, I was able to incorporate almost every other subject, whether it was the research behind it or the psychological impacts of date rape,” Marcus said. “It was the culmination of all this stuff into my school project.”