Don’t give up — At some points, I felt like The Helyx Initiative was making barely any progress. For the first three months, we only had maybe six or seven members and it didn’t seem like that would be going up. However, we stuck with it and started to pick up speed, eventually reaching 2,600 members.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Gao.
Andrew Gao is a seventeen year old scientist residing in San Diego, California. He is passionate about providing free and accessible science education opportunities. Andrew is CEO of The Helyx Initiative, the world’s largest youth research community, and is a published researcher. The Helyx Initiative has over 2,600 student members.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
I grew up constantly moving around due to my father’s job. I was born in Boston, moved to Virginia, then Maryland, and finally I settled in San Diego. I think that these early experiences really helped to shape my worldview and ideals as I witnessed a variety of cultures and economic circumstances. I am also the oldest of five children so I grew up taking care of my siblings and teaching them. I think this is why I enjoy teaching so much.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I really admire the work of Sal Khan and Khan Academy. I remember being very impressed when I first found out about Khan Academy many years ago. It was refreshing to see so many high-quality educational resources that I could easily access. As good education increasingly becomes privatized and paywalled, resources like Khan Academy are essential to help the lesser advantaged. I try to emulate the ideals of Khan Academy in my own work at The Helyx Initiative, where we strive to provide free online workshops and materials for students to learn about scientific research. We recently launched three free bioinformatics courses on Udemy, for example. My dream is that one day The Helyx Initiative can be on a similar level to Khan Academy in terms of impact.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
I founded The Helyx Initiative, a nonprofit that provides free science research opportunities for youth. I’ve always been interested in research but was frustrated by the few opportunities available to teens. I was unhappy with the state of quality STEM education. With Helyx, I set out to create accessible research experiences and science education for all. Currently, basically, only upper-class students have access to good STEM resources, which worsens socioeconomic inequality. In December 2019, I formally created The Helyx Initiative, and as CEO and founder, I have been managing it ever since, for about 4 hours a day.
The Helyx Initiative is trying to bridge the STEM gap and provide research opportunities for all youth. Currently, many research experiences or programs are expensive and not diverse. Youth from lower income families simply do not have access to the same level of science programs as do their wealthy counterparts. This will only inevitably lead to greater socioeconomic inequality as STEM jobs are generally more lucrative than other careers. Furthermore, even for relatively privileged youth, there are still not that many science research opportunities out there compared to the demand. The Helyx Initiative wants to meet these needs.
Overall, encouraging youth to learn about and engage in science research will benefit society. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the public’s lack of trust in science and poor knowledge of basic biological concepts have resulted in worsening COVID-19 conditions in the United States.
By destigmatizing science (teaching youth that science isn’t some faceless, esoteric practice), we can improve society.
Among other things, The Helyx Initiative has:
- Organized two hackathons with $135,000 in prizes total
- Had 3,000+ event registrants
- Hosted the International Youth Research Summit in June
- Published over 100 original science articles
- Published a research journal featuring high school scientific research
- Hosted multiple Women in Science webinars with hundreds of registered attendees
- Hosted hundreds of weekly free science and math classes
- Provided a free research program for teens to learn about conducting research
- Published science-related social media posts that were viewed more than 750,000 times
- Held a COVID-19 education campaign on Instagram
- Raised $4,000 for science materials
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
As I grew up moving from Boston to Virginia to Maryland to California because of my dad’s job, I noticed that in every school I attended, there was a lack of access to good free /low-cost science experiences, which frustrated me. I’ve always loved science, starting in the first grade from an experiment on optimal conditions for growing beans and another on making a long-lasting bubble solution. As I grew up and my interests became more specific, I was upset that it was nearly impossible to do advanced medical research, which, unlike my bubble experiment, can hardly be done on a kitchen floor. While some students could shell out tens of thousands for name-brand programs, I didn’t have that luxury.
After finally receiving a cancer research internship from a generous professor, I realized that while I had struck it lucky, countless others still didn’t have access to such educational opportunities. I realized that now I was in a position to help other students. Unlike a year ago when I had close to zero research experience, I now was well versed in the basics of bioinformatics, which can be done on a computer using public datasets. It struck me that bioinformatics would be perfect for reaching students and providing introductions to research. While lab work is awesome, it’s much harder for teens to get access to a lab than a computer. Therefore, I decided to teach bioinformatics, a great way for anyone with internet to do real research. This inspired me to use my skills to found Helyx and create such free research opportunities, classes, and more. I started off by creating curricula and online resources.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
This September, one Helyx chapter in Texas, Helyx Rio Grande Valley, hosted a webinar with a Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr. James Allison. This was shocking to me since I would have never imagined that we would one day be having such high-profile speakers at our organization. I am very appreciative of Dr. James Allison for taking the time out of his day to speak to youth about his important cancer research. His presentation was very interesting and inspiring.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There was one young teen who attended our Helyx Bioinformatics Summer Camp (online). At the beginning of the camp, they didn’t know much about bioinformatics or biotechnology at all and were rather shy and didn’t speak up much. However, at the end of the camp, I was excited to see them present to the class their original research project on disease gene expression where they identified biomarkers for disease diagnosis. The other students also improved a lot; one did novel research on breast cancer genes.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define making a difference as changing the trajectory of someone’s life to go upward, even a little. I think that everyone can make a difference; they don’t need to be a billionaire or a celebrity or a genius. Any effort to make a difference is amazing. Myself, I used to think that I couldn’t really make a difference until I got older or somehow won the lottery. But after my work at Helyx, I realized that anyone can make a difference if they try hard.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
I started by creating a website, making bioinformatics curriculum, and assembling a team of awesome people to work with. From there, we slowly worked at improving our presence and expanding in our community through free tutoring programs and a hackathon. Then, we reached out to students in other cities to have them start Helyx chapters and help us expand to reach more people.
As the founder of Helyx, I in many activities within it. For example, I started our blog, educational social media page, website, hackathons, webinars, and the research program. I will focus on the research program. The Helyx Research program is a free year-long program where high school students are guided through a real project. Throughout the program, there are seminars by experienced researchers, such as professors. Additionally, there are workshops, such as gene expression analysis. The program has an emphasis on first-time researchers and under-represented minorities, as part of Helyx’s diversity efforts.
I started by creating a framework of the program: what would it consist of, how much time, guidelines, rules, goals, etc. Next, I sought feedback from various teachers and my peers on how to improve it and any words of advice. After that, I created a website and document explaining the program and set up a registration system. I acknowledge that while I have some level of skill in research, the students would most benefit from people more experienced than me, such as Harvard researchers. I planned out the class curriculum and materials to teach with. I used LinkedIn and connections through my internships to recruit mentors to give talks. We have mentors who are MIT students, Harvard researchers, doctors, and more. I had a few of my Helyx team assist me with putting the program together and I am grateful for their support.
Honestly, the most difficult part was getting started. I had many people put doubt in my mind and tell me that creating a research program would be too hard, let alone for a teenager. However, I knew that this is what I want to do and how I want to help people.
- Form a great team — After I started Helyx, I knew I needed a great team to pull it off. Having a good team is the most important thing to starting any sustainable initiative. I reached out to my trusted friends who I knew were reliable and trustworthy.
Shoutout to my amazing core team: Chris Jung, Mason Holmes, Sid Udata, Yash Gupta, William Kang, Joanne Lee, Meryl Liu, and Sarah Gao.
- Don’t give up — At some points, I felt like The Helyx Initiative was making barely any progress. For the first three months, we only had maybe six or seven members and it didn’t seem like that would be going up. However, we stuck with it and started to pick up speed, eventually reaching 2,600 members.
- Don’t be afraid to get a “No” — In order to make Helyx a success, I really had to put myself out there and risk rejection (a lot). I contacted many scientists, professors, and companies about supporting Helyx and received mostly No’s. However, it was worth it because the ones who did say Yes were invaluable.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses — I had to reassess my strengths and weaknesses as Helyx expanded. I learned to delegate tasks and responsibilities to team members who were better at doing them than I was
- Don’t try to do everything at first — I started off Helyx only focused on one specific thing: bioinformatics education. Only later did we expand to science research in general. It’s important to start off with a clear specific goal. If you try to do everything, you will fail.
What are the values that drive your work?
I believe in helping others and determination. I believe that everyone has so much potential, a lot of it hidden, and it’s a shame if only a select group of lucky people ever get to access that potential. My parents have always raised me to believe that if I have the power to help people, it would be selfish of me to not use it.
I find that my volunteer work has been incredibly rewarding. I met new people and gained essential teamwork skills. As Helyx expanded and then COVID-19 struck, I had to adapt Helyx to an online format, and we gained members who were thousands of miles away. I gained valuable new skills in team management and leadership. For one, I got really good at dealing with time zones and planning large events. I learned that there are many ways to help, even if you are young. I find that often, teens think that they can’t change the world. Before my work at Helyx, I also felt like I couldn’t make a difference. However, I decided to go through with it, and I am infinitely grateful. I learned to make the most of my skills and resources. For example, I consulted friends for teaching advice and reached out to many scientists via email for help. From my volunteer work, I also learned not to be afraid to get rejected. I was told no countless times by researchers, friends, and even my parents, who thought Helyx was a waste of time. I have learned to persevere and do what I am passionate about.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
I write my daily goals in a journal and I have my long-term goals for Helyx and for myself on a piece of paper I put on the wall by my desk. I haven’t started doing yoga or meditation or anything like that yet, but I could see myself doing that in the future.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
I want to see a world where youth are more involved in science. Science is the closest thing we have to magic in our world and with the power of science, we can do great things. I’d love to see one day a futuristic high-tech city that is sustainable and efficient like Wakanda in Black Panther, and that can only be achieved through science. I want the world to be environmentally sustainable and healthy; in my ideal world, there would be resource equality and everyone would have access to things like water, food, education, and healthcare. A balance between humans and the environment is definitely really important for my ideal world.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
I would definitely invest lots of money into providing free science programs for all students. I’d implement free after school programs like FIRST robotics and Science Olympiad at every school and hire scientists and engineers to help run them. I’d also provide larger grants to scientists and set up my own grant system. I think that the current scientific grant system hinders innovative research in that they usually only award grants to research that they think will succeed. This means that many potentially groundbreaking but risky research will go unfunded.
To bring my vision to fruition, I would also start research labs and thinktanks dedicated to targeting the biggest challenges and questions in the life sciences, such as extending human longevity.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
I think that the educational system should spend more time on teaching students about different viewpoints and cultures. For example, I would appreciate a diversification of the standard high school English class literary canon. In my opinion it would be beneficial to include works about the experiences of people who have been oppressed. It would also be good to teach more about world cultures in history class.
And of course, I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I would like to see the educational system place more emphasis on STEM education. I feel like currently schools spend so much money on sports (which are certainly great activities), but they unfortunately neglect STEM, which is just as important.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Just one thing? Well I’d say: when you help others, you’re also helping yourself become a better, more empathetic person. Through my work at Helyx, I’ve become more understanding and aware of others’ differences and situations.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Feng Zhang! I am just so incredibly inspired by him and his work with optogenetics and CRISPR-Cas9. He has such a gift for identifying overlooked scientific potential such as with CRISPR, and I’d love to have lunch with him and chat about his work. Also, he’s a real icon for his charitable efforts. He’s done a lot of pro bono work to further youth science education through programs like the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair and I hope to be like him through my work at Helyx.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Feel free to follow my socials! I will post updates on my work on my website, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!