Virginia teen named ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’ for skin cancer-fighting soap

A 9th grader from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” Wednesday and the winner of 3M’s Young Scientist Challenge.

Heman Bekele, 14, took the top spot in the competition for working on a compound-based skin cancer treating soap, according to a news release.

Beyond the prestigious title, Bekele is also getting $25,000.

Heman Bekele, winner of the 2023 3M Young Scientist Challenge. (3M Company/Hand-out)
Heman Bekele, winner of the 2023 3M Young Scientist Challenge. (Courtesy 3M)

Bekele’s soap that treats skin cancer has been in the works for the last eight months, he said. It’s a compound-based bar of soap that uses a cancer-fighting agent, soap bases, and different drugs and chemicals to help treat different forms of skin cancer.

“I tried to find a problem that impacts hundreds and hundreds of people, but at the same time didn’t really have an affordable or an accessible method of treatment,” Bekele told WTOP.

The soap costs $8.50 to produce, he said, “in comparison to traditional skin cancer treatments, which cost in the tens of thousands of dollars after a one to two-year-long procedure.”

Bekele is in the process of getting a provisional patent for the project, and if that’s approved, he’ll focus on distribution and certification from the Food and Drug Administration, “and slowly but surely start to build up the scientific backing and also the federal backing of this, so that I’ll be able to start to distribute this and start to see some real-world impact of this idea.”

Bekele has also worked with several University of Virginia cancer researchers on the project and aspires to use the $25,000 prize to start a nonprofit, “and then I’ll be able to start creating this soap and being able to distribute it to anybody.”

“Just because a large percentage of people heal, it doesn’t mean that they are left financially secure after the process,” Bekele said.

Friends and teachers congratulated him when he returned to school, he said.

“The need for scientists and innovators to develop solutions for the world’s biggest challenges has never been greater. This year’s Young Scientist Challenge finalists have demonstrated the skills required to re-imagine what’s possible — intelligence, curiosity, collaboration, and resilience,” John Banovetz, 3M executive vice president, chief technology officer and environmental responsibility, said in the release.

“The magnitude and complexity of the issues these young minds are working to solve is inspiring. Congratulations to this year’s finalists — we can’t wait to see what you do next!”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S.

3M said Bekele will now work over the next five years to take his idea and create a nonprofit to distribute an inexpensive solution to communities in need.

He has been paired with 3M scientist Deborah Isabelle, a product engineering specialist.

WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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