Western Senior Jack Marcus Commands the Stage at TEDx

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By Rebecca Schmitz

Jack Marcus (Photo: Kimberly Powell)
Jack Marcus (Photo: Kimberly Powell)

He made it look so easy.  Standing onstage in front of a packed house at the Paramount Theater at the TEDx Charlottesville conference November 14, Western Albemarle senior Jack Marcus held his audience in rapt attention as he described the product he spent the past year developing: “Safe Sip,” a strip that, when inserted into a drink, can detect the presence of “date rape” drugs.

Using language that even the most scientifically challenged audience member could understand, 17-year-old Marcus confidently explained how the simple paper strip could be unobtrusively inserted into a drink and change color to indicate the presence of GHB, a powerful drug that can suppress the central nervous system and is often referred to as a date rape drug.

Marcus, the youngest individual speaker at the conference by a good 20 years, was part of an illustrious group of 24 thought leaders that included accomplished musicians, authors, scholars, business leaders, and others. Speakers were chosen based on their thought-provoking ideas and ability to motivate and inspire others to act.

“Our goal is to look at the world and bring to Charlottesville people that have ideas about the world that make you feel better,” said Isabella Jones, speaker liaison for TEDx, who coached and prepared the speakers intensely.

Marcus’s ease on stage was the result of months of hard work. “I practiced every day in the shower!” he said with a chuckle several days after the conference. He also met with his speaking coach, Darius Nabors, each week to sharpen his skills. Artist Mara Sprafkin, a Charlottesville resident whose work is regularly featured in national magazines, provided the illustrations to accompany his talk.

“These speeches are designed to be conversation starters, not conversation enders,” Jones said.  “These are people who are going to change the world in a big way. Jack was the perfect package. It is a really phenomenal and extraordinary thing that a 17-year-old would do this,” she marveled.

Marcus’s interest in helping to combat the devastating trend of sexual assault was sparked after he read an article about a college student who had been drugged and raped. Curious about whether any products existed to detect the active ingredients in what are commonly called date rape drugs, he began to search online for solutions. “I couldn’t find anything that I could see anyone actually using,” he said.

He found the statistics startling:  “One in four college women will be a victim or attempted victim of sexual assault. But what’s interesting to me is it’s also more of a worldwide issue. Businessmen in other countries are getting drugged and robbed.”

Enlisting the help of his friend and classmate Annabelle Castleman, who has since graduated from Western and now attends Fordham University, he began spending his study halls and time after school in the chemistry lab working toward a solution.

“I thought, why not use some of the chemistry I’m learning in my classes and apply it to this problem?”  His AP chemistry teacher, Michelle Karpovich, served as a research mentor.

“I would run ideas by her,” Marcus said.  “She would either say ‘go for it’ or suggest something else.” Carol Stutzman, another chemistry teacher at Western, also provided guidance.

Karpovich was impressed by Marcus’s initiative. “Jack didn’t wait for a teacher to present him with a problem to solve. Instead, he identified a problem on his own, and he approached his science teachers with thoughts on how he could research his ideas. We have become his sounding board, his way of ordering supplies and having a space to work, and his mentors. We have truly been nothing more than his ‘guide on the side’ while he pursues ideas that he has researched.”

Marcus entered Safe Sip in the regional science fair and won second place, as well as an award in Life Sciences from the U.S. Military. “I never really expected it to take off the way it did,” he said.  “I was surprised anyone was interested in the idea.”

He is working on getting a patent for his product, and is continuing his research to develop a strip that would detect other date rape drugs, such as rohypnol (commonly known as “roofies”) and ketamine. “I’ll keep going with it as long as it can go.”

With his ready smile, warm personality, and sense of humor, Marcus is not your stereotypical scientist hiding in the lab all day. He plays in the school jazz band and is also the guitarist in a rock cover band that performs at Mudhouse and other venues. He enjoys web and graphic design, and he is developing an app for his classmates that would alert them to schedule changes and announcements.

Karpovich notes that Marcus is notable not just for his academic successes, but for his character as well. “Jack is such a wonderful young man. He is one of the most honest young men I know at Western. He is diligent, motivated, intelligent, practical, well-balanced, well-spoken, and diverse.”

Although he has loved science since childhood, and remembers wanting to be a doctor in third grade, Marcus’s interest in it wasn’t inherited:  “I’m the first scientist in the family.” Like most seniors, he is in the process of applying to college. He is particularly interested in research-oriented universities.

Karpovich said that “Jack has displayed excellent research tenacity. He uses the Internet to his advantage, taking time to read some pretty complicated research journals available online. He applies his content knowledge from chemistry to come up with ways to see color changes in his ‘safe sip’ device. He also has applied the scientific method while conducting his research. He has shown diligence, perseverance, and enthusiasm for learning.  He doesn’t get discouraged when results don’t turn out as expected.”

Marcus said that despite his many interests and activities, he doesn’t feel overwhelmed. “As long as I get eight hours of sleep, I’m happy!” And as for his future as a speaker, based on his outstanding performance at TEDx?  “I think it will come easier next time,” he said with a laugh.

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