A “brilliant” 15-year-old young Indian-American budding scientist and inventor, Gitanjali Rao was yesterday named TIME Magazine’s first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’.
Gitanjali was selected from a field of more than 5,000 nominees (ages 8 to 16) for her “astonishing work” using technology to tackle issues ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and cyberbullying.
Gitanjali spoke about her “mission to create a global community of young innovators to solve problems the world over” during a virtual interview for the TIME profile with actor and activist, Angelina Jolie from her home in Colorado.
“Even over video chat, her brilliant mind and generous spirit shone through, along with her inspiring message to other young people: don’t try to fix every problem, just focus on one that excites you,” Time said.
Gitanjali was just 11 when she won the top award at the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and was honoured as “America’s top young scientist” for inventing a quick, low-cost test to detect lead-contaminated water. She was selected from 10 finalists who had spent three months collaborating with scientists to develop their ideas.
Gitanjali’s portable invention – named Tethys, after the Greek goddess for fresh water – allows a sensor linked to a mobile app to give an accurate, almost immediate analysis via a mobile app.
Currently she is working on “an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water—things like parasites. I’m hoping for this to be something that’s inexpensive and accurate so that people in third-world countries can identify what’s in their water.”
Asked about her latest innovation aimed at preventing cyberbullying, Rao said the service is called ‘Kindly’. An app and a Chrome extension, it detects cyberbullying at an early stage by making use of artificial-intelligence technology.
Gitanjali, who has just hit her goal of mentoring 30,000 students, outlined her process of ‘Innovation sessions’ during her interview.
“I just looked at what worked for me and decided to share it with everyone else. So I made this process that I use for everything now: it’s observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate. It started with a simple presentation and lesson plans, and then I started adding labs and contests that students could do. Now I’ve partnered with rural schools, girls in STEM organizations, museums all across the world, and bigger organizations like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops.
“The students that I work with, they just don’t know where to start. I think that if you give them that spark that they can then build off of, then that changes everything.”
When asked when did she realise that science was her passion, she said, “I was in second or third grade, I started thinking about how can we use science and technology to create social change. I was like 10 when I told my parents that I wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab, and my mom was like, “A what?”
Gitanjali said she always wanted to put a smile on someone’s face. “That was my everyday goal, just to make someone happy. And it soon turned into, How can we bring positivity and community to the place we live?”
Gitanjali added that she doesn’t look like “your typical scientist. Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist. It’s weird to me that it was almost like people had assigned roles, regarding like their gender, their age, the colour of their skin.
“My goal has really shifted not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it,” she said.
“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” she said.