Written By: Isabel Powell
Gitanjali Rao shocked the world when she was named Time Magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year. She skyrocketed to fame, her youthful and genuine smile appearing on magazines and newsstands across the world. Such an honor is reflective of her dedication to using innovative scientific research as a tool to diminish disparity and resolve issues such as inequitable access to clean water, cyberbullying, and opioid addiction.
In her first fifteen years, Rao
has accomplished more than most others will in an entire lifetime. In addition to her numerous inventions and “innovation workshops,” Rao has won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Time Top Young Innovator, and the United States EPA President’s Environmental Youth Award. She has been named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and America’s Top Young Scientist. In addition to her scientific accolades and accomplishments, Rao enjoys baking, playing the piano, swimming, singing, and fencing!
Although only a teenager, Rao is already recognized for a variety of scientific creations and achievements. Her first device was inspired by the Flint water crisis, an environmental and public health disaster that exposed thousands of children in Flint, Michigan, to lead-contaminated water. Rao was motivated by this catastrophe to develop her first product: Tethys. Named after the Titan goddess of freshwater, Rao’s product uses carbon nanotubes to evaluate water quality and detect the presence of lead. The device uses Bluetooth technology to communicate measured, lead-induced changes in electrical resistance. Tethys is able to effectively detect the presence of lead in drinking water in order to determine whether it is safe to drink. Her innovation provided a feasible solution to the Flint water crisis and is potentially applicable to various other water-quality and public health issues across the world. Rao went on to work with the Denver water facility in order to develop a prototype of her device, which is an ongoing project.
After this first accomplishment, Rao continued to design and create products that could address the world’s crises. She developed Kindly, an app and Chrome extension that ingeniously detects cyberbullying using artificial intelligence. The program interjects when a user may use potentially harmful language and offers them a chance to craft a more diplomatic response. Founded on the belief that most people are not intentionally malicious, it passively corrects behavior and encourages kindness amongst teenagers. This creative solution to a pervasive social dilemma illustrates the breadth of Rao’s skills and reach in tackling profound issues.
Rao is also working on a device that uses epigenetics and genetic engineering to diagnose opioid addiction in its early stages so that it can be prevented and treated. Epione measures the production of certain proteins that increase when an individual becomes addicted to opioids. Rao’s product is able to quantify a person’s susceptibility to addiction and therefore allows physicians to evaluate risk and prevent addiction progression.
In addition to being a creator herself, Rao has begun to share her passion by empowering other future scientists to use the invention as a tool for positive change. By the age of fifteen, Rao had mentored over 30,000 students, particularly young girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM (Time). And as an Indian-American woman, Rao understands the racial and gender-based inequities in STEM fields and acts as a “STEM promoter” to encourage and inspire young people. She is well-known for her “innovation workshops” in which she and a group of middle-school or high-school-aged future scientists tackle problems together through innovation. These workshops promote creative scientific discovery and, as Rao explains, her “goal has really shifted not only from creating [her] own devices to solve the world’s problems but inspiring others to do the same as well.” To further promote STEM, she has authored multiple novels directed at students, including “A Young Innovative Guide to STEM” and “Baby Brother Wonders.”
Through all of her diverse interests and talents, Rao remains committed to not only advancing social and medical progress through innovation but exciting others to do so as well. In her unrelentingly idealistic words, “being a scientist is like being a superhero because superheroes save people and want to do what is best for their society—scientists do the same exact thing.” Rao genuinely believes that “if [she] can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it” and uses these messages to share her love of science with the world, inspiring future scientists in the process.