It was sometime last year that 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, who was the guest on Ted Talk: Nayi Baat, was lauded by host Shah Rukh Khan. He said, “our future is safe in your hands,” and this Indian-American teenager has proved it right. After a string of accolades and achievements, including winning America’s top young scientist award, appearing on Forbes 2019’s ‘30 on 30’ list, the aspiring scientist and innovator has added another feather to her cap - she is TIME magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year.
She was only in second or third grade when she started thinking of novel ways to use technology to solve larger problems that plague the world. Gitanjali’s parents, Bharathi and Ram Rao, come from an academic background, and have always supported their daughter’s quest to learn new things.
A series of innovations
Gitanjali was only 10-years-old when she told her family that she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water Quality research lab. Thereafter, as a Class 7 student, she created a device called Tethys, which utilises carbon nanotubes to detect lead compounds in water, and sends values of the water status to a smartphone app. The young scientist wanted to solve the problem of the Flint crisis, where the city’s water was contaminated with lead. This invention earned her the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.
She is also the brain behind another app, Kindly, that can detect cyberbullying in the initial stages, thanks to the prowess of AI technology.
“I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar. You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is. The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around,” Rao told Hollywood superstar and TIME’s contributing editor Angelina Jolie in an interview for the magazine.
Gitanjali also invented Epione, which works with human genetics, and can detect the growing problem of prescription drug addiction. The portable and efficient device can help physicians to identify the symptoms of addiction at an early stage.
A role model for young girls
The teenager is a true advocate of STEM, and works closely with schools and girls in STEM organisations across the world, and global firms like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops.
She has also written a book in the area of STEM, titled ‘A Young Innovative Guide to STEM’, which was published by Simon and Schuster in March 2020. The book aims to inspire many others to take a more creative approach to solving problems. Her other book, Baby Brother Wonders was self-published in 2015.
Gitanjali’s work has garnered global attention, and has won her the EPA Presidential Award, George Stephenson Innovation Award 2020, Kumon 2019 Student Inspirational Award, TCS Ignite Innovation Top Health Pillar Award, and many more.
And there’s more…
Gitanjali was featured in the web series Marvel’s Hero Project as Genius Gitanjali for her consistent contribution to society. “I think that 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,” she had earlier told Google.
The young scientist has also mastered the art of playing the piano, and also enjoys classical dancing and singing, swimming and fencing. She also plays regularly for the elderly population at assisted living centres.
Although Gitanjali is way ahead of her age, she’s someone who is just like any other 15-year-old. “Actually I spend more time doing 15-year-old things during quarantine. I bake an ungodly amount. It’s not good, but it’s baking. And, like, it’s science too… To be fair, most of the time we don’t have eggs at home, or like flour, so I have to go online and search eggless, flourless, sugarless cookies, and then I try to make that. I made bread recently and it was good, so I’m proud of myself,” she shared in an interview with the TIME magazine.
(Edited by Varnika Gupta)