Gitanjali Rao, India-American and a brilliant 15-year old young scientist and inventor, has been announced as the first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ by TIME magazine for her extraordinary work via technology to tackle contaminated drinking water to cyberbullying and opioid addiction concerns.
“The world belongs to those who shape it. And however uncertain that world may feel at a given moment, the reassuring reality seems to be that each new generation produces more of what these kids have already achieved: positive impact, in all sizes,”
– Time (1).
Ms. Gitanjali Rao was selected from a field of over 5,000 nominees as TIME’s first-ever Kid of the Year. Activist Angelina Jolie (2) had interviewed her for the TIME special.
During a virtual talk with Angelina Jolie from her home in Colorado, Gitanjali told about her process, “Observe, brainstorm, research, guild, and communicate.”
She spoke about her brilliant work using technology to tackle several issues such as contaminated drinking water, opioid addiction, and cyberbullying. She also talked about her mission to build a global community of young innovators to solve world problems.
“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.”
She said in the interview that
“If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Geetanjali stated that her generation is facing issues that they have never witnessed before.
She added that then at the same time, they are also facing old issues that still exist. It is like we are sitting here in the middle of a pandemic, and we are also still facing human-rights issues. There are problems that her generation did not create, but now they have to solve them. It includes matters like climate change and cyberbullying with the use of technology.
She added that she thinks more than anything right now that we need to search for that one thing we are passionate about and work on its solutions, even if it is something as small as finding an easy way to pick litter. She believes that everything makes a difference, and there is no pressure to develop something big.
Geetanjali stated that she always wished to put a smile on someone’s face when she was asked that when she found out that science was her passion. She added that it was her everyday goal to make someone happy. And it soon turned into how we can bring positivity and community to where we live?
Additionally, she added that she doesn’t look like a ‘typical scientist.’
She stated that everything she sees on television is an older, usually a white man as a scientist. She believes that it is weird that people assign roles as per their gender, age, and skin color. That’s how her goal shifted from building her devices to solve global problems and inspiring others to do the same as well.
She emphasizes from her personal experience that it is not easy when we don’t see anyone else like you. Hence, she wants to put out the message: “If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”
During the interview, she also stated that she started thinking about utilizing science and technology to make a social change when she was in second or third grade. She added that she told her parents that she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water Quality Research Lab (3) when she was ten.
More About Geetanjali Roa
Geetanjali Rao is a 10th grader at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Highlands Ranch. She is also conducting research at the University of Colorado, Denver (4) in the Cell Biology department. She is working on a solution for prescription opioid addition via the latest genetic engineering technologies and has created a device and an app-based on colorimetry.
Her initiative received recognition in a Technovation challenge as a world finalist and a Health Pillar award from TCS Innovation Challenge. She had introduced her device in TEDtalks Nayibaat India (5).
The Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenger had previously named Geetanjali, America’s Top Young Scientist of 2017 (6). She received the award on her patent-pending device to detect lead in the water quicker than any other present techniques. She has also won a global Paradigm science challenge (7).
She had recently launched an anti-cyberbullying service based on AI and Machine learning through Natural Language Processing in the community called kindly under Microsoft’s guidance. She has also received is Cyber missions STEM in Action grant to implement the solution.
Shanghai Media Group had honored Gitanjali as a Junior Eureka finalist when she solved a problem for the first integration care by building a simple solution that recognizes the elderly and children’s persona and helps staff members create and facilitate activities.
Gitanjali is also an active STEM (8) promoter, and she’s committed to promoting STEM activities in clubs, schools, and the community. She was also selected as the National STEM Scout of the year. So far, she has impacted over 30,000 elementary, middle, and high school students by sharing her process and tools worldwide with her weekly innovative sessions.
Apart from these, she was also recognized as 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 for science and innovation with her lead detection tool. She is an EPA Presidential award winner, and because of her community impact, she is also recognized as a Gloria Baron Young Hero honoree.
It is worth highlight that she has open-sourced her lead detection invention processor, her colorimetry algorithm for prescription opioid detection, along with an app code for society. Now, several other applications are using it.
Gitanjali is a board of directors for an organization called the Children’s Kindness Network. It spreads a message on the anti-bullying message and promotes the importance of kindness in the community. Gitanjali holds workshops in elementary schools to educate youngsters about compassion when they are still young.
Apart from speaking in several girls and global conferences, Gitanjali is also a three-time TEDx speaker and a TED speaker. She is also a panelist about the role of youth to power the planet in UNICEF. She was recently selected as the partner for Forbes Ignite Network to pilot a concept called Empathy Sharktank. It would help in employee-employer engagement and staff development for schools and startups.
Apart from Inventions
Gitanjali’s hobbies include Indian classical dancing, piano swimming, singing, fencing, and baking. Notably, she has been playing classical music for over nine years. She also shares her talent for playing piano in local assisted living centers.
According to her mother, she is a well-accomplished pianist. Notably, she asked about what she could do to help others when she was a three-year-old, and playing music was suggested (9).
Geetanjali has won awards for her writing in international and national contests. She published her first book called ‘Baby Brother Wonders’ at the age of 9. It is a self-illustrated book based on the story that has won 2nd prize in the PBS National writing contest. In the book, she described the world from her young brother’s point of view.
She has also won first place in the International Aviation Art Contest for the last four years at the state level, and her arts are displayed in Nashville international airport. She has also written several articles to bring awareness to the Flint water crisis. Moreover, she was also a ‘Times for Kids, kid reporter in 2018 (10). Besides art and writing, she is also a part of the H-4 club and STEM scouts. She regularly runs innovation and technology workshops for elementary schools all across the world.
When Angelina Jolie asked her if she does things that kids her age do, Geetanjali said she spent more time doing 15-year-old things during the quarantine. She added that she baked ungodly amount, even if it is not good, but banking is also like science.
Gitanjali is aspiring to study Genetics along with Computer Science and Product Design. In the future, she hopes to keep discovering writing and sharing her knowledge. She is a voracious problem solver and thrives on collaborating with organizations that promote innovation and creativity (11).
Her Source of Encouragement
She has immense support and encouragement from her engineer parents as she continues to build and develop different project ideas. Her father introduces her to new technologies as he comes across them or sends her resources whenever he reads about something new. Many times he also simplifies the concept for her in such a way that she can easily understand.
On the other hand, Gitanjali’s mother introduces her to daily news that impacts people. Her mom also plays different games with her. She talks about the day-to-day problems with her brother, and together, they find creative solutions for them. Apart from that, her parents also help acquire the material she needs to perform tests for projects that she pursues.
Her favorite part of the entire scientific process is to watch a simple and conception idea slowly coming together with wired processers.
She became fascinated by mythological characters when she visited Greece and Egypt and their interpretation by ancient people. That’s why, when she creates anything, be it art, craft, team names, or devices, she tends to use mythological characters that represent her work.
She also enjoys explaining her project to others to tell them about the device and the test performed and spread awareness about the problem you want to solve.
Gitanjali’s teachers, friends, and counselors have also always supported her throughout her whole scientific journey. When she won the discovery education 3M young scientist challenge, her friends were ecstatic, congratulating her and applauding her as soon as she entered the room.
She considers her parents as her main heroes. They always support and encourage her to keep going with the ideas and provides her all the essential resources to make them a certainty. On the scientific side, she looks up to Marie Curie (12) as her role model mainly because she didn’t only discover two new elements but also perform life-threatening tests and put others before herself. That’s what a true hero means to Gitanjali (13).
According to Gitanjali, she is fortunate to have friends and family who are supportive of whatever she chooses to and are excited to see what she would do next (14).
She looks at what worked for her and decided to share it with everyone else. She has made a process that she uses for everything now: observe, brainstorm, research, build, and communicate. She started with a simple presentation and lesson plans. After that, she began to add labs and contests that other students could do.
Now she has collaborated with rural schools, STEM organizations’ girls, and museums worldwide. Gitanjali is also partnered with more prominent organizations like Shanghai International Youth Science (15) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, London (16) for running innovation workshops.
She added that the students she works with don’t know where to start. She believes that if you give them a spark that they can then use as a foundation, it will change everything. It means that one more person in the world wishes to come with ideas to solve world problems.
She is proud that everyone has something they can start working on at the end of every session. She believes that if we can do it in 45 minutes to an hour, imagine what we can do if we spend months and months working on it. Moreover, she gets excited when she receives an email like, “Hey, I attended your workshop four months ago, and here’s my finished product; I really love it, it’s a shoe that calls 911.”
She has recently hit her goal of 30,000 students she has mentored, and it is super exciting for her. She believes that she is creating a community of innovators. She hopes that all the work these students are doing recognizes innovation as a necessity and not something as a choice anymore, and she wishes to be a small part of that (17).
It is not hard to find time if we are doing everything we like to do!, says Gitanjali. She is doing things that she looks forward to doing, and she loves to do (18).
She added that if she were forced to participate in those activities, there would have been no way she would manage her time effectively.
She usually comes back from school, completes her homework, and then research or continues improving her inventions. Then, she heads off to other activities and classes. To Gitanjali, developing solutions goes hand in hand with awareness, whether it is sharing the latest science and technology or environmental awareness.
She also actively acknowledges her numerous sponsors and mentors who help her in keeping things excited for her.
Apart from these, she also spends her time on her other interests; playing the piano, baking, swimming, and fencing.
She also likes to read books on myths and stories from different countries. She finds a lot of fun reading about historical and mythological fantasy stories. She also likes to hear Devdutt Pattnaik (19). One of her favorite books is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (20).
She also regularly read the MIT Tech Review and considers it as her pop-culture news. She believes that when we hear about all these fantastic people at MIT and Harward who are doing exceptional work with technology, that’s where inspiration strikes. Then, she tries to connect it with what she sees out there and put it together in a way no person has observed before.
Gitanjali intends to collaborate with the US Environmental Protection Agency to mass source water quality data once she is done testing and developing a method to gather data for analytics.
She doesn’t only plan to test local water sources, but she also tries to use the data from various sources to build a heat map that indicates the contamination levels in an area in a single view.
She is also aiming to develop prediction models of the spread in the future. Simultaneously, she also intends to create around 30 to 50 reproducible prototypes for field-testing, starting with Flint.
Moreover, Gitanjali is also working on a social project that prevents bullying with STEM sessions, along with Kindness for elementary children.
She also wishes to do something with gene edition to tackle adolescent depression problems. Notably, Gitanjali is dreaming of a day when we can measure happiness on a scale, and diagnosis of depression becomes a part of regular visits very effortlessly.
She added that she had been on and off researching the subject, but she has not dedicated her entire time. She calls this project her ‘Happiness Detector (21).
At present, she is working on an easy way to detect bio-contaminants in water, such as parasites. She is hoping for the project to be inexpensive and accurate so that people in third-world countries can detect what is in their water.
She added that most of her work with bio-contaminants is based on a gene-based therapy solution, which she is trying to understand. She is also working on a product that would help to diagnose prescription-opioid addiction at an early stage. Gitanjali is trying the means based on the mu-opioid receptor gene’s protein production. She is really interested in genetics, and that’s where she has decided to work.
Gitanjali believes that each one of us can observe around us and understand the social and environmental problems. She also encourages people to find a way to solve these issues. She added that there is no need to be afraid to try, and failure is also a part of the learning process.