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The world’s smartest girl: Colorado teen is solving life’s big problems


The world’s smartest girl: Colorado teen is solving life’s big problems

At age 11, Gitanjali Rao, developed a revolutionary device to detect hazardous substances in drinking water; at 14 the Gen Z teen made an app to battle cyberbullying, and was chosen by Time as “Kid of the Year”

Roni Dori | 09:58, 19.12.20
At age 3, during a family visit to the Indian village of Valsad, in Gujarat state, something unexpected happened to Gitanjali Rao. Her grandmother sent her to fetch water from the village well, and curious as she was, she drank the water quickly without it being boiled first. “I became sick and that experience changed my life forever,” she told Calcalist in a Zoom interview from her home in Lone Tree, Colorado. “I was so mad about it too. I was like, ‘Why did I end up doing that?’ But it almost seemed unfair now looking back at how many people face this issue, the very idea that water needs to be boiled. Why do they need to keep doing that? That's so frustrating to me. Every time I go to India, I can't drink water without it being boiled and then boiled again, and then chilled, and then boiled again. There's a whole process of how to drink water, which is just unfair because water is a basic right that everyone should have.”

While most children take their surroundings for granted, Rao already understood at a young age that in her small hands she held the power to lead great revolutions. In 2015, when she was only 10 years old, she came across a news piece on television, about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which exposed 30,000 American children to a neurotoxin in drinking water, and decided that she was the one who would find a solution to the problem. She told her parents that she wished to further investigate the matter by using the laboratories of the Denver Water Company. Although her parents needed an explanation of what exactly their daughter was talking about, they finally agreed to her request. “This task is going to fall to the next generation anyway,” she told Time, “and if no one is going to take care of it, then I will.”
Gitanjali Rao receives the Discovery prize. Photo: Discovery Education/Andy King Gitanjali Rao receives the Discovery prize. Photo: Discovery Education/Andy King Gitanjali Rao receives the Discovery prize. Photo: Discovery Education/Andy King

Rao discovered that the city of Flint had previously changed its water source, from Lake Huron to the lead-laden Flint River, and its residents would pay a heavy price - some 28% of the population’s children have special-needs, due to behavioral and neurological complications, a figure that is twice as high as it had been.She developed a solution to the problem - a portable device named Tethys, after the Greek goddess of water, that is capable of detecting lead in water, faster and cheaper than similar products on the market.

Her brilliant app made waves all around the world, granting Rao many prizes and titles, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s President's Environmental Youth Award (PEYA). She also became a popular TED talk lecturer, starred in a short Google documentary, which had seven million views, appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night “Tonight Show,” and was listed on Forbes’ prestigious list of “30 Under 30'' for 2019 alongside other scientific candidates who are significantly older than her. At the beginning of December, Rao made history again, when she beat 5,000 contestants and was chosen as Time magazine’s “Kid of the Year.” “It's been a little bit chaotic, but it's been such a fun process,” she told Calcalist with a smile.

It’s difficult to explain the positivity and grace that this girl displays, yet it’s also impossible not to drop one’s jaw in awe at an inspirational figure who's so young. She is full of self-confidence, diligent, eloquent, a fast thinker, and without a doubt intelligent. Since the Time Magazine announcement, she has received many requests for interviews, and has already done 100 with media outlets all around the world. This was her first interview with the Israeli media.

“There's something so exciting about being recognized for the work that our generation is doing, and that's what made the Nickelodeon and Time’s Kid of the Year award so special, because they really brought it out there. They showed what kids are doing to make an impact, and the future is quite literally in our hands. I'm just really excited to be playing a part in that, and being the face of Gen Z and our future. That's my biggest motivation, is knowing that people look up to me, and other people want to be scientists as well, and I want to help them out. I want to be their role model and I want to continue my journey. This is by far not going to be my peak,” she said.

“She’s just a girl in age, not in knowledge”

Rao is the oldest daughter of an Indian immigrant couple, who live in Colorado. She attends school at the prestigious STEM School in Highlands Ranch. She and her brother, Anirudh, are named after Bengali poetry books that are beloved by the family. Their author, Rabindranath Tagore, was also an ardent Zionist and a street in northern Tel Aviv is named after him. Her name means “offerings of songs and melodies” in Hindu.

How did you first become interested in STEM?

“My uncle got me a science kit when I was four years old, and it changed my life forever. There was never really one moment where everything came together, but instead I started this experience wanting to know more, became curious and wanted to grow as a scientist and an inventor, and that's what I did.”

Three years later, she already developed her first invention.

“My first invention was in second grade, and I made a foldable chair to save space on the International Space Station, and it didn't work. But it was obviously just an idea that I had, and I had a few models and designs for it.”

Her hunger to provide solutions only grew, and she dreamed of solving far-off problems like the outbreak of the Zika virus, which took place in the Pacific islands. In 2014, a disaster occured closer to home - the Flint water crisis. Rao saw how her parents were worried and checked their own drinking water at home, and identified the current challenges in detecting toxic substances in water. Standard lab tests were expensive and had a long wait time of up to two weeks before results could be produced. Home tests were unreliable as well. Rao wanted to find a simpler solution that could be used at home to detect toxins, and decided to immerse herself in research on the internet. That’s how she came across an innovative technology that is based on carbon nanotube sensors, and investigated whether it could be used for her desired purpose. She just had to convince adults that a 10-year-old girl without any professional experience, “desperately needed training and a lab,” she told Google’s “Search On” documentary series during an interview. “When I found a place that agreed to provide me with a lab, I came home and roared happily.”

It was Dr. Selene Hernandez Ruiz who held the keys to the lab, as laboratory manager at the Denver Water Company. She gave Rao her first opportunity.

How did you first meet Gitanjali?

“I first met Gitanjali at the Denver Water Company. She came to Denver Water to make a presentation about her device. Gitanjali and I made an immediate connection as we both enjoy the scientific process and applied our knowledge to help our communities and the environment,” she told Calcalist.

What convinced you to share a lab with a 10 year old girl?

“She was eloquent when describing her device and demonstrated a high level of proficiency in various technical aspects. Therefore, it was natural to give her space in our lab - to foment her further development as a scientist, a contributor, and a member of our global society.”

How did your work process go? What caused you to include her in your project, instead of simply saying: “Thanks for the idea, let the adults do their job”?

“Gitanjali was a kid in age, but her scientific knowledge surpassed that of college-level students. She was the most knowledgeable, eloquent, well rounded, and caring young person we had ever encountered. When you couple those traits with her interest and perseverance to make a difference in the community - no one could, or should, walk away without learning something from her. Our sessions involved asking lots of questions and refining her existing device, which is her original idea. We also worked on techniques in labs and provided materials to carry out experimental designs. We had so much fun in those sessions! We have learned about the incredible potential a young human being can have. Hopefully, we have learned to remove the implicit bias that comes with being different, in this case a very young female scientist.”

After a few months of work, Rao had a prototype in her hands that could be 3D printed, complete with an arm equipped with a sensor that could detect lead in water, and transmit the test results to an Android app (which Rao also developed). In a few seconds, users get an answer as to whether the water is safe, slightly polluted, or very polluted. The successful app made several companies attempt to woo Rao: In 2017, when she was only 11, she was awarded the Discovery Education’s and 3M’s America's Top Young Scientist of 2020 prize along with $25,000. A year later, she presented Tethys at other entrepreneur conferences. These days she is looking for more opportunities to collaborate with commercial companies to mass produce Tethys, “I think it'll be in a in great place to go to market by this time next year, hopefully,” she said.

Don’t compare her to Greta

Her young age and her meteoric leap to the forefront of environmental issues sparked several comparisons between her and the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who last year was chosen as “Woman of the Year” by Time magazine.

“I love Greta Thunberg's work. I think she is so beyond amazing. Just her energy and passion that she puts into what she's doing (is amazing). I have seen comments comparing us online, but I think we're both expressing our passion for changing the world in our own ways. I think there shouldn't be that comparison out there, because I was so inspired by her every day. She's one of my biggest role models, and makes me continue to do what I'm doing. Just her being young as well has empowered me to continue chasing my goals and my dreams. If anything, I'm honored to be compared to Greta. I'm honored to have that opportunity for people to tell me that my work is similar to hers because her work is amazing, and I think that everything she's doing is to make a difference.”

Rao says she was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a fellow Gen Z activist. Photo: CTech Rao says she was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a fellow Gen Z activist. Photo: CTech Rao says she was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a fellow Gen Z activist. Photo: CTech

The most significant difference between the two is that Rao hasn’t limited herself to only dealing with environmental concerns. After Tethys, she joined several organizations such as Girlpreneur and Techovation, which encourage young female entrepreneurs, and help them pursue original innovation. Her next invention was Epione, a genetic-engineering based device for the early-detection of opioid addiction. Something 26 million people around the world suffer from. The app is also named after a Greek goddess, whose power is to cure people from pain. Rao’s invention came after a close friend’s family member had a car accident and became addicted to opiods. Currently, Epione is at the prototype stage.

After that came the app Kindly, which is designed to prevent cyberbullying, and which she developed along with Microsoft. A study found that one out of every three students in the U.S. suffers from cyberbullying. In her homestate of Colorado, there has been a sharp increase of 58% in the teenage suicide rate. Her app, launched last May, identifies words and phrases that are considered bullying, and alerts those who type them so they can decide whether or not to delete them from text they are about to send. It also appears as an extension on internet browsers.

“The whole idea behind Kindly is for it to change the way you think, and just to be mentally aware of what you're typing,” Rao said. “Kindly's an artificial intelligence-based service that's able to detect and prevent cyberbullying in the early stages, and it's based on the latest developments in machine learning technology. It's built on a continuously evolving service, meaning that it's able to adapt to the latest terms and slang and emojis that people use.”

How do you make it something that people your age want to download?

“Kindly is meant to be implemented within schools, school counties, when kids are chatting in school or when they're working on something, and create a positive environment. Obviously, no one's going to download something on their phone, which tracks their every move. Kindly was created by a teenager for teenagers, and it's intended to be non-punitive, meaning that it doesn't go straight to punishing someone, but allows students to think about what they're saying. It involves sentimental analysis. It's a computer that basically understands you, which I think that it’s so exciting to be able to have something like that.”

Lectures to 33,000 children

The year 2020 was a special year for Rao, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic helped her to be more of a child, she said. Or, a girl, in her own way. “My biggest hobby is baking and any cooking-baking-related thing I love to do. I'm also working on my pilot's license, and I play the bass guitar and the piano, and am also interested in calligraphy.”

In addition, she continues to give science lectures to children. Some 33,000 children around the world have participated in her workshops and lectures.

“I start every workshop by asking: ‘What do you like to do?’ I like to say everything makes a difference. So find that one thing that you are passionate about and find a way to make it better. Because imagine if one person can do so much, imagine what we can do when the world comes together to make a difference? That's really what I'm trying to start, an innovation movement, to solicit new inventors and amplify my voice, amplify our voice.”

Have you ever encountered any colleagues that have been dismissive of you because of your gender or age?

“A lot of people didn't take me seriously, undermined me because of the student I am, and I understand their perspective but I really do want to see that change. I imagine how cool it would be then if instead of students reaching out to bigger companies, companies would reach out to students to get their unique perspective, to get their take on things.”

Nowadays, Rao wants to use the Gen Z hype around forming a youth coalition, to create an “army” of youth whose aim is to lead social change.

“The reason I use the word ‘army’ is because we all have one goal. We all have one thing in mind, and that's to change the world to make it a positive place, and together we can do anything we put our minds to,” she said. “I think that whatever we're doing, we should just take steps and see how we can use science as a catalyst for social change. All of us can play a part, and that's what makes it so exciting. I think it's time to just let go of the past and look into the future. What can we do now to change the world for the better?”

What do you plan to do in the future?

“I am not exactly sure what I will be doing, because I change my mind every day, but I know that whatever I'm doing, I will be making a positive impact. But hopefully it has something to do with my love of technology and entrepreneurship.”

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