Last year, when Gitanjali Rao appeared on Ted Talks: Nayi Baat, actor Shah Rukh Khan introduced her as, “She is winner of the America’s top young scientist award, she is on Forbes 2019’s ‘30 under 30’ [list], and is the brain behind not one or two or three, but six innovations.”
Rao has added to the credentials — the 15-year-old inventor and scientist has become the first Kid of the Year on the Time magazine cover. An Indian-American from Denver, Colorado, Rao was chosen from among 5,000 US-based nominees.
Rao does not look like your average brilliant scientist, and she is aware of this. “Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white, man as a scientist,” she says.
Life at home
Rao’s parents, Bharathi and Ram Rao, have an academic background and supported her curiosity and intelligence, even though there have been incidents — such as the time when 10-year-old Rao declared to the family that she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab.
“My mom was like, “A what?” she recounts.
Inspired by problems
When Rao was in second or third grade, she started thinking about using science and technology to create social change.
When she was in seventh grade, residents of Flint, Michigan, were battling a grave problem — a dangerous level of lead in drinking water. She created a device, called Tethys, which uses carbon nanotubes to quickly detect lead compounds in water and sends in the values of the water status — ‘safe’, ‘slightly contaminated’, or ‘critical’ — to a smartphone app.
The invention won her the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.
Then, there is Kindly — an app and a Chrome extension that can detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on 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 actor and Time’s contributing editor Angelina Jolie in an interview for the magazine.
Another invention works with human genetics and can detect the growing problem of prescription drug addiction.
“Approx six million people in India have opioid use disorders, including prescription opioids. Many addicts start as regular pain medication users but become drug abusers without even knowing it. Doctors are now trying to lift the amount of addictive painkillers that they prescribe.
“However, many people need opioids for their pain management and end up with serious addictions. In addition, physicians do not have an easy tool to diagnose opioid addiction at an early stage The current tools that are used today are after the fact and they are mainly based on self awareness or assessment of behavioural changes,” she says.
So Rao chose to develop an easy-to-use, portable and efficient device called Epione that physicians can use to tell if their patients are at the onset of addiction. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Message for young people
Rao is a believer in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and works with schools, girls in STEM organisations, museums all across the world, and bigger organisations like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops.
These weekly sessions have reached out to more than 28,000 elementary, middle and high school students globally with whom she has shared her process and tools. Her message is, “Don’t try to fix every problem, just focus on one that excites you. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Apart from inventing
The young scientist is also adept in playing the piano, Indian classical dancing and singing, swimming, and fencing. She was nine years old when she began to learn classical music.
Rao told Jolie in the Time magazine interview: “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 like 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.”
What’s next for Gitanjali Rao?
In her Ted Talk: Nayi Baat, Rao had said, “In our minds, superheroes can jump tall buildings, have technological gadgets and superpowers. But what do they have in common — the ability to save lives. And the magical thing is that they show up exactly at the right time to save a life. How are living, breathing scientists different from the superheroes in comics? No matter where they are, scientists come up with solutions to help people. I love science and I want to be a scientist superhero solving real world problems and saving lives.”
So, every time she sees problems in society, Rao can be expected to be on a mission to solve it.
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