“I am a very curious person. I love learning about everything as everything is of interest to me,” says 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, from Lone Tree, Colorado, US, who became Time magazine’s first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ earlier this month. In the past few months, she also published a book, titled A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM, and came up with the idea of tackling parasites in water “by using genetically engineered microbes and turning them into biochemical sensors”. After COVID-19 comes to a close, thanks to vaccines, she hopes to look at ways to prevent future pandemics. Rao took time out for a conversation over Zoom. Excerpts:
You won America’s Top Young Scientist award in 2017, was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2019 and are now the Time magazine cover girl. How do these awards affect you?
I feel humbled and honoured and, at the same time responsible, to be able to share my knowledge and provide resources for students around the world. I think I am representing girls and students across the world, by being on the cover of Time and making it to these lists, showing that if I can do it, anyone can do it.
In the last few years, a number of young men and women have turned into thought leaders, from Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg to yourself. Should we be looking at childhood differently?
I think the biggest thing is believing that the power of youth ingenuity is valuable for the future. Imagine how interesting it would be if universities and organisations opened up their labs and projects and see if they could get value from our contributions. It is very discouraging when someone says “no” due to our age. I have learnt to work around that. I continue persisting and going ahead with my ideas and my dreams because I know that somebody will eventually take me and other youths seriously and understand our work and the passion behind it. If nobody else is going to solve a particular problem, then we need to do it and try whatever we have in our power. Malala and Greta are amazing women and a huge inspiration to me, and they need to be heard. They amplify their voice for girls education and climate change respectively. Youth needs to be given a chance and deserve an education system where we are allowed to be a part of the solution and are not measured by our ability to get 100 per cent in a Math or Science test.
What do you feel about education systems, especially in schools?
I think the biggest problem with our education system is that it has stayed the same for years in many parts of the world. There is a big inequality with education — some schools have resources for 3D printing while others have 30-minute sessions on how to get to the internet, while others don’t even have internet. This is worrying. We have a long way to go and, hopefully, my work, especially innovation workshops, can help to provide resources and the ability to incorporate problem solving in our curriculum and improve the education system as a whole. It is just a small step in the right direction.
What were the factors that led you to becoming a scientist and an innovator?
I veered towards science when I started applying my curiosity to the real world. When I was four-years-old, my uncle got me a chemistry kit that I finished in a single day because it was so much fun. Without knowing, I was actually using scientific tools that I had learnt and it made me excited to continue to come up with ideas and, soon, I realised I could try my own innovations. The first scientific invention was a chair that goes underground to save space. We came up with this idea in the second grade, with a team, because we wanted to save space in the international space station. I thought it was a cool idea then. I think my biggest advice to parents and other adults is to support the dreams of children by providing resources or encouraging them because that made a significant difference for me. We can support so many more Gitanjalis out there. It need not be science specific. It can be art or writing and just like my fellow TIME Kid of the Year finalists, we use our different talents to make a difference.
In what ways did your family support you?
Both my parents are working in information technology, so it is not exactly to do with my wavelength of science. I love learning about so many other things and they are willing to support. In third grade, when I wanted to learn about clouds, my parents did not ask any questions but went to the library and got five or 10 books so that I could read about clouds. I started to do that every single week to see if I get the same response. I would tell them of whatever topic I wanted to learn about and that wish would, essentially, be granted from libraries or videos. One of my grandfathers was a scientific officer at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the other was a mining engineer in Ordnance Factory. Both are retired now, but they, too, thoroughly support me in what I want to do. I never felt any pressure to pursue one particular thing.
Instead of working in isolation, you are actively involved in creating a community of scientists and innovators among children through workshops. How do your workshops function?
A lot of people want to be young innovators or solve problems but they just don’t know where to start. I decided to dedicate some of my time to share what worked for me so others can try the same. My workshops consist of a prescribed five-step process that anybody can adapt to start their innovation journey. When I use that process in a session, every student comes out with an idea and a potential solution. They can then take it beyond that. I help answer their questions and share what worked for me along with a list of challenges and competitions that provide mentors. Hopefully, the path that I provide for them, a solid foundation with a repeatable process, will allow them to grow only upward from there and continue as innovators and doing what they love to do. It was during one of these workshops that I heard an idea from a student about a paintbrush that would help a person get lessons in art while they create or paint. It was like a magic paintbrush, but something where students can learn themselves. I hope she moved it along further because that was an amazing idea. I came across all sorts of stories from students everywhere and learned a lot from them.
Tell us about the devices, Tethys and Epione, which is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the world.
Tethys is a device that helps to detect lead in drinking water, faster and more inexpensively than the current tools out there. I heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, about four to five years ago and it inspired me to come up with something because kids should not be drinking poison every day. My partnership with an initial company didn’t work out due to lack of materials, so I am looking for a partnership with a company for scale testing, verifying my research before commercial feasibility and mass producing. It is not currently being used by anyone, but I hope to one day.
Epione helps in detecting prescription opioid addiction at an early stage. I had a family friend who got into a car accident and ended up getting addicted to prescription opioids and, by the time, he knew about it, it was too late and nothing could be done about it. Epione is based on the latest developments in protein detection systems, genetic engineering and, currently, is in the research phase. I perform my research under the guidance of a professor Dr. McMurray at University of Colorado, Denver. He has been generous enough to provide me lab space and a lot of his time in the last two years.
Then, there is Kindly, a service to tackle cyberbullying. Kindly is an Artificial-Intelligence based service to detect and prevent cyberbullying at an early stage. It uses the latest developments in Machine Learning and NLU/NLP in order to identify words and phrases that could be considered bullying. The service can be seamlessly invoked to a variety of different front ends. For example, I have created a standalone app and browser extension. The current solutions in the market, while effective, are limited in their capabilities since many are based on a fixed bank of words when in reality, the vocabulary and terminology used are constantly evolving. Kindly’s self-learning service adapts to this by learning about the latest emojis, memes, and slang used. Along with this, Kindly attempts to be non-punitive by allowing users the option to rephrase or edit their message.
The service is available globally. I noted that people are downloading the app and trying beta testing and giving me feedback or errors. That helps a lot.
Do you get trolled?
I have been trolled from an early age and even now on the internet. I am not fazed by it. More than trolls and bullies, I have people who support me every step of the way.
One of the problems in science is also the lack of women.
How can this problem be solved?
The thing with women scientists is that people are not seeing them. Girls are encouraged with several opportunities today than before but what is lacking is a suitable infrastructure and environment. The biggest thing is that girls need to see a role model and need to see a connection to the real world. The way that they can get passionate about STEM and science and stay with it is by seeing other people just like them and I hope to be one of those role models. COVID-19 has also shown the level of unscientific thinking across the world.
What do you feel about people who refuse to think scientifically and oppose wearing masks or deny climate change?
I think that all of us are thinking scientifically in our own way. We have to use that thinking and what we love to do to real world problems to make a difference. I recently said in my interview with Angelina Jolie that you don’t have to solve all the problems of the world; take that one thing you are passionate about and continue on with that. As for people denying climate change and masks —there is another spectrum to this side of things. Instead of blaming them, we should be encouraging them to learn more or share visuals on the impacts. I think we should educate them with facts instead of feelings on why wearing a mask would make the difference.
Apart from science, what keeps you busy?
I have been learning Carnatic music and Kathak since the age of five. Due to the virus, my gurus and I have had to stop dance lessons but I hope to get back to it soon enough. Incidentally, my parents love the works of Rabindranath Tagore and named me Gitanjali after his amazing book of poems. Gitanjali means offering of songs and melodies.
Any tips on baking?
Follow the recipe exactly. Whatever the recipe says, please do it, if you are not an expert like me. If the recipe does not work, then scrap it and find another one or make a new recipe. Sometimes it does not taste good but it is made out of butter and sugar so how bad can it really get.