By Jessie Tu
For the first time ever, TIME magazine has created an award to recognise America’s youngest and most inspiring leaders. The Kid of the Year award has been given to 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao, best known for her technological inventions that tackle water contamination and cyberbullying.
Rao has appeared on television networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Marvel’s Hero Project and has received multiple scholarships and awards for her achievements in science, arts and community service.
The Kid Of The Year award, given to anyone between ages 8 to 16 living in the US, is a collaboration between TIME magazine and children’s TV channel Nickelodeon, which hosts the annual Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards — an event that honours the year’s biggest television, movie, and music acts as voted by viewers worldwide of Nickelodeon networks.
From a young age, Rao, a Denver Colorado-based teenager, asked herself, “How can we bring positivity and community to the place we live?” From that question alone, she began to think of ways to “solve the world’s problems”.
At the age of 10, Rao told her parents she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab. According to Rao, her mother replied “A what?”
“Our generation is facing so many problems that we’ve never seen before,” the teenager told Angelina Jolie over Zoom in an interview for TIME magazine. “At the same time we’re facing old problems that still exist. We’re sitting here in the middle of a new global pandemic, and we’re also like still facing human-rights issues. There are problems that we did not create but that we now have to solve.”
“I don’t look like your typical scientist,” she continued. “Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man. My goal has really shifted, not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”
In just a few short years, Rao has invented a number of new technologies across fields including social wellbeing and water contamination.
One of her most prominent inventions is a device called Tethys that can identify lead in drinking water “faster and more inexpensive than the current methods and provides all the information to your mobile phone” on an app Rao created.
Rao told Jolie she has been working for years on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water. “I’m hoping for this to be something that’s inexpensive and accurate so that people in third-world countries can identify what’s in their water.”
After spending years volunteering for an organisation called Children’s Kindness Network, an NGO that promotes anti-bullying messages, Rao built an app and Chrome extension called Kindly, which can detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on an artificial-intelligence technology Chrome extension.
“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,” she explained. “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.”
The young scientist said that the majority of her work with bio-contaminants is based on a gene-based therapy solution which she is “still trying to figure out.”
“I’m also working on a product that helps to diagnose prescription-opioid addiction at an early stage based on protein production of the mu opioid receptor gene. I’ve been really, really interested in genetics. That’s what I like, so that’s what I’m deciding to work on.”
if all that wasn’t impressive enough, Rao also hosts regular ‘innovation sessions’ where she partners with rural schools, girls in STEM organisations and museums around the world including Shanghai International Youth Science and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops, deliver presentations and lesson plans on the things she is working on.
“I just looked at what worked for me and decided to share it with everyone else,” she says simply.
“So I made this process that I use for everything now: it’s observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate. It started with a simple presentation and lesson plans, and then I started adding labs and contests that students could do.”
Three years ago, Rao was recognised as America’s Top Young Scientist by UK based textbook publishers Discovery Education and consumer goods multinational 3M.
5,000 nominees vied for the Kid of the Year award, all of whom live in the US and were “everyday kids making change in their communities in a fun and accessible—but very impactful—way,” said TIME for Kids editor Andrea Delbanco.
Rao was chosen by a panel of young people including Nickelodeon stars Young Dylan and Chinguun Sergelen, Disney star Sky Katz, Little Chef Ivy, and Time For Kids kid reporters Tiana Sirmans and Raunak Singh.
Comedian and TV presenter Trevor Noah was also among the judges. He will be hosting a TV special next Friday, 11th December to honour the other five finalists, who include Tyler Gordon, 14, a partially deaf artist who paints celebrities, Jordan Reeves, 14, an innovator who also founded her a youth design consultancy, Bellen Woodard, 10, the world’s first “world’s first crayon activist” and Ian McKenna, 16, a social justice gardener.
TIME has been celebrating prominent public figures since 1927 when it began awarding its Man Of The Year honour — which would later be updated to Person Of The Year.
Last year, climate activist Greta Thunberg became the youngest ever Person Of The Year and the first individual under age 25 to receive the title when she was given the honour at age 16.
Rao is also in the process of writing a book, titled ‘A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM’ where she charts her process towards problem solving and builds on her experiences for developing technical solutions.
“The world belongs to those who shape it,” TIME wrote. “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.”
During a recent interview with SHE Innovates, a UN Women and Global Innovation Coalition program that helps female innovators and entrepreneurs challenge gender barriers, Rao said getting more girls into STEM and innovation was key to future progress.
“Attracting more women in the STEM workforce will maximise creativity. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time. When women are not involved, experiences, needs, opinions, and desires that are unique to women, may be overlooked in the solutions that we come up with.”