Colorado-based scientist and innovator interviewed by Angelina Jolie
From contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction to cyberbullying, 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao has been using technology to tackle a wide range of issues and steadily moving towards her mission of creating a global community of young innovators to solve global problems.
The Colorado girl has been chosen TIME Magazine’s first Kid of the Year from among 5,000 nominees. She was interviewed by Academy Award-winning actor Angelina Jolie on Zoom.
“Observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate” was how Gitanjali defined her process. Her message to youngsters: Try not to fix every problem, but focus on one that excites you. She also spoke about how it could be tough to break away from stereotypes and predetermined roles in society.
“From personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it,” she said. Her ‘innovation sessions’ echo her objective of building an innovative community. While they started with presentation and lesson plans for students, they have gone on to partner with rural schools, girls in STEM organisations, global museums, Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, London. She recently achieved her goal of mentoring 30,000 students.
Reminiscing about her motivation behind pursuing science, Gitanjali denied a particular ‘aha’ moment, but more of a mind-set where her everyday goal was to make someone happy. This soon evolved into bringing positivity and community to her background, and by the time she was in third grade, she was thinking of ways to use science and technology to create social change. “I was like 10 when I told my parents that I wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab, and my mom was like, ‘A what?’,”’ she said.
One of Gitanjali’s latest inventions, Kindly, is an app and Chrome extension that can detect cyberbullying at an early state based on AI technology. She started by hard-coding in some words that could be considered cyberbullying, and her engine took them and identified similar words. Through Kindly, users can type in a word or phrase and the system identifies whether it’s bullying, giving an option to edit it or send it as it is. The goal is not to punish, but to give people a chance to rethink what they are saying, so that they know what to do the next time.
According to the feedback Gitanjali received, teenagers are appreciating how the app doesn’t micromanage them but gives them a chance to learn from their mistakes.
Gitanjali is working on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants (like parasites) in water through a gene-based therapy solution and hopes to make it inexpensive and accurate to benefit people in third-world countries. Her other ongoing project involves a product that helps diagnose prescription opioid addiction at an early stage based on protein production of the mu opioid receptor gene.
Her focus towards both new and pressing issues stands out. “We’re sitting here in the middle of a new global pandemic and we’re also still facing human-rights issues. There are problems that we did not create but that we now have to solve, like climate change and cyberbullying with the introduction of technology. I think more than anything right now, we just need to find that one thing we’re passionate about and solve it. Even if it’s something small, I want to find an easy way to pick up litter. Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big,” she said.
Behind all the intimidating credentials, Gitanjali is still a 15-year-old who bakes an “ungodly” amount when she isn’t devouring pop culture news in MIT Tech Review.
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