15-year-old scientist Gitanjali Rao has been named Time Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year.” She has used artificial intelligence and created apps to tackle contaminated drinking water, cyberbullying, opioid addiction and other social problems.
She is a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver and was selected from more than 5,000 nominees. In a Zoom interview, Gitanjali told The Associated Press that the prize is “nothing that I could have ever imagined. And I’m so grateful and just so excited that we’re really taking a look at the upcoming generation and our generation, since the future is in our hands.”
Time has always presented a “Person of the Year,” and the youngest ever was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was 16. Time said in a statement that, along with Nickelodeon, it wanted to recognize “the rising leaders of America’s youngest generation” in making the award.
Time magazine expressed how Gitanjali stood out for creating a global community of young innovators and inspiring them to pursue their goals.
Gitanjali started at age 12, when she developed a portable device to detect lead in water. She’s also created a device called Epione that diagnoses prescription opioid addiction at an early stage and devised an app called Kindly that uses artificial intelligence to help prevent cyberbullying. It allows teens to type in a word or phrase to find out if the words they’re using are bullying and lets them decide to edit what they’re sending or to proceed.
She says that starting out small doesn’t matter, as long as you’re passionate about it.
“And currently, I’m looking back at water, looking at moving things like parasitic compounds in water and how we can detect for that,” Gitanjali said after a day’s remote schooling.
She spoke to Angelina Jolie in a Zoom interview and said that her science pursuits started early as a way to improve social conditions. The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, inspired her work to develop a way to detect contaminants and send those results to a mobile phone, she said.
“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?” Gitanjali told Angelina. She said that work “is going to be in our generation’s hands pretty soon. So if no one else is gonna do it, I’m gonna do it.”
Gitanjali insisted that science and technology is an essential act of kindness, the best way that a younger generation can better the world.
She has collaborated with rural schools, museums and science technology engineering and mathematics organizations; and other institutions to run innovation workshops for thousands of other students.
“We have science in everything we’re involved in, and I think that’s the biggest thing to put out there, that science is cool, innovating is cool, and anybody can be an innovator,” she said. “Anybody can do science.”