Most teenagers are still trying to find their passion and purpose in life. However, not Gitanjali Rao. The 15-year-old sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Douglas County, Colorado, has been coming up with innovative solutions to worldwide problems since she was ten. It is, therefore, not surprising that the youngster was selected from 5,000 equally impressive nominees — ages 8 to 16 — for TIME Magazine’s first-ever "Kid of the Year."
"I am so humbled and so grateful for this opportunity," Rao told CBSN, following the December 2, 2020 announcement. "It's so honoring and humbling to be among so many fantastic people who have appeared on the cover of the Time magazine, but along with that, just to be among the fantastic 'Kid of the Year' finalists as well."
In addition to the accolade, Rao and this year's four finalists — Tyler Gordon, 14, Jordan Reeves, 14, Bellen Woodard, 10, and Ian McKenna, 16 — will also receive a cash prize from Time Magazines' partner Nickelodeon.
The young girl, who knew she wanted to bring change and positivity to her community since 3rd grade, was just ten years old when she heard about the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. After spending two months researching how the area's drinking water became contaminated, Rao began designing a device that used carbon nanotube sensors to instantly detect lead in water. Called Tethys, after the Titan goddess of fresh water, it attaches to a cellphone and informs the resident via an app if their drinking water contains traces of the harmful metal. The prototype earned her the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2017 and a spot on the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2019. The budding entrepreneur is currently working with scientists and medical professionals at the Denver Water Facility to test Tethys' potential and hopes the device will be ready for commercial use by 2022.
In 2019, Rao took on another social issue — opioid addiction. Her app, called Epione, which won the “Health” Pillar Prize at the TCS Ignite Innovation Student Challenge in May 2019, is designed to catch drug addiction in young adults before it's too late. “There were so many teens getting into prescription opioids, and before anybody knew about it, it was too late to do anything about it,” Rao said. “I wanted to come up with a way to diagnose prescription opioid addiction at an early stage so you can take action earlier.”
More recently, the teenager has created an app called Kindly to help prevent cyberbullying. “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.” Rao told actress, activist, and Time contributing editor Angelina Jolie in a Zoom interview. “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."
When not working on improving the world, Rao likes to bake, play the piano, and mentor youngsters in STEM. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? “If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”