A 15-year-old Indian-American girl was named the first-ever “Kid of the Year” by Time magazine for her work using technology to tackle matters such as contaminated drinking water, opioid addiction and cyberbullying.
Gitanjali Rao was selected from a field of over 5,000 Americans and was interviewed by actor Angelina Jolie for the magazine. “Observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate,” Rao told Jolie about her working process during a virtual meeting.
“Even over video chat, her brilliant mind and generous spirit shone through, along with her inspiring message to other young people: don’t try to fix every problem, just focus on one that excites you,” Time magazine wrote.
Rao said that she was in the second or third grade when she decided to use technology to bring social change. The 15-year-old scientist said she was 10 when she told her parents that she wanted to research on carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water Quality Research Lab.
Rao said she has developed an app to prevent cyberbullying for Google’s Chrome browser extension. The app, Kindly, detects cyberbullying at an early stage using artificial intelligence technology, she told Jolie.
“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,” Roa said. “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.”
She also talked about her innovation sessions. The 15-year-old said that students she works with do not know where to start. “I think that if you give them that spark that they can then build off of, then that changes everything,” Rao said. “That means one more person in this world wants to come up with ideas to solve problems.”
She added that she was working on a way to help detect bio-contaminants such as parasites in water. Rao said that she wanted her innovation to be inexpensive and accurate to help those in third-world countries. “Most of my work with the bio-contaminants is based on a gene-based therapy solution which I’m still trying to figure out,” Rao said. “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.”
Rao said her generation was facing many problems that they have never seen before. “But then at the same time, we’re facing old problems that still exist,” she said. “Like, 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, like climate change and cyberbullying with the introduction of technology.”
The 15-year-old scientist also told Jolie that she reads MIT Tech Review constantly and likes baking. “I bake an ungodly amount,” she said. “It’s not good, but it’s baking. And, like, it’s science too.”