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Culture

15-Year-Old Scientist Gitanjali Rao Is Time’s First-Ever Kid Of The Year

By Paula Gallagher·· 5 min read
Gitanjali Rao Kid of the Year Time 2020
TIME

Selected from more than 5,000 nominees, 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao is Time Magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year.

Rao was interviewed for Time Magazine by actress and activist Angelina Jolie over Zoom from her home in Lone Tree, Colorado.

What Motivates Rao?

Rao spoke about her passion for science and how she wants to use technology to improve her community and the world.

Rao said, “I was always someone who wanted to put a smile on someone’s face. That was my everyday goal, just to make someone happy. And it soon turned into, How can we bring positivity and community to the place we live? And then when I was in second or third grade, I started thinking about how can we use science and technology to create social change...It was just that changing factor of, you know this 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.”

“We just need to find that one thing we’re passionate about and solve it.”

She continued, “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. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”

She Loves To Mentor Others Students

Rao truly believes that if she can do it, anyone can. And she is helping other students get started.

Rao explains, “I just looked at what worked for me and decided to share it with everyone else. 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. Now I’ve partnered with rural schools, girls in STEM organizations, museums all across the world, and bigger organizations like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops.”

“The students that I work with, they just don’t know where to start. I think that if you give them that spark that they can then build off of, then that changes everything. That means one more person in this world wants to come up with ideas to solve problems,” Rao said.

“I really hope the work that all of these kids are doing identifies innovation as a necessity.”

“And I recently hit my goal of 30,000 students who I have mentored, which is super exciting. It’s like creating a community of innovators. I really hope the work that all of these kids are doing identifies innovation as a necessity and not something that’s a choice anymore. I hope I can be a small part of that.”

Rao added, “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 as small as, 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.”

Rao Created a Cyberbullying Prevention App Called Kindly

Both an app and a Chrome extension, Kindly is a service “which is able to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on artificial-­intelligence technology.”

Rao explains how it works: “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.” 

Kindly gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.

She added, “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.”

And Rao has received positive feedback from teen users. “I put out a survey to parents, teachers, and students, and I honestly expected that students don’t want to be micromanaged...But a lot of the teenagers were telling me that, you know, it doesn’t seem like I’m being micromanaged; it seems like I’m being given an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. So that’s what I was super excited about, that they understood what the goal of it was.”

Her Current Projects

Rao’s current projects are in line with her desire to improve communities. She said, “I’m currently working on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water—things like parasites. 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. Most of my work with the bio-contaminants is based on a gene-based therapy solution which I’m still trying to figure out.”

“If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”

But that’s not the only major gene-based project Rao is working on. She’s 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, “I’ve been really, really interested in genetics. That’s what I like, so that’s what I’m deciding to work on.”

Is She Ever Not Being a Genuis?

Rao said, “Actually, I spend more time doing 15-year-old things during quarantine. I bake an ungodly amount. It’s not good, but it’s baking. And, like, it’s science too.”

You can read Gitanjali Rao’s full interview, as well as about the other finalists, here.

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