Meet Gitanjali Rao: Teen Scientist And TIME 'Kid Of The Year' : Short Wave Fifteen-year-old Gitanjali Rao is a scientist, inventor, and TIME Magazine's first-ever 'Kid Of The Year.' She shares why she didn't initially think science was for her, what motivates her now, and a bit of advice for other budding innovators.

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This Teen Scientist Is TIME's First-Ever 'Kid Of The Year'

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This Teen Scientist Is TIME's First-Ever 'Kid Of The Year'

This Teen Scientist Is TIME's First-Ever 'Kid Of The Year'

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Hey, nerds. Maddie Sofia here. And today, I'd like to introduce you to someone very special.

GITANJALI RAO: My name is Gitanjali Rao. I'm 15 years old, and I'm a sophomore in high school.

SOFIA: A few important things to know about Gitanjali - her Taco Bell order is one Crunchwrap Supreme, one Toasted Cheddar Chalupa and, depending on the day, some Cinnamon Twists, too. Also, she's taking flying lessons. Oh, and one other thing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gitanjali Rao.

GITANJALI: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are Kid of the Year.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are Kid of the Year.

SOFIA: Gitanjali is Time magazine's first-ever Kid of the Year.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is all you.

SOFIA: She was selected from a pool of 5,000 kids and in large part because of her scientific accomplishments and invention.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Your limitless ability to innovate. You did the one thing that nobody thought was possible. You made 2020 an amazing year.

GITANJALI: Thank you.

SOFIA: You know, I'm wondering what it was like when you found out that Time had selected you as the first-ever Kid of the Year. Like, what was going through your head when that happened?

GITANJALI: It was definitely such an exciting experience and nothing that I would have, you know, ever expected. But I think beyond that, it was, like, so honoring and humbling to be featured on the cover of Time among so many other beyond-fantastic people. And that's when I realized that, you know, like, it really kept up my motivation, you know, going into science as well as being one of the faces of Gen Z, which I'm super excited about.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what does it mean to you to specifically, you know, to be highlighted and recognized as a scientist? You know, how cool is that is, I guess, what I'm asking.

GITANJALI: It's definitely super cool. I was always just like - well, I am still a kid doing what she loves. So it was really great to, you know, get recognized for my work, even though that's nothing that I really expected out of it. But I'm excited that, more than anything, we're starting to realize that the future is in our hands, the hands of kids, but along with that realize the potential we have for the future with the latest developments in technology. And I'm excited to be playing a part in that.

SOFIA: So today on the show, Time's first-ever Kid of the Year, 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, scientist and inventor. One of those inventions - a prototype device that detects lead in drinking water. Honestly, she puts the rest of us to shame. And here on SHORT WAVE, that is something we love to see.

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SOFIA: OK, so we're going to get to those amazing inventions that you have created, but I wanted to start back even earlier than that. I mean, do you remember when you first realized that you loved science? Do you have a memory of that?

GITANJALI: I do. It was - I think there was never really one aha moment. But I know that a moment that changed my life forever was actually when my uncle got me this science kit when I was 4 years old. And I can safely tell you that that is not what I wanted for my birthday that year.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

GITANJALI: I wanted, like, a Barbie DreamHouse, I'm pretty sure. And I never ended up getting that Barbie DreamHouse. And thank God I didn't because that is scary.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

GITANJALI: But I think that, like, the biggest thing was that's not what I expected. And I honestly - like, I'd never done anything with science experiments. I'd never even looked into the world of science, which is kind of crazy to think about now because it's quite literally what I'm doing every day.

SOFIA: Right.

GITANJALI: But I think at that time, it was just uncommon for, I guess, a girl, first of all, a girl my age and, you know, a South Asian being a scientist and a female and a role model as a whole. So I think that, honestly, I played with that for days and days but still wasn't really accepting the idea that I could innovate and I could come up with ideas. So soon I almost had to, like, tell myself that this is possible. And that's really what I did is I started using, you know, my love for science and technology to help other people around the world.

SOFIA: You know, when you say that, you know, you hadn't really thought about science much, I think a lot of people are in the same boat, and that might be because the way that science, you know, is sold to us is so much different than, you know, what science really is. So I'm going to ask you a tough question here that I ask a lot of scientists. What - how would you define science? Like, what is science, and what is it for?

GITANJALI: So I think that I could never see a world filled with kindness and positivity without science involved. And I think that that's really what we should be looking at is how can we use science for positive change? For the longest time, it's been this experiment, this theory. But I think we're slowly starting to go into the world of what can science help us out with? And I think that's what's so exciting.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, more to that, you know, when you're thinking about, you know, how can science help us make the world a different place. When you were in seventh grade, you invented a prototype for a device that could detect lead in drinking water. Tell me more about the inspiration for that idea.

GITANJALI: Yeah. So I heard about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and it was just so appalling to me to see how many kids my age were essentially drinking a poison every single day that changed their life forever and all just because they were drinking water while that's supposed to be a basic right that each and every one of us should have. And I realized the even bigger problem is that it's not just happening in Flint. And obviously, you could get bottled water if, you know, you knew about the lead. But the even bigger issue was nobody knew that there was lead in their drinking water. So that's really what I wanted to do is I wanted to find an easy-to-use and more inexpensive way to detect lead in drinking water.

SOFIA: Yeah. So let's get into the science of it. I mean, how does this device work?

GITANJALI: Yeah, so the device is based on carbon nanotube sensor technology. So essentially, what that means is it uses a very sensitive carbon-based sensor. So there's this little cartridge that you dip into the water you want to test. And if there's any lead in the water, it actually binds to these chloride ions that are specially treated in the carbon nanotube, and it forms these lead chloride molecules that are almost like speed bumps at the base of the nanotube.

So obviously, the more speed bumps there are, the slower your car is going to go. Similarly, the more lead chloride molecules there are, the slower the electrons are going to go. So the more lead chloride molecules, I know the more lead there is, which then directly correlates to how slow are these electrons going.

SOFIA: Right.

GITANJALI: And I'm measuring how slow they're going through a microcontroller or microcomputer that I coded myself. And that's when all the data gets sent to an app.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. OK, so let me make sure I get this right. OK, so when the cartridge is dipped into the water that's clean, the electron flow doesn't change at all and the smartphone app shows that the water is safe to drink. But based on the way you designed it, when that cartridge is dipped into water with lead, that lead sticks to these little carbon atoms and creates resistance that you can measure. Did I get it?

GITANJALI: Yes, exactly.

SOFIA: OK. OK. Great, great, great. So are - I mean, are people using it in their communities already or is it still kind of in prototype form? What's next for the device?

GITANJALI: It's still in a prototype format, and I actually just recently had a failed partnership in which I couldn't really, like, get it to the place where it needed to be with their current infrastructure. So I'm working on partnering with another organization for mass production and scale testing, as well as field testing in places like Flint, Mich.

SOFIA: Got it. Got it. OK. So all of your big projects, including ones that take on cyberbullying, and there was one about prescription opioid addiction, they seem to have this common thread of taking on really big problems by coming up with science-based solutions. I mean, how do you decide what you want to work on?

GITANJALI: Yeah. I think I'm honestly inspired by the world around me, but I find something that has more of, like, a personal connection of more importance to me. So, like, with the lead in drinking water, it was just learning about how many kids my age were basically drinking a poison. And then apart from that, the technology aspect uses carbon nanotube sensor technology, which is basically just stuff I read about not even in, like, a school textbook - stuff that I read about for fun just because why not?

SOFIA: That's how I feel about reading, too - because why not, you know?

GITANJALI: Yeah.

SOFIA: So this Time honor and, you know, even just us bringing you on this podcast, we're celebrating all of your amazing inventions, those successes, right? But science and invention are just as much about failures as successes, right?

GITANJALI: Yes, absolutely. And whether it's, like, my device reading zeros because I forgot to plug it in or reading zeros because something's genuinely wrong, everything feels like such a big setback. But I think that most of the time, I like to think of failure - someone told me that fail means - stands for first attempt in learning, which I love because I think that with my devices and things like that, it is at a place that I never even thought it could've been. And that is solely because of my failures, because I made mistakes and realized how to fix them.

SOFIA: So I want to talk about something that you kind of hinted at already. And, you know, I find that a lot of people are intimidated by science. And I think some of that is that we are taught that science is really hard or, you know, you've got to be good at math or we've been fed these ideas of what a scientist looks like. What advice would you give to other people, other kids that feel like science isn't for them?

GITANJALI: I think my biggest thing is I didn't think science was for me either, but here I am, because it seemed so exclusive. But no subject is exclusive if you love it enough. So find that one thing in science that makes you passionate and go after it, because I am not your typical scientist. I don't look like your typical scientist. I don't act like your typical scientist. And I am by far not even close to being qualified to be your typical scientist. But I enjoy science, and that's what makes every step of my process that much more exciting.

SOFIA: (Laughter) You are - I will tell you what. You are more than qualified as a scientist on SHORT WAVE. We consider you absolute elite science. I'll say that. I'll say that.

GITANJALI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

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SOFIA: A huge thanks to Gitanjali Rao, scientist, inventor and teenaged extraordinaire. Gitanjali is also working on a book titled "The Young Innovator's Guide To STEM" (ph).

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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Ariela Zebede and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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