Fashioning the Future With: Gitanjali Rao

Image/Gitanjali collecting samples

Image/Gitanjali collecting samples

Are you prepared to be inspired by America's Top Young Scientist? Well, you'd better be, because our interview with Gitanjali Rao will make you want to get up and change the world! Twelve-year-old Gitanjali is using #TechForGood for positive global impact, and at Style Engineers Worldwide, that is what we are all about! Gitanjali saw a real-world problem in the Flint Water Crisis and was inspired to create a way to help: her award-winning Tethys device. 

Tethys, a handheld instrument which tests for lead in water faster and more affordably than the current techniques, won Gitanjali the amazing accolade of America's Top Young Scientist by 3M and Discovery Education. Tethys, aptly named for the Greek goddess of fresh water, uses a cartridge containing carbon nanotube sensors which the user simply inserts into a water sample. The device connects to a smartphone app which Gitanjali also created. The app nearly instantly shows whether or not the water is safe from lead contamination; it's quite an elegant solution to a daunting problem.  

To find out more about how Tethys works, watch Gitanjali explain and demonstrate it to a rightfully impressed Jimmy Fallon: 

In addition to The Tonight Show, Gitanjali has also been featured by CNN, BBC News, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, Bustle, AOL, Jezebel, and more. Oh yeah, she also recently gave an eye-opening TEDx Talk, and Google is planning to make a documentary about her.

Gitanjali has big plans for Tethys, but that's not nearly all there is to this amazing STEM advocate. She's already created more potentially life-changing inventions. Read Gitanjali's Q&A to find out what else she's built, what she's working on next, her plans to partner with the EPA, and what advice she has for others who want to also make a difference with STEM and change the world for the better!

When did you first know that you were a scientist? 

I believe I realized when I was seven years old when I started learning about new technologies and how they work together. I knew I wanted to solve problems. While most of the problems I solved used science, there were others where I used art (writing or painting) to create awareness.

What is your favorite STEM subject?

While Science is my favorite because it has broader concepts; Technology, Engineering, and Math are required, and I like all of them. My solutions usually have all of these aspects together where one crosses another. 

What is your ideal career path?  

I have been changing my plan every year since second grade, but for the last two years it has been consistent, to my own surprise, that I want to be an epidemiologist understanding the impact of our genetic structure and how it can cure or prevent diseases.

When did you know that you wanted to create something that would help situations like the Flint Water Crisis?  

I knew I wanted to solve this when I was around nine years old when I was sitting with my parents and watching the news over dinner. However, I didn't come up with a solution until I was eleven.

How long did it take you to create Tethys?

Image/Discovery Education 3M

Image/Discovery Education 3M

I am still evolving my device. My initial prototype was created in three months over summer under the guidance of my 3M scientist mentor Dr. Kathleen Shafer.

Can you explain your process from getting the idea through its creation and testing? 

I initially had this idea when I came across an MIT article on carbon nanotubes and their uses as sensors. I tried reaching out to a few MIT professors for more guidance, and at the same time, I applied for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge with a goal of getting access to a mentor. Fortunately, I was selected as a finalist and received the mentorship.

I went through research, testing, and prototype development phases several times before I came up with the first version of my prototype. I am still working on scale testing in partnership with Denver Water and have recently enhanced my device to work like an IoT sensor.

What do you want to see happen with Tethys next? 

After my testing for data analytics, I intend to partner with the EPA and open source my analytics code to produce a heat map irrespective of low and high lead levels. In parallel, I intend to create about 30-50 reproducible prototypes which can be used for field-testing starting with Flint. 

Style Engineers Worldwide’s ethos is creating and utilizing technology to make the world a better place, which is why we are so psyched to interview you! What does #TechForGood mean to you, personally? 

I believe our generation grew up with problems that have never existed before such as space debris, contamination of natural resources, climate change, cyberbullying, etc. One thing that is definitely going easier for our generation is the access to information and advances in technology. For me, #TechforGood means making a difference and solving our world's toughest problems with the technology we have. It means we need to come together to solve these problems, and we need mentors to guide us.  

What does it mean to you to have been named America’s Top Young Scientist?

Image/Gitanjali and Tethys

Image/Gitanjali and Tethys

I am honored to get this title and cannot thank Discovery Education and 3M enough for the recognition. At the same time, it means that I have the responsibility to inspire others my age to try and solve problems. I am doing my part to bring awareness and run STEM sessions that include 3D printing design, process of innovation, basic programming, etc. to elementary children so that when they are in middle school, they are equipped with the basic skills to innovate. 

Image/Gitanjali hanging with the Mythbusters Jr. crew

Image/Gitanjali hanging with the Mythbusters Jr. crew

What other inventions have you created, and what will your next invention be?

While Tethys received recognition, I am working or have worked on solving a few other problems.

Some of these are:

  • I created a prototype of a snake bite severity detector based on non-contact thermography

  • I created an anti-bullying app to prevent and report cyberbullying

  • I am working on a social project that prevents bullying by running STEM sessions combined with kindness for elementary children

  • I am working on initial research on a possible solution for adolescent depression by studying gamma ray patterns in the brain

Image/Gitanjali giving her TEDx Talk in Nashville

Image/Gitanjali giving her TEDx Talk in Nashville

When not inventing award-winning tech, what do you enjoy doing hobby-wise?

I love playing my piano and baking. I swim and fence as well.

What advice do you have for girls your age or younger who want to get into STEM?  

I would like to let them know that each one of us can observe around us and understand the social or environmental problems—and find a way to solve them. Do not be afraid to try, and failure is part of the learning process. Solving problems does not always have to be about science. If you are worried about ocean pollution, create posters to bring awareness and share it. If you think your community needs more recycling bins, approach law-makers or other influential people by writing or meeting them. There are many ways to solve problems, and technology is just one aspect.

Do you have any favorite scientist characters in books/movies/other art forms?

I love all of the characters in Hidden Figures. They are so inspirational and show all of us girls that we can achieve our dreams. This example might be misleading since all the women in Hidden Figures are mathematicians, but I believe that they are also scientists. Scientists solve problems in society and they make a difference, and that is exactly what this movie has shown us an example of!

If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?

My go-to wearable tech device would definitely be some sort of personalized jewelry that detects frequencies of sounds that humans cannot hear. This may help in determining weather patterns, animal cries, or some sort of approaching calamity. My superhero name would be—Super Ears!

To keep up with #TechForGood luminary Gitanjali Rao, follow her on Twitter!


Image/Hidden Figures movie poster

Image/Hidden Figures movie poster

Kristen O. BobstComment