It was early in March this year that I emailed Gitanjali Rao seeking an interview, only to get a reply from her assistant informing me that the 15-year-old is extremely busy. The earliest she could speak with me would be in the third week of May, the reply said. Would that be okay?
Since I did not want to miss the opportunity of interviewing the kid who could be the next Person of the Year, I agreed, scheduling a video interview for May end. After all it’s not often that one gets to speak with a teenager Time magazine last year chose as its first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’.
For those who came in late: Gitanjali, an Indian-American student based in Colorado, US, has a string of achievements that is prodigious to say the least. An author, scientist, motivational speaker and passionate advocate of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), she is also well known for conducting virtual innovation workshops for students across the world. At last count, she had conducted more than 300 workshops for some 40,000 students in 26 countries across four continents.
When barely 12 years old, she walked away with $25,000 and the Discover Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge prize for inventing a small, low-cost, mobile device that can detect lead content in drinking water – an invention for which she was named America’s Top Young Scientist. (She presented the idea at the 2018 Makers conference and bagged a further $25,000, part of which would go into upgrading the device.) A three-time TEDx speaker and winner of the US President’s Environmental Youth Award, the spunky kid has also made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list before she even became a teen.
Then last year Time magazine chose Gitanjali from more than 5,000 nominees in the US as the Kid of the Year, deservedly featuring her on the magazine’s cover.
How did that feel? I ask the young girl, in an exclusive video chat last week.
"It is beyond humbling; it’s an incredible experience to receive this opportunity [to be named kid of the year]," says the student, a frisson of excitement lighting up her beaming face.
Delighted to get "a platform to amplify my voice and to encourage new innovators into STEM", she hopes that after this recognition more students, particularly girls, would be keen to choose science and engineering. "They can look at me and realise that if I can do it, anyone can do it," she tells me, repeating a statement that she told Hollywood actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie when the latter interviewed her for Time.
Confident and raring to go, Gitanjali, named after Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s famous book of poems, has a pleasant, enigmatic smile and is visibly excited to speak about what she is doing. A bundle of restless energy, she leans forward occasionally to adjust the device or to flick back her just below shoulder-length locks of hair that fall on her face every time she bobs her head while answering questions.
How is school going? I ask.
"This year has been completely online – definitely a new experience," she says. "It showed we can take the entire educational platform from a brick-and-mortar structure and make it virtual."
Termed a prodigy, Gitanjali was 10 years old when she requested her parents to take her to visit the Denver Water Quality Research lab so she could study carbon nanotube sensor technology. (I had to Google to find out that the sensors are used for, among other things, detecting chemical residues in water.)
Was she always interested in science?
"There was never really one moment when everything kind of made sense together, but yes, I’ve always been interested in science and technology," she says, her words coming at a fast clip. Clearly, she’s keen not to waste even a minute of the interview. "Actually since the age of 3 or 4, I’ve loved to use science and experiments to solve problems; to apply science to real-world problems and find solutions by bringing ideas to life."
When only in grade two, she invented a chair that could fold so well when not in use, it consumed barely any space. "I felt it could be used to save space in the International Space Station," she says.
Who or what was the catalyst that triggered your interest in science? I ask.
"My parents," she says, pushing back an errant lock of hair from her face again. "They’ve been big supporters of my journey from day one. They allowed me to try a lot of different things and that encouraged my passions in various areas. I tried different classes and practices and sports, which allowed me to define my passions from a young age."
Gitanjali, whose go-to pop culture news source of choice is the MIT Tech Review – "I read it constantly; I think that’s really where inspiration strikes" – likes nothing more than bringing a smile to the faces of people. "[Until recently] that was my everyday goal: to make someone happy. Then it turned into how can we bring positivity to where we live."
To that end she got busy with innovations using science to improve lives. Two years ago, at age 13, she won the TCS Ignite Innovation Student Challenge for developing a tool based on advances in genetic engineering for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction. More recently, she used AI to create a simple solution that understands the persona of the elderly and children, and helps staff members create and facilitate activities for them – an initiative for which she was named Junior Eureka Finalist by Shanghai Media group.
"One of my passions is studying genetics combined with computer science [and] product design," says Gitanjali, who runs innovation and technology workshops for elementary schools around the world.
What ideas can she offer students to make the world a better, more positive place?
"There’re a lot of ways," she says, leaning forward to tweak the volume settings on her device. "First is the importance of having more role models. It’s also important to bring innovation into our daily curriculum, which means innovations in education."
She also suggests training youth in science and technology and in clubs in such a way that "not only are students learning science but finding out how we can use it to solve problems".
Last but not least, forming a community of innovators is crucial, she says. "There are other kids just like me and we must make it clear that innovation does not have gender, age or race tied to it. Anyone can change the world for the better."
The 15-year-old has surely done it, if the popularity of one of her most talked about innovations, Kindly, is anything to go by.
A system to detect cyberbullying at a very early stage, it is based on AI technology. Gitanjali hard coded words that could be deemed bullying and devised a program that identifies similar words or phrases. If you are plugged into the Kindly service – available as an app and as a browser extension – words or sentences that can be construed as bullying are flagged up when you type a message to a friend or another user. The author then has an option to either edit it or send it as is.
What was the impetus for Kindly? I ask.
"As someone who moved to seven different schools in the past 10 years, at every new place I was meeting a new section of people. There were new ways to get insulted and bullied, and I thought what if this were to happen at a larger scale, and I realised cyber bullying should not even exist in the first place and we should take steps towards eliminating it."
Cyberbullying – in fact any kind of bullying – should truly never exist. Get these stats: A shocking 60 per cent of parents with children aged 14 to 18 reported that their wards were being bullied. One in three young people in 30 countries report being a victim of online bullying, a Unicef report says.
The goal of Kindly is not to punish, explains Gitanjali, admitting she is aware teenagers can lash out occasionally. Instead, it offers youngsters a chance to rethink what they are saying "so [they] know what to do next time around".
She is excited to learn that people from across the world are using Kindly. "I get a lot of DMs and emails, and a lot of them tell of how it has a lot of potential for education in the future... which is always very exciting," says the girl who published her first book at age 9, called Baby Brother Wonders. The self-illustrated book, based on the story that won second prize in the PBS national writing contest, described the world through her younger brother’s point of view.
So, what are the potential areas of innovation today?
"The biggest ones are space travel, inequality in education, contamination of our natural resources, littering… the spread of diseases. These are some of the areas that have the most potential for innovation and these are the areas I’d like to see people working on," she says. "But importantly, we need to recognise that each one of us has it within us to make a difference in this world."
What does she enjoy doing the most?
"Research," says the schoolgirl, earnestly and without a moment’s pause. "It keeps me learning and motivated. But more importantly, I love teaching and running my workshops, and spreading my word... that makes me really happy. I love communicating. And sharing ideas."
A winner of the first place in the International Aviation Art Contest for the last four years at the state level, Gitanjali is also proud that her art is displayed at Nashville International airport.
The teenager was recently selected as a partner for Forbes Ignite Network, piloting a concept called Empathy Sharktank that helps in employee-employer engagement and staff development for start-ups and schools.
Convinced that one need not aim to solve all the problems in the world, she believes one should "pick and choose the ones you are most passionate about and [persevere] with them".
To that end she is working on another project that will help improve the quality of potable water. "I’m looking at things like water-borne parasitic compounds and how we can detect them easily. I’m very excited to see where this project goes," says the kid who lists baking, learning to fly a plane, Carnatic music and Kathak among her other passions.
"I have a student’s flying licence and can fly a glider now. I’m waiting to turn 16 so I can take my test to get a flying licence," she says, flashing a broad smile.
So what is on her bucket list?
"I’d one day like to run a company," says the little scientist, throwing back her head then leaning forward into the camera buzzing with restless energy. "It could be one of my own start-ups or something I acquired."
Business is a subject she has become extremely passionate about of late and hopes to enter the field and make a difference there. "I like communication, business administration and management. I would love to talk to a lot of people about ideas and innovations. I’d also like to do something related to product design. That is another area that fascinates me."
Now that she has become famous across the globe thanks to her string of achievements, does she feel a lot more pressure to deliver… to come up with more interesting innovations?
"It seems like it would," says the super kid, "but I’m a strong believer of doing what you want to and not what you need to. So, when you are in the public eye, everything you do is put out there, right? And what I need to realise is why I am where I am right now. And that’s because of the work that I do. That’s why it does not stress me out because I know that if I keep doing what I love, recognition will follow.
"And even if the recognition doesn’t follow it’s ok, because I’ll still be doing what I love to do."