Gitanjali Rao missed the first day of eighth grade in 2018. Instead, the entrepreneur from Lone Tree, Colorado, was in New York City demonstrating a device she created to detect lead in drinking water on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The producers took her on a tour of the prop room. “It was just so surreal,” she remembers. But Rao has one regret: “You’re in that dressing room, and you're like, that one couch is where all the icons sit. I told the producers, ‘I will sit on that couch before I leave.’ And I forgot to.”
If there’s such a thing as a young STEM icon, Rao, who’s now 14 and a high school sophomore, is it. When she learned about the Flint water crisis, Rao was troubled enough to do something. In 2017, she started developing a device called Tethys to make it easier for people to test water from their tap for lead. The device uses carbon nanotube sensors to measure lead content, and the results are sent via Bluetooth to a mobile app. The invention won her the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” at the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and a spot on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list. Marvel even created a superhero, Genius Gitanjali, that celebrates her work on clean water.
It’s an urgent and widespread issue: Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows at the beginning of 2019, more than 30 million Americans lived in an area where the water system violated safety rules, according to TIME. The coronavirus pandemic further underscores the importance of access to clean water, as hand-washing is one of the simplest ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, which as of Aug. 6 has infected 4.8 million Americans. The problem is compounded in communities of color, where residents are both hit harder by COVID and at increased risk of exposure to unsafe water.
Rao wants to get Tethys into homes and schools so that everyone can have access to clean water. “Going to Flint and experiencing that firsthand really changed my perspective,” she says of her two visits. Tethys isn’t on the market just yet, though. Rao tells Elite Daily that as of summer 2020, she’s waiting on a patent for the device and looking to partner with an organization to help her scale and manufacture it. In the meantime, she’s been working on solutions to other issues she cares about. Rao started developing Epione, a device that tests protein in body fluid samples to detect opioid use disorder, in 2018. “Many people need opioids for their pain management and end up with serious addictions,” she explained in a 2019 TED Talk. “Physicians don’t have any easy tools to diagnose opioid addiction at an early stage.”
I’ve learned from her to bring those [pieces] together.
Rao’s most recent project, an AI-based, anti-cyberbullying service called Kindly that launched in May, grew out of her experience with changing schools frequently. Her family spent time in Ohio and Nashville before moving to Colorado. “A big fear of mine [when moving] was always the unknown,” Rao says. While picking up and starting over in a new place energized her, it also made her want to help students feel safer at school. Kindly uses an app and browser extension to warn users about using teasing language and block them from writing bullying messages.
Hailey Scheinman, a 15-year-old epilepsy advocate who met Rao through Marvel’s Hero Project, a Disney+ series that spotlights youth making a positive impact in their communities, admires how Rao promotes kindness through science. “Usually people [tend toward] one part of the brain, the logic piece and the scientific piece. Then there’s the emotional or the creative piece. I’ve learned from her to bring those two together,” Scheinman says.
Rao always thinks of the person who will ultimately use her technology. Watching a friend who has diabetes check blood sugar levels on her cell phone inspired Rao to create custom apps for her devices. “If you can see everything on your phone in real time, that makes your life way easier,” she says. She also liked how her friend could share her blood sugar levels with family in real time so they’d know she was OK. “The biggest thing with creating an app or a user interface is the amount of people [who] can benefit from it,” Rao says. To that end, she designed the Tethys mobile app to allow users to share results with local water facilities.
Even if it's one person being saved ... I feel like I made a difference.
Nailing the user experience is a process. Rao says she spends a month or two building a prototype, but years perfecting it. “When I started out [on Tethys], I was like, ‘Oh, does this work, does that work?’ And sure, it all worked, but it was really ugly and it didn't make me want to use it, personally,” she says.
Rao makes improvements until she gets results. And she isn’t afraid of mistakes, says Michael McMurray, an associate professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. McMurray supervises Rao in the university lab, where she tests yeast cells trained to produce the same human opioid receptor protein her Epione device measures.
“Things fail [in the lab] for multiple reasons,” McMurray says. “So I was always impressed when I would say, ‘OK, well you can tell here that this didn’t work,’ that she would ask questions. ‘How do we know that didn’t work? What would it look like if it had worked? What does it mean for going forward?’”
Rao can’t go into the lab right now because of the pandemic, but she’s adapting to work at home with safe materials. “I can’t work with hydrochloric acid at home, but I can work with maybe some basic yeast,” she says. There are a few silver linings. Most of Rao’s classes will be virtual when she goes back to school in mid-August, leaving more time to work on her inventions. She also routinely promotes STEM education through talks and workshops, and trading the TED stage for Zoom allows her to reach more people, like the elementary and middle school students she recently led in a brainstorming session through a local museum’s summer camp.
While sheltering at home, Rao also started writing a book that teaches teens about innovation and gives advice for entering tech competitions. Sharing her scientific process and what she’s learned competing in challenges is important to Rao because she knows what it’s like to feel lost. “I started out not knowing where to go with anything,” she says. She advises students to use their own interests as a jumping-off point. “You can invent [based] off what you like [to do]. If it's dancing that you like, go invent something to make your life easier when you're dancing.”
That drive to spread the wealth of her knowledge around speaks to what cements Rao as a STEM icon. She started experimenting with carbon nanotubes and yeast cells not to win funding and competitions, but to take a step toward addressing problems that cost lives.
“Even if it's one person being saved from addiction, or one person not being cyberbullied, or one person knowing that there's lead in their water, I feel like I made a difference,” she says.