Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Dec. 31, 2020. The audio is available here.
Scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao is Time Magazine's first-ever "Kid of the Year." The 15-year-old was chosen from a list of thousands of other amazing kids who are working to change the world.
The honor is in recognition of Rao's commitment to creating scientific solutions. At 10 years old, she created a lead detection tool after learning about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Since then, she’s also come up with an app that helps diagnose early-stage prescription opioid addiction and another tool that can thwart cyberbullying.
There was never one “aha moment” for her, she says. Through the years, she says she’s simply built upon her love of science and technology to craft innovative and impactful solutions for different problems that matter to her and others around her. She calls it “science for kindness.”
“My goal is to innovate for the better, innovate to make positive change in this world,” she says. “And that's what makes me keep going and that's what drives me — knowing that people out there do need help.”
Her opiate tool uses recent developments in protein detection methods to assist in identifying addiction early on, she says. After a sample of bodily fluid is analyzed, a user can receive their results on a mobile app, in addition to other resources such as a map of addiction centers close by, she says.
Rao came up with the idea after a family friend was in a car accident and became addicted to prescription opioids.
“By the time he knew about it, it was too late to do anything about it. And this was a constant problem that I saw all over the news and I'm still seeing all over the news,” she says. “And if no one else is going to solve it, then I needed to take the first steps.”
Kindly, her app for spotting and preventing cyberbullying, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify words and phrases online that could be considered bullying. She says she built a self-learning algorithm that can pick up on the latest slang, emojis and memes.
“I really wanted to find a way to help stop cyberbullying because I wanted to create a safer place for teenagers to talk to each other,” she says.
Her passion for unearthing solutions has her brainstorming ways she can make an impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says she wants her contribution to be rooted in a “predictive analytics approach for prioritization and distribution of these vaccines” to make the rollout process efficient.
Rao is also thinking about how to prevent future public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic from occurring. She says she’d like to draw up ways to target zoonotic diseases and cross-species transmission, she says.
When Rao isn’t toiling to save the world, the teenager spends time working toward her pilot’s license.
“I can't drive a car, but I can fly a plane,” she says.
She’s also constantly dreaming big — then grounding herself in reality to find a way to accomplish those aspirations, she says. Her advice for other budding innovators is to do the same.
“These are things I never thought I would actually do, but here I am today accomplishing them,” she says. “So dream big, come up with ideas, have fun with it, and then look at how you can do it because there's no one stopping you but yourself.”
This segment aired on December 9, 2020.