Indian-American Gitanjali Rao, Time magazine’s pick of the first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’, talks to DC about her inspirations and motivators
The 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, who has been recognised for her ground-breaking use of technology to tackle cyberbullying, is the young scientist-innovator who has her roots in Hyderabad — her grandparents live here. She attributes her achievements to the spirit of curiosity and problem-solving fostered in her from a very young age.
Time magazine selected Gitanjali from more than 5,000 nominees for the prestigious title.
Talking to Deccan Chronicle, Gitanjali says, “I am honoured and humbled by the recognition. It is another way to amplify my voice that emphasises the need for innovation, and to motivate young innovators around the world.” So, how has the journey been so far? “It has been an incredible journey and I was fortunate to get support from my teachers, mentors, and parents, who always allowed me to dream big. Anytime I wanted to try something new, I was encouraged, whether it was science, sports, writing, dancing, singing or any new activity.”
She has always been interested in experimenting and creating something new. “When I was younger, my mom would share some problems she heard on the news or experienced that day, such as diseases, homelessness issues, food contamination, the trials of airplane travel, etc. and we would compete to see who came up with the best solution and presented them well. As problems were introduced, solving them became a habit. My brother is very creative and he would add the perspective of culture and art, while I would contribute stuff related to technology and people. Our reward would be an ice cream outing. We loved playing those games,” recalls the young girl. “My most memorable one was the challenge of building a restaurant with the latest technologies, and we would dream of dining there.”
The Indian-American from Denver, Colorado reveals that “Creating something new is always fun for me, because I associate it with the game,” and says “I hope to change the traditional education system to a problem-solving mindset where we are not always gauged by our ability to just score higher grades.”
Gitanjali’s parents, Bharathi and Ram Rao, have an academic background and introduced both Gitanjali and her brother Anirudh to different topics appropriate to their ages. “I was very curious and my teachers would introduce me to problems too. I also attended STEM Scouts or 4H clubs where the mentors introduced me to a variety of topics like forensics, water contaminants, building bridges, cleaning oil, coding, 3D printing, and several other subjects,” she shares.
Most of Gitanjali’s extended family lives in India. “I visit my grandparents or they come here very often. I have several friends at my grandfather’s place in Hyderabad. However, this year has been different due to COVID. I am looking forward to a visiting soon in 2021,” the young girl says.
She reads whatever she can find on Nobel laureate Dr. Marie Curie, and says, “That’s where most of my inspiration came from.” Has technology been her favourite field of study thus far, or are there other subjects that interest her, we ask. “Technology and product design concepts interest me. I also take marketing and entrepreneurship classes and those interest me too,” says the young girl. And what about upcoming projects? I have just begun an attempt to find a novel way to detect parasitic contaminants in potable water using genetic engineering. While I have some ideas and hypotheses, it is just a start and I have a long way to go,” she shares.