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Who is Gitanjali Rao?

TIME’s first Kid of the Year named in 2020 for her work as an aspiring scientist and leader.

“Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big.”

Many kids and teenagers worry about an uncertain future where they have to cope with aggravated present issues such as climate change, racial and gender inequality, poverty, or war. Society often underestimates young people. They want to change a world that matches their vision, and we tend to forget the tremendous influence that young people carry today and undervalue the impact of their voices.

Gitanjali Rao is one of those people who is committed to changing the world. Not only does she research scientific tools such as artificial intelligence or carbon nanotube sensor technology, but she also applies them to solve problems that she observes in her community, like cyberbullying and water contamination. Rao encourages other kids and teenagers to tap into their curiosity, follow their passion, and become creators. Her work as a young scientist inventor, and outstanding leadership have brought her international recognition and multiple awards. In 2021, Rao was 16 years old and was honored as a Laureate of the Young Activists Summit at the United Nations Geneva. She was named TIME’s first Kid of the Year in 2020. 

She is a first-year student at MIT, Cambridge, and she aspires to study genetics combined with computer science and product design. She aims “to create global change by starting an innovation movement of teens looking to make a difference,” as her website highlights. The truth is that Rao found her passion and mission from a very early age.

It all started with a Science Kit

Gitanjali Rao (2005) says that her favorite toy was a science kit that her uncle gave her for her fourth birthday, which sparked her interest in STEM. Rao’s parents always supported her wild curiosity for technology and science while growing up. Both engineers, Ram Rao and Bharathi Rao, often introduced Rao and her little brother to topics on the news that were appropriate for their age. The siblings loved to play with gadgets and solutions to issues or challenges, such as homelessness in their city, food contamination, or simply what a restaurant with the latest technology would look like. She was a restless kid full of ideas, purely driven by curiosity not limited to STEM. She delved into many other hobbies like Indian classical dancing, playing the piano, fencing, swimming, and baking.

When Rao was 10 years old, she learned that Flint, Michigan residents were battling with dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. Exposure to high levels of lead attacks the nervous system and brain, causing seizures, coma, and even death. About 100,000 people were exposed for more than two years to high lead levels in the water they used and drank daily. Rao then identified a key question: how can I easily measure the amount of lead in water? She dove into research and found the answer in the MIT website: carbon nanotubes. 

During the summer of 2017, she was advised by scientists from the company 3M and designed a portable and compact device to detect lead in drinking water. The device, called Tethys in honor of the Greek goddess of water, uses a carbon nanotube sensor that reacts to lead. The device analyzes the water and sends that information via Bluetooth to a mobile phone application that lets you see if the liquid is contaminated.

Thanks to this project, that same year she was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” and was awarded the $25,000 top prize from Discovery at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. 

In 2018, Rao launched Epione, a medical device that, through artificial intelligence, is capable of detecting early addiction to prescription opioids using genetic engineering. This initiative received world finalist recognition in a Technovation Girl Challenge and a Health Pillar award by the TCS Ignite Innovation challenge nationally. She introduced the device in TED Talks India: Nayi Baat.

The following year, Rao developed an application and an extension for Google Chrome called “Kindly” to combat cyberbullying under Microsoft’s guidelines. The principle of the application is very simple: you write a word or a phrase, and “Kindly” is able to detect if it is harassment and gives you the possibility of modifying it or sending it as is. Its goal is not to punish but to give you the opportunity to rethink what you are saying. She partnered with UNICEF to roll out the service internationally. 

Rao was recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30 in the science category for all her work in 2019. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, her research and inventions represent just a part of her accomplishments. As she grew, her goal shifted from creating her own devices to solving the world’s problems and inspiring others to do the same. 

The power of sharing

Rao has demonstrated to be a great young leader and communicator. She is an active STEM advocate and is involved in promoting STEM-based activities. “If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it” is one of her mottos, as she told Angelina Jolie in her interview for TIME magazine. Rao runs innovation and technology workshops all around the world, where she shares the process that works for her  -“observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate.” What started with a simple presentation and a lesson plan built up to partnering with rural schools, girls in STEM organizations and museums, and even bigger organizations, like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.

Writing and public speaking don’t escape her radar. She is a three-time TEDx speaker and a TED speaker, apart from speaking at several girls' and global conferences and being a UNICEF panelist about the role of Youth to power the planet. She has also published A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM and will publish her second book, A Young Innovator’s Guide to Planning For Success, this Summer.

Rao possesses a brilliant mind, and it’s undeniable. As she grows and continues to be curious, research, innovate, and expand access for kids to use their unique perspectives to innovate, her positive impact will still have a long way to go.


Bruner, R. (2022, February 10). 2020 kid of the year Gitanjali Rao on research, mentorship.

Rao, G. (2023). Gitanjali Rao.

Sharma, S. (2020, December 9). The bright spark. Deccan Chronicle.

Time. (2020, December 3). Time’s 2020 kid of the year: Meet Gitanjali Rao. Time.

Time. (2020, December 3). Meet Time’s first-ever Kid of the Year | Time. YouTube.


Cylindrical molecules made of carbon atoms that are very sensitive to chemical changes; effective for detecting chemicals in water.

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