Who is Gitanjali Rao? TIME's first 'Kid of the Year' is a young scientist interviewed by Angelina Jolie

Born to academics Bharathi and Ram Rao, the teen invented devices that helped with problems ranging from the opioid crisis to contaminated water


                            Who is Gitanjali Rao? TIME's first 'Kid of the Year' is a young scientist interviewed by Angelina Jolie
Gitanjali Rao (Getty Images)

For the first time in 92 years, since Time magazine started Person of the Year, things were shaken up a bit in 2020. The magazine -- a year after honoring then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg as the youngest ever Person of the Year -- this year announced a new accolade: the first-ever Kid of the Year. And that person is 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao. The magazine, in partnership with Nickelodeon, picked one remarkable youngster from a pool of more than 5,000 Americans, between the ages of eight and 16.

Panelists including representatives from the Special Olympics and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA formed an advisory committee to help judge the nominees on the positive impact they’ve had this year. Following that, a committee of kids, including Nickelodeon stars Young Dylan and Chinguun Sergelen, Disney star Sky Katz, Little Chef Ivy, and Time For Kids kid reporters Tiana Sirmans and Raunak Singh, then worked with comedian Trevor Noah to narrow down the finalists and select the Kid of the Year.

So, who is Gitanjali Rao?

The 15-year-old Indian-American from Denver, Colorado, is an inventor and scientist. In an interview conducted by actor Angelina Jolie for the magazine, Rao spoke about her work using technology to tackle issues like contaminated drinking water, the opioid addiction crisis, cyberbullying, and more. She also spoke about her mission to create a global community of young innovators to solve problems the world over.

Born to academics Bharathi and Ram Rao, the teen was just in the seventh grade when residents of Flint, Michigan, were battling the grave problem of dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. She then created a device, called Tethys, which used carbon nanotubes to quickly detect lead compounds in water and determine the level of contamination. The invention won her the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Rao also developed a device called Epione that physicians can use to tell if their patients are at the onset of addiction. “Approx six million people in India have opioid use disorders, including prescription opioids,” she told Jolie. “Many addicts start as regular pain medication users but become drug abusers without even knowing it. Doctors are now trying to lift the amount of addictive painkillers that they prescribe. However, many people need opioids for their pain management and end up with serious addictions. In addition, physicians do not have an easy tool to diagnose opioid addiction at an early stage. The current tools that are used today are after the fact and they are mainly based on self-awareness or assessment of behavioral changes.”

Speaking to Jolie, Rao added, “I don’t look like your typical scientist. Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist. It’s weird to me that it was almost like people had assigned roles, regarding like their gender, their age, the color of their skin. My goal has really shifted not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it."

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