1. Did you always know you wanted to pursue STEM?
I didn’t start with an aim to pursue STEM when I was in elementary school. I started liking it when my uncle introduced me to a science kit when I was about 4 years old. My mom would mentor several students and I for a problem-solving challenge, and we loved it. I remember creating scripts and videos while understanding the problems better. I remember researching technologies and solutions that exist and what could make it better.
I never knew when I fell in love with problem-solving and using science as a catalyst of social change became a habit.
2. What inspired you to develop the Tethys device? In what manner has the coronavirus pandemic emphasized the need for safer water conditions?
Tethys was inspired by the Flint water crisis. Though I heard it when I was 9 years old, it was in the back of my mind, and when I was reading a MIT Technology article, it sparked that the technology can be enhanced to detecting lead in drinking water. I soon realized in my research that Flint is not the only place where there is lead in the drinking water. There are several other places, and people are not even aware of it. Hence, detection became my primary focus, so people can take actions.
With the virus pandemic, there is a cascading impact on the economy and other activities, such as the ability to test water often, maintenance and possible lead building up in pipes when office/school building that are closed, effect of parasitic and other bio contaminants in water. The need for safe water is more than necessary with the need to wash our hands more frequently.
3. As an incredibly innovative young leader can you speak to the importance of taking risks and not being afraid to think differently from your peers?
Each one of us are open to taking different risks. It’s just the ability to get out of our comfort zone and try something that we haven’t tried before. I believe, as young students, we ought to try and take risks to solve global problems. We are growing up in a society where problems that have never existed before are huge issues, such as contamination of natural resources, cyberbullying, and climate change. We don’t have an option, and we need to try solving these.
4. What advice would you offer to upcoming scientists who also desire to be change agents in their communities through STEM?
The only advice I have is to use all the resources in your power to be a change agent. Ask for help in unconventional ways, reach out to experts and Universities, and partner with organizations. Believe me, the worst answer you will get is a “no.” There have been numerous times I have shared my research with experts and professors knowing that I have less than 0.01% of the knowledge they have and I may come across as somebody novice. But the fact of the matter is as somebody who is a beginner, we need to request for help and guidance and people are willing to support us.
5. You have lectured and traveled extensively throughout the world. Marvel even created a comic after you. What’s next for your career and the future of Tethys?
For Tethys, I have completed majority of my testing and have reached out to several manufacturing partners and research labs to re-check my research for false positives and see the feasibility for a commercial product. I would like to see innovation in the curriculum as part of early education in schools, since I see a tremendous benefit to getting introduced early. To meet that goal, I conduct innovation workshops for elementary to high school students around the globe in partnership with schools and other organizations that are motivated to make an impact in their communities.
I am aiming to create an innovation movement where everybody is equipped with resources, process, tools, and tips to start their own journey. On my learning, I hope to study computational genetics focused on product design for biomedical devices.
Gitanjali Rao is an American inventor and winner of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2017. A 3-time TEDx Speaker, in September 2018 Rao was awarded the United States Environmental Protection Agency President’s Environmental Youth Award. Gitanjali was awarded the Top “Health” Pillar Prize for the TCS Ignite Innovation Student Challenge in May 2019 for developing a diagnostic tool based on advances in genetic engineering for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction. Gitanjali is part of the Envision by World Strides Speaker Network, participating in the Explore STEM Alumni program.