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Teenage Inventor Gitanjali Rao Named TIME’s First ‘Kid Of The Year’

. 5 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Teenage Inventor Gitanjali Rao Named TIME’s First ‘Kid Of The Year’

Fifteen-year-old Indian-American Gitanjali Rao is the first individual to be named “Kid of the Year” by Time magazine!

The teenager has been recognised for her work in inventing new technologies that combat issues ranging from cyberbullying and opioid addiction to contaminated drinking water

Gitanjali Is A Dreamer, Innovator, And Inspiration, All Rolled Up In One Teenager

Time magazine has been honouring an individual every year since 1927, when the award was still called ‘man of the year’. The title was later updated to ‘person of the year’, and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was given the honour last year, was the youngest ever ‘person of the year’ at 16.

This will be the first time that Time has awarded the ‘Kid of the year’ honour.

Rao was selected from over 5000 nominees. She and four other finalists will be honoured in a TV special on Nickelodeon next Friday.

In an interview with actor and envoy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, Rao explained her inventions, and the inspiration and intent behind them.

She says her understanding of science and technology coupled with her desire to bring positivity into the world led her to think of things like “how can we use science and technology to create social change?” at a very young age.

“I was like 10 when I told my parents that I wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab, and my mom was like, “A what?”” she reminisces.

Speaking of one of her inventions – an app and Chrome extension called Kindly that detects cyberbullying using AI – she said she wanted to use the tool to remind people of their kindness and help them grow, rather than reprimand.

“You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is,” she explains. “The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.”

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In addition to this, she is passionate about the environment, and is working on a device that detects bio-contamination in water easily. “I’m hoping for this to be something that’s inexpensive and accurate so that people in third-world countries can identify what’s in their water,” she says.

On Breaking The Norm Of What A “Typical Scientist” Looks Like

When Jolie asks Rao what it feels like to be a young, female inventor when there are still relatively few women in STEM fields, Rao agrees with the observation.

“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.” Rao doesn’t believe in conforming to these “assigned roles” based on gender, age, or race.

Her mind-set has changed from merely problem-solving, to inspiring others to take action by setting an example through her problem-solving.

“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.”

In this effort to inspire and create an international community of young innovators, she conducts something called “innovation sessions”.

Rao explains that she has a simple process she uses when it comes to her work – observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate. She decided to share this process with other students like her through presentations, labs, and contests. “Now I’ve partnered with rural schools, girls in STEM organizations, museums all across the world, and bigger organizations like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops,” she says.

The Response To An Honour Like “Kid Of the Year” Should Be Inspiration, Not Competition 

People like Gitanjali are not only changing and shaping the world, but changing the idea of who can take action and shape it. She is undoubtedly an inspiration and role model to young adults and adults alike.

She has been receiving widespread praise and acclaim, even from Indian celebrities like Shashi Tharoor, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and Vikas Khanna. 

But there is a flip-side to the praise, and the title ‘Kid of the Year” in itself. A toxic, but highly plausible, approach to the title, is to view it more as a competition than an honour. The title “Kid of the Year” makes it seem like it is a contest for kids worldwide to compete in and ultimately stand victorious as “kid of the year”. 

The intention behind honouring a kid every year, isn’t to pressurise children, but simply inspire them. The response to the honour shouldn’t be for parents to push their children beyond their capabilities, but instead use inspirations like Gitanjali to help them become aware of and feel confident in their own abilities.  

As Rao says, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.” Anyone can do it. What that “it” is, is unique to every individual. 

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