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Gitanjali Rao isn’t your ordinary teenager. At age 12, Rao created a device to measure the amount of lead in drinking water. At 13, she was finding ways for doctors to more easily detect signs of opioid dependency. At 14, she developed a program to combat cyberbullying.
So it’s no surprise that at age 15, Rao, who lives in Lone Tree and is a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch, was named Time Magazine’s first ever “Kid of the Year” last week, an honor that came with her picture on the cover, an interview conducted with Angelina Jolie, and a Nickelodeon-channel reveal special hosted by Trevor Noah on December 4. (This isn’t the first time Rao has been a cover star—she appeared on the cover of 5280’s sister publication, Colorado Parent, in November 2018).
“I think it’s so beneficial to show what kids are doing these days because we are the future, and if we’re able to solve problems in society, then the world is in a great place,” says Rao, who was one of five finalists for the honor. “The other amazing finalists, I know a lot of them; they’re actually some of my best friends. We’re all in this together.”
In an article explaining how and why it decided to crown a Kid of the Year, Time notes that in 2019, when then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg became its youngest ever Person of the Year, the award made clear “that young people carry tremendous influence today, and that they are using that influence to shape a world that matches their vision.”
That’s certainly true of Rao, who has many strengths as a scientist and researcher—including the ability to examine the world around her for problems that need solving. Her program, Kindly, uses artificial intelligence to detect potential cyberbullying in text messages and social media posts and gives the user the option to edit the post before sending.
“I like to say I’m inspired by anything that I see,” Rao says. “The things that really hit home are the things that quite literally hit home—the things I have a personal connection to, something that I want to see change. That’s a great starting point for anyone looking to be an innovator. Even if it’s something as small as, ‘I like ballet, but my pointe shoes don’t fit,’ all the way to, ‘I love the world that we’re living in, but climate change is such a huge problem,’ every small thing makes a difference.”
For Rao’s peers and teachers at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the honor is completely warranted.
“She has impacted so many other students, especially girls,” says STEM School computer science teacher Simi Basu. “She constantly keeps moving and is a risk taker. She is not afraid of failure, and that is key to her success. Her dedication and encouragement have sparked a desire to seek more challenges, and it is likely that her infectious enthusiasm will continue to grow as she pursues her career journey.”
With a pandemic requiring innovation even as some political leaders seem to be ignoring science, Rao says it’s imperative that young people step up to become part of the solution.
“Our generation is growing up in a place where we’re seeing problems that have never existed before, and problems that continue to exist,” says Rao, who partners with schools, museums and other institutions to run innovation workshops for kids around the world and talks excitedly of creating an “innovation movement” of future world-problem solvers.
“With the pandemic, we’ve changed the future of health care with these vaccines,” Rao continues. “Not only that, we’ve changed the future of social interaction, as well as an education system that’s stayed the same for 50 years. Even though it’s so incredibly unfortunate that there have been a lot of losses due to this pandemic, if we have to look at the optimism, the silver lining, we’re making strides in the world of technology and human support and human growth. I can’t see a world filled with positivity and hope without some sort of science involved.”