Gitanjali Rao
Gitanjali Rao, UNICEF Youth Advocate speaks during World Children's Day at Al Wasl Image Credit: Supplied

It becomes apparent rather quickly that this is a teen who knows her own mind. Indian-American Gitanjali Rao, who was at Expo 2020 Dubai as a speaker on World Children’s Day, is passionate about growth, resilience and making your own weather.

The 16-year-old, who is not only an author and scientist but also ‘Time’ magazine’s ‘Kid of the Year’ 2020, explains how her pre-teen years prepared her for the world. It all began with a deal. “I was always that kid that you name it, I did it. But the [thing] was if I didn’t like it, I could quit the next day,” she explains. “And so after countless football and ice skating lessons that I was quitting the next day, some things [still] stuck such as playing piano, assisted living, working on science clubs, robotics and coding; everything just came together. And obviously while they [my parents, Bharathi and Ram Rao] do support my dreams, my ideas, my inventions, they don’t always know what I’m talking about. And they are always that source of motivation [saying] that you can do it, even if they don’t know what I can do,” she laughs.

She’s recalling a now famous incident that she had recounted to Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, who interviewed her for ‘Time’. It all harks back to the time she was 10 years old and she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab. She explained her mum’s reaction as, “My mum was like, ‘A what?’”

Parental advice

That ‘Kid of the Year’ moniker shoved the inventor and author into the spotlight. (Before that, she’d won the US-based Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention Tethys – a way to detect lead in water – in 2017, but global fame would come in 2020.) “After ‘Time’, things just got different – I had to adapt to it and I’m still working on it, but you know, the world blew up for me. A lot was going on; I was a full-time high school student but also a full-time media student and full-time going around the world, giving talks – you know, still focusing on my research and workshops. The one thing that [helped was I] stayed true to myself, believing what my family told me, which is, ‘with good work comes good recognition’.”

But there was another – more insidious – creature she’d need to fight when she won international acclaim: the cyber bully. “I was put out on the internet at the age of 11 or 12 and so I did [experience bullying] quite a few times for the way I looked, for the way I acted, for the things I said. And obviously, that was one of the motivations to create the solution to stop cyberbullying but also it was the idea that anyone is vulnerable to it,” she says.

Always an opportunity

As a solution-chaser, Rao quickly realised she had work to do. So she created Kindly, an Artificial Intelligence-based software that highlights words that may be construed as bullying, allowing a teen the opportunity to reconsider their statements before pressing send. “I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar. 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. 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,” Rao told Jolie in the Time interview.

These achievements however haven’t made Rao slow down. Her demeanor is one of steely determination. “I’m working on a lot of stuff,” she says. “So my biggest goal is to make my innovation workshops [which she conducts on her website] self-sustaining beyond me, but I’m also working on a way to detect for parasites in drinking water, but at the same time, working very, very hard to launch Kindly with United Nations Children's Fund, and make it so that everyone around the country can use it.”

As an author, workshop-creator, inventor and public figure, Rao’s got a stacked schedule, but when it comes to balancing it all, she says: “I think it just happens. I think what it is, I’m a strong believer in doing what I want to do and not what I need to do. And first of all, put out the honest disclaimer that I am by no means an expert on time management, I still procrastinate, I still do my homework at the last minute but we are all learning, all changing with the world around us and it’s given me the opportunity to grow as both an individual but also as a change-maker.”

It’s this attitude to learn from things that has made all the difference. She explains: “I am 16 years old, I am female and I am South Asian. All of the red flags that you see in science and technology out there. But I think it gives so many people the opportunities to shut me down. I’m breaking every stereotype in the field, which means it has to come with its negative effects. But what I’ve learned is you can’t change what people say about you but you can change how you react to them.”

She calls herself fortunate for her family’s unerring support and says: “My message to anybody is – you are in charge of what you do. You create your own power out there. What I had to realise was that I am where I am because of the risks that I took, so the worst thing that’s going to happen is that you fail, that someone is going to say no. But the best part is you can get up and try again. So don’t be afraid to dream big and then get back to reality because that’s exactly what I did and look how it worked out for me.”

The power, she explains, is yours.

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