For nearly a century, Time magazine has named a Person of the Year, annually recognizing the most influential individual or individuals from the previous 12 months.
Now for the first time in its history, the magazine has named a Kid of the Year, and selected a 15-year-old scientist and inventor from Douglas County for the prestigious honor.
Gitanjali Rao attends STEM School Highlands Ranch and lives in Lone Tree, where she's already produced a bevy of groundbreaking inventions and initiatives aimed at improving the world around her.
As news of Gitanjali's new distinguishment spread, the teen told Colorado Community Media she was simply grateful to have been a finalist.
“It's like nothing I could have ever imagined,” she said. “It never really sinks in, but I'm so beyond honored and humbled.”
Gitanjali spoke to actor and activist Angelina Jolie in a special interview for Time, saying she hopes her work inspires youths everywhere to be innovators. She was 10 when she asked her parents if she could research carbon nanotube sensor technology, Gitanjali told Jolie.
Time launched Kid of the Year in collaboration with Nickelodeon and intends the honor to be “a barometer for the rising leaders in America's youngest generation.”
The magazine scoured social media and school districts across the nation, using a panel of judges to whittle 5,000 nominees down to five finalists. According to Time, “exceptional leadership” made Gitanjali stand out from the rest.
With an impressive resume under her belt, the recognition is far from Gitanjali's first time in the spotlight.
She made headlines after winning the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge, inventing a tool to quickly and cheaply detect lead in drinking water. For that, she was inspired largely by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Gitanjali wowed Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" in 2018 while showcasing her lead-detecting device and corresponding app, stunning him with her young age and scientific know-how.
She landed a spot on the 2019 Forbes “30 under 30” list for science.
In addition to lead-detecting devices, Gitanjali created an app called Epione, which helps battle the opioid epidemic by providing people with pain management. The app connects to a device that can show how dependent a person is on opioids.
She's also taken aim at cyberbullying and staggering youth suicide rates in Colorado. Gitanjali created another app and web extension called Kindly, which uses artificial intelligence to flag language that might qualify as bullying and alert the author. Kindly users can choose to rewrite their message or proceed with sharing it.
Gitanjali said her biggest motivation is knowing people in the world need help, that her generation is facing global problems never seen before and that she can use technology to help address those issues, such as climate change.
Most important to her is the time she spends mentoring other students. Gitanjali runs workshops roughly three times a week, impacting approximately 150 students across them. In total, she's mentored thousands of students, parents and educators.
She wants other young people to dream big and know they can do anything “they put their mind to.”
“Imagine how cool it would be if a whole group of innovators and a whole army of youth looked to solving issues in our society,” she said.
Local school leaders joined in congratulating Gitanjali.
Douglas County School District interim Superintendent Corey Wise in a statement commended Gitanjali for her “amazing accomplishment” earning national recognition “at such a young age.”
“It is a true testament to her ability and dedication to making the world a better place. For Gitanjali, the sky's the limit and we are so proud of her,” Wise said.
Executive Director of STEM School Penny Eucker said Gitanjali never rests and inspires everyone at STEM through her dedication to giving others a better life.
“When adults fret about the state of the world with poverty, climate change or COVID, I always interject that help is on the way with students like Gitanjali. She has taken our most challenging problems as a student and fearlessly works toward solutions,” Eucker said.
Gitanjali has already set her sights on a new problem to solve.
She's back to focusing on clean drinking water after watching a documentary about young boys in Africa forced to rely on water without any knowledge of what's in it, including parasite or other living organisms.
“It's so appalling to see people not have access to clean drinking water,” she said.
She's not sure what she hopes to do in the next five years, or after.
She changes her mind often, she said, but thinks she might end up working in product development. Her immediate goal is to broaden the scope of her workshops so she can reach more young people unsure of where to start in pursuing their dreams.
“I'm more of a go-with-the-flow person,” she said. “I will continue making change. I will continue making a positive impact.”
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