Gitanjali Rao just finished her final exam of the year and, like any other teenager, is eager to begin her summer.
The 15-year-old is, in many ways, not your typical teen. She landed on the cover of Time magazine in 2020 as its inaugural "Kid of the Year" for her scientific achievements, which include building a device, Tethys, that detects lead in drinking water.
But Rao doesn't see herself as exceptional. In fact, when she was younger, she didn't even see herself as "the science type."
She was driven, instead, by trying to find solutions to problems in her community. Once she discovered science and technology could be a means of finding those solutions, there was no turning back.
"Using science and technology as social change became something that was intuitive to me and something that I wanted to keep doing," she said.
The way Rao sees it, this connects her to the rest of her generation. A study released Tuesday from the multinational corporation 3M found the pandemic has renewed interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) globally, with interest highest among millennials and Gen Z in particular.
Rao says her passion for STEM has shaped her days and her goals - she is working on creating a global network of young innovators to tackle global problems. It also fuels her relentless optimism for the future and all its possibilities.
We caught up with the young scientist to hear more about what she has been up to, the current state of science, and how she and Gen Z will shape the future of tech.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It hasn't been a typical year for anyone, but your work and your projects have really taken off in the last year. At the same time, you're still balancing school. I'm curious what a normal day looks like for you during a very not-normal year.
A: A normal day obviously involves being your normal high school student, just, you know, maintaining a social life, still doing homework every single day, studying for exams. But then there's this added layer of my research and innovations. A lot of my work has been focused on running my innovation workshops for students all over the globe, which is also taking up a little bit - a lot of my energy and time trying to maintain that sort of situation as well. And also just being, even remotely, in the public eye obviously comes with its own perks, but also disadvantages of being able to manage that as well.
It's such an interesting and complex dynamic, and it keeps me going every single day. So as busy as a day may seem, everything after school is stuff that I'm really taking upon myself to do. And I'm a strong believer in doing what you want to do, not what you need to do.
Q: So, just to showcase how remarkable your last year has been, Angelina Jolie interviewed you for the cover of Time magazine. You mentioned that you're in the public eye now. How do you navigate not just the to-do list, but the attention that is coming your way?
A: So anything that I say is definitely not something I've completely figured out, but I think really, at the end of the day, what I have to remind myself is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing. And the reasoning for that is because I love helping people. I love using science and technology to do that. So that priority always comes first.
My passion drives everything, even my academics. I take the classes based on what I want to do. I go headfirst into projects and ideas and try to figure out what's going on in the world around me, and that allows me to really manage my time.
I don't do eight things at a time. I might do eight things in a day, but not eight things at a time because I know what I need to focus on. I know how to prioritize my work.
Q: Science and technology have really been front and center over the last year, especially in the last few months. What's it been like for you watching the vaccine rollout and the response to it?
A: Speaking on behalf of Gen Z here, the pandemic was definitely not something any of us were expecting. And it has been horrible in that a lot of people have suffered. But I think if we were to look at that silver lining, it's showing us why it's important to value science.
More than anything, it's proof to show us that, if this is what we can do in nine months, imagine what we could do in the future.
Q: On the subject of your generation, there's a recent study showing that interest in STEM is at an all-time high among young people.
A: It honestly makes me really happy to see younger generations engaging in science. Today's kids are tomorrow's innovators and they [will] make the world better, stronger and more sustainable in the future.
That's really why students are starting to break out of that fear they have inside them: "No, I'm a kid, what can I do to make a difference?" [That] has slowly turned into, "I'm a kid, and this is why I can make a difference."
And I'm really excited to see our generation taking advantage of that, and growing up with the world, almost.
Q: What do you think makes your generation's approach to science unique?
A: So a question that I commonly get is, what is one word to describe your generation? And I like to say, hotheaded - but in a good way. Our generation, if we put our mind to something, we want to get it done. That's how I have been. That's how a lot of my friends have been.
But you see kids from all over the globe, especially in Gen Z, being passionate, excited about one thing and sticking with it. Proving that you don't need a PhD to make a difference. You don't need a degree to solve problems in the world. And that's where kids play a part right now.
Q: So you've expressed a lot of hope in technology's power to improve people's lives. Is there anything about technology and how we use it that concerns you?
A: There's something about technology that's kind of eerie to some people. I remember I would ask kindergartners to draw out these pictures of robots and what they could do to the future. And half of them [were] like destroying the world. And I was like, "Oh, that is a very interesting take on this, not what I was looking for, but okay." But it really helped to show me that this is what people think.
Some things about technologies can be scary. But the biggest thing is to understand that one thing technology can't get rid of is this element of human support, right? Human experience and human touch. I think during the pandemic, we all faced that lack of it. And as far as we take robots, nothing will really replace this idea of wanting to help other people and be there in real life.
Technology can be a scary thing sometimes, but most times the positives outweigh the negatives. So I'm not too worried for the future of the world.
Q: In the past, we haven't always seen people of color and women and other members of marginalized communities really be the drivers of this technology. I'm curious how you've been thinking about equity and how those conversations have come up with your peers.
A: My generation is destined to be innovators more than any generation that came before. And we're the first generation to grow up as natural innovators because of how we live, where we live and what we have access to from a technology standpoint.
Where I want to see that equity change is in education. Access to resources is something that obviously people have faced across the world. It's an issue still to this day. It's the 21st century, and we're still talking about girls and women struggling to get education. But what it's important to recognize is that a lot of times, the ideas start in the bare minimum.
With my device, Tethys, to detect lead in drinking water, I started with a cardboard box and a couple of drawings on a piece of paper. And honestly, what that turned into was not looking at what resources I had, but dreaming big and then thinking back to reality.
So equity is something that we need to work together to make a difference. But until then, it's about using what we have on hand. Most of the innovators that I talk to online don't have their driver's license. I don't have my driver's license. But at the same time, it gives me this opportunity to be like, "OK, with the resources that I have on hand, without having money to spend, what can I do?" And it's that same way for students across the globe.
Whether that equity means your gender, your age, the color of your skin, the place in the world that you live, what we need to think about is dreaming big and then looking at how that can apply into the real world.
Q: It's clear how your values have shaped the way you approach science. How do you think science has shaped who you are as a young adult?
A: I think that from the age of 8 or 9, I kind of recognized that science can bring hope by solving world problems. Science has not only become like something I'm passionate about, but it's something that I baked into my everyday life.
It has shaped me the way I am because now I'm not afraid to look at the world in a different perspective, in a scientific manner, or most importantly, in a manner about changing these problems that I see out there.
Science and innovation has shaped me in the way that when I see something, if nobody else is doing something about it, I want to take action. And I think it's a great quality. It's a great trait to have, but it's something that I want to pass on.
Q: So what I'm hearing is that it's given you a lot of energy and drive, and maybe even made you a bit more courageous.
A: Absolutely. It's a lot of all three of those things. I like to say that scientists are like superheroes. It's given me this tool to solve problems that I couldn't see, you know, years ago.