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Student scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao is Time Magazine's first 'Kid of the Year'

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, inspired her to develop a way to detect contaminants and send those results to a mobile phone, she told interviewer Angelina Jolie.

A 15-year-old Colorado high school student and young scientist who has used artificial intelligence and created apps to tackle contaminated drinking water, cyberbullying, opioid addiction and other social problems has been named Time Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year.”

Gitanjali Rao, a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver who lives in the city of Lone Tree, was selected from more than 5,000 nominees in a process that culminated with a finalists’ committee of children, Time for Kids reporters and comedian Trevor Noah.

The cover Dec. 14, 2020 issue of Time magazine features 15-year-old Colorado high school student Gitanjali Rao.
The cover Dec. 14, 2020 issue of Time magazine features 15-year-old Colorado high school student Gitanjali Rao.Sharif Hamza for Time / via AP

Rao told The Associated Press in a Zoom interview from her home Friday that the prize is “nothing that I could have ever imagined. And I’m so grateful and just so excited that we’re really taking a look at the upcoming generation and our generation, since the future is in our hands.”

Time said in a statement that, along with Nickelodeon, it wanted to recognize “the rising leaders of America’s youngest generation” in making the award. For 92 years, Time has presented a “Person of the Year,” and the youngest ever was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was 16 when she graced the magazine’s cover last year.

Time said Rao stood out for creating a global community of young innovators and inspiring them to pursue their goals. Rao insists that starting out small doesn’t matter, as long as you’re passionate about it.

Rao’s innovating started early. At age 12, she developed a portable device to detect lead in water.

She’s created a device called Epione that diagnoses prescription opioid addiction at an early stage. She’s also devised an app called Kindly that uses artificial intelligence to help prevent cyberbullying. It allows teens to type in a word or phrase to find out if the words they’re using are bullying and lets them decide to edit what they’re sending or to proceed.

“And currently, I’m looking back at water, looking at moving things like parasitic compounds in water and how we can detect for that,” Rao said after a day’s remote schooling.

She told actress, activist and Time contributing editor Angelina Jolie in a Zoom interview that her science pursuits started early as a way to improve social conditions. The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, inspired her work to develop a way to detect contaminants and send those results to a mobile phone, she said.

“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?” Rao told Jolie. She said that work “is going to be in our generation’s hands pretty soon. So if no one else is gonna do it, I’m gonna do it.”

The sensor technology involves molecules of carbon atoms that can detect chemical changes, including chemicals in water.

Rao has partnered with rural schools; museums; science, technology, engineering and mathematics organizations; and other institutions to run innovation workshops for thousands of other students.

In a world where science is increasingly questioned or challenged, Rao insisted that its pursuit is an essential act of kindness, the best way that a younger generation can better the world. Science and technology are being employed as never before to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, global warming and a host of other issues, she noted.

“We have science in everything we’re involved in, and I think that’s the biggest thing to put out there, that science is cool, innovating is cool, and anybody can be an innovator,” Rao said. “Anybody can do science.”

Time was planning a Kid of the Year broadcast special at 7:30 p.m. EST (5:30 p.m. MST) on Nickelodeon.