Gitanjali Rao, 11-yr-old Indian American from Lone Tree, Colo. was declared the winner on October 18, of the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, for inventing a cheap device that rapidly tests water for lead contamination, she’s been granted the accolade of “America’s Top Young Scientist”. Her discovery has netted $25,000 as a result. She has explained to journalists that she hopes to become a geneticist or an epidemiologist in the future.
Considered the premier national middle-school science competition, which is administered by 3M (@3M) and Discovery Education (@DiscoveryEd) chose the Indian-American girl for her work to develop Tethys, a sensor-based device that can detect lead in water faster than other current techniques.
Following the Flint water pollution tragedy, Gitanjali began working on this project which, rather than using expensive equipment for testing, uses a cost-effective approach to water safety using a mobile app that populates the water’s status almost immediately, a press release from organizers said. The portability of the devise makes it easy to carry and used whenever needed. Gitanjali hopes to solve the water contamination crisis and decrease long-term health effects from lead exposure.
Every year, the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge asks kids up and down the country to explain in a short video a new scientific idea or invention – one that solves an everyday problem. Ten finalists are chosen, and the caliber is nothing less than spectacular. This year, a robot that helps reduce water wastage and a biodegradable material made from fruit that can clean up oil spills were just two of entries that made it to the last round of judging.
“I like finding solutions to real problems,” she said in a demo video for her product, which is called “Thethys” after the Greek goddess of fresh water. Gitanjali, a student at STEM School and Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colo., was inspired to make the device after studying major water crises in places like Flint, Mich., for two years.
“Imagine living day in and day out drinking contaminated water with dangerous substances like lead,” she said. She came up with the idea after reading about new nano technologies being used to detect hazardous substances on the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s website, and wondered whether it could be adapted to detect lead.
A seventh-grader at STEM School and Academy, Gitanjali competed alongside nine other finalists during a live competition at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minn. She was awarded the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” as well as a $25,000 prize. There were five other Indian-Americans/South Asian Americans among the top 9 finalists –
Rithvik Ganesh, an eighth-grader at C.M. Rice Middle School from Plano, Texas, received second place; Laalitya Acharya, a ninth-grader at William Mason High School in Mason, Ohio; Anika Bhagavatula, a ninth-grader at Wilton High School in Wilton, Conn.; and Samu Shreshtha, a ninth-grader from Highlands Ranch High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
During the past three months, Gitanjali and the other finalists worked directly with a 3M scientist to develop their innovations as part of a unique summer mentorship program. Gitanjali was paired with Dr. Kathleen Shafer, a 3M research specialist who develops new plastics technologies that have real-world applications in dentistry and other fields.
Each of the students collaborated with some of 3M’s leading scientists, who provided guidance as they worked through the scientific method to advance their ideas from a theoretical concept into a physical prototype. During the final competition, the finalists presented their inventions to a panel of 3M scientists, school superintendents and administrators from across the country.