For some of us, we can recall playing outdoors, reading books, watching TV and playing sports.
For Gitanjali Rao, her hobby was a bit more specific. At the time, she had just learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It inspired her to immerse herself in learning how the drinking water was contaminated by lead and other toxins.
But, Gitanjali didn’t only want to listen to news about the issue. She wanted to take action. So, she set out to invent a better way to test for lead in drinking water.
“I’ve been tracking and following Flint, Michigan, for the past couple of years, and I was really appalled by the number of people who were harmed by the lead in water,” she said. Gitanjali saw firsthand how her mom, who works in the IT industry, tested water at their home.
“When I saw my mom using test-strips and sending our water off to the EPA, I was shocked and didn’t think it was a reliable method,” said Gitanjali. “I really wanted to do something to fix this, so that it not only helped my parents, but also Flint, Michigan, and places like this around the world.”
So, she entered the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which invites middle school students to create innovative solutions to everyday problems.
Now 11-years old, Gitanjali became a finalist, alongside nine other middle-school students from across the country. They were chosen for their passion for science, spirit of innovation and ingenuity and effective communication skills.
Each finalist spent the summer working with a 3M scientist who volunteered as a mentor. The mentors helped the students transform the projects from a theoretical concept into a physical prototype. Gitanjali’s mentor was Dr. Kathleen Shafer, a research specialist at 3M who develops new plastics technologies that have real-world applications in dentistry and other fields.
With support from 3M and Discovery Education, Gitanjali and Kathleen hit the ground running to bring Gitanjali’s innovation to life.
Starting with some brainstorming, Gitanjali researched the different types of tools she wanted to use and what technologies she wanted to incorporate within her device. “Once I selected my carbon nanotubes, Arduino®-based signal processor and Bluetooth® attachments, I began experimenting,” she said.
And then came her innovation. Gitanjali’s innovation proposes a new way to detect lead in drinking water with a tool she called “Tethys,” named after the Greek goddess of fresh water. “This would be an easy to use, fast and inexpensive device that provides instantaneous results on a simple smartphone,” she said. She developed a mobile app that could work with the tool to determine the status of the water almost immediately.
How does it work? “It’s built on the idea of carbon nanotube sensors and includes a core device and disposable cartridge in order to test for lead in water,” said Gitanjali. With further refinement, Gitanjali aims to develop her Tethys prototype to a viable device that tests water faster than other current techniques.
It was an experiment that Gitanjali says led to an “ah ha” moment.
“Everything kind of just came together, and I came to the Young Scientist Challenge with my complete prototype.”
Gitanjali presented her findings while competing alongside all finalists during a live competition at the 3M Customer Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
While many would feel nervous presenting their projects in front of a panel of 3M scientists, Gitanjali was instead overcome with excitement.
“I’m excited to talk in front of the judges, answer some of their questions and let them know about my device so that this could spread awareness,” she said shortly before giving her final presentation.
Gitanjali’s lead detection innovation won her the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.”
“Just from the second that I walked up on the stage, my hands were shaking,” she said upon winning. “It was amazing to see me as the top young scientist of the nation,” she exclaimed.
Her prize? $25,000. She told a national news talk show she plans to use the money to advance her project, donate to a favorite charity and to save for college.
But, the money wasn’t the best part of this experience for Gitanjali. In fact, one of her favorite memories from the competition happened the second she walked into the 3M Customer Innovation Center. It was the moment when she met her mentor.
“Meeting my mentor was probably the highlight of the day. I loved actually seeing her since we communicated through online calls for the past three months.”
Gitanjali said the guidance that Kathleen provided her during those months was instrumental in her success – from introducing her to the scientific research principles to helping her memorize her speech and refine her final presentation.
“She helped me with taking safety and hazardous waste disposal into consideration while I did my experimentation” said Gitanjali. “She’s been so much fun to work with, and I have looked forward to her calls every week.”
Collaborating with other students who share her same interests was another take-away for Gitanjali. “I’ve made lifelong friends here who enjoy STEM as much as I do,” she said. “I’m so glad to have met all these wonderful people with me on this journey who experienced the same experiments and failures as me.”
She felt energized as she teamed up with another finalist to participate in hands-on challenges prior to presenting her prototype. “My partner and I work well as a team, and we developed some great innovations,” she said.
She found herself inspired by the other finalists as well.
“When I came here and met all of the different finalists, I was amazed. I thought, ‘Wow. Their innovations are amazing,’” she said. “It’s not just about there being one grand-prize winner. We all did a wonderful job and we’re all winners.”
At the core of Gitanjali’s interest in science, she has an innate curiosity and sense of wonder. “I always love to ask questions and receive input so that I could apply those in the future.”
It’s a curiosity that was evident during the lab tours Gitanjali participated in while at the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. “I got to ask a ton of questions and learned so much that I hadn’t learned before,” she said.
It’s also a curiosity that Gitanjali’s parents foster and encourage.
“They both tell me that there is no limit to the amount of questions you can ask,” she says. “As I got older, I tried to think of new innovations that could help people in underdeveloped countries or third-world countries.”
And it’s a curiosity that serves as the foundation to 3M’s core values. “Wonder is that spark of curiosity, that relentless optimism that they carry forward with them, and you can’t really have innovation or scientific discovery without it,” said Paul Acito, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, 3M Corporate Marketing-Sales.
Gitanjali has some advice for other aspiring scientists and students with a yearning to apply their curiosity to a larger cause: always persevere.
“Never give up. There is no limit to the amount of times that you could try an experiment or do it all over again,” she said. “It might seem frustrating once or twice when your experiment doesn’t go the way you want it to. Just take a deep breath and try to solve your way through it. I guarantee you that you will get through it.”
Gitanjali relied on this advice firsthand while participating in the challenge. “Over the past couple of months, I have done so many experiments, and I have failed quite a few of them. Through learning, I finally got my experimentation and prototypes done, and it came back together. That’s the point when I knew I would be ready for this presentation.”
Winning the challenge is only the beginning of Gitanjali’s journey. Her future plans include further developing her device and introducing it into the market. She hopes to continue finding solutions for the water contamination crisis and to decrease long-term health effects from lead exposure.
“It’s been great to experience these past few months, because it’s been a once in a lifetime experience.”