Top of the Class

Ep #24 TIME's Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao, on Science, Education and a Problem Solving Mindset

January 06, 2021 Crimson Education Season 1 Episode 24
Top of the Class
Ep #24 TIME's Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao, on Science, Education and a Problem Solving Mindset
Top of the Class
Ep #24 TIME's Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao, on Science, Education and a Problem Solving Mindset
Jan 06, 2021 Season 1 Episode 24
Crimson Education

In December 2020, Gitanjali Rao was named the first ever TIME Magazine Kid of the Year.

At 15-years-old, Gitanjali already has already been innovating for years having won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2017 with her invention, Tethys, a portable device to detect lead in water using carbon nanotubes.

Since then, Gitanjali has developed apps to fight cyberbullying and opioid addiction and has been inspiring thousands of students with her message to “observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate.”

  • You can connect with Gitanjali on Twitter and Instagram
  • Click here to learn more about the finalists from TIME Magazine's Kid of the Year
  • Click here to check out Gitanjali's book - A Young Innovator's Guide to STEM

The Top of the Class podcast is powered by Crimson Education. If you want to learn more about your path through high school to top US, UK or European universities, click here to request a free and private meeting with an Academic Advisor in your area.

Do you have a story you'd like to share with the world? We invite student listeners to fill in this form to be considered for the show.

**Download the Ultimate Resource Bank for Science Students with the favourite resources from young scientists featured on the Top of the Class**

Show Notes Transcript

In December 2020, Gitanjali Rao was named the first ever TIME Magazine Kid of the Year.

At 15-years-old, Gitanjali already has already been innovating for years having won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2017 with her invention, Tethys, a portable device to detect lead in water using carbon nanotubes.

Since then, Gitanjali has developed apps to fight cyberbullying and opioid addiction and has been inspiring thousands of students with her message to “observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate.”

  • You can connect with Gitanjali on Twitter and Instagram
  • Click here to learn more about the finalists from TIME Magazine's Kid of the Year
  • Click here to check out Gitanjali's book - A Young Innovator's Guide to STEM

The Top of the Class podcast is powered by Crimson Education. If you want to learn more about your path through high school to top US, UK or European universities, click here to request a free and private meeting with an Academic Advisor in your area.

Do you have a story you'd like to share with the world? We invite student listeners to fill in this form to be considered for the show.

**Download the Ultimate Resource Bank for Science Students with the favourite resources from young scientists featured on the Top of the Class**

Podcast Host  00:00

Hello, and welcome to the Top of the Class podcast. I'm your host Alex Cork, and in this episode, I chat with none other than the first ever TIME Magazine Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao. Out of 5000 amazing young people, Gitanjali was judged to be Kid of the Year for her STEM innovations, community focused apps and efforts to inspire others. We chat about how she approaches global problems, her views on how education needs to change and what she hopes to do after school. Let's chat with Gitanjali Rao. Hello, good afternoon, Gitanjali.

Gitanjali Rao  00:48

Hi, thank you for having me.

Podcast Host  00:50

Oh, no, it's my pleasure to have you here and be on the Top of the Class podcast. I'm going to guess this isn't your first podcast recording?

Gitanjali Rao  00:57

It is not, no.

Podcast Host  00:58

Well, is it your first interview with an Australian though?

Gitanjali Rao  01:01

It is actually yeah.

Podcast Host  01:03

There you go, first one, fantastic. Well, I feel like I know a fair bit about your story already. Given that there is quite a lot of interviews out there. I'm looking forward to chatting and hearing more about everything that you've done. And obviously like, congratulations on being TIME Magazine Kid of the Year. That was a really nice photoshoot that they did for you.

Gitanjali Rao  01:21

Yeah, it was actually a five hour photo shoot before I even knew I was Kid of the Year. So I was like, 'Why are there 25 people here? And why is the photoshoot five hours?', but there was a good reason. And it was worth it at the end.

Podcast Host  01:34

Yeah, absolutely. Well, we can get into it then if that's okay.

Gitanjali Rao  01:38

Yeah, absolutely.

Podcast Host  01:39

Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Gitanjali Rao  01:41

First of all, thank you so much for having me. I'm Gitanjali Rao, I am 15 years old. And I'm an author, innovator and promoter of STEM. So I essentially use science and technology as a catalyst for social change. But recently, a lot of my work has also moved to global outreach. So helping other youth and students just like me understand, you know, their inner passion for innovation and making a difference in society.

Podcast Host  02:03

An author, innovator and promoter of STEM. When did you settle on that title?

Gitanjali Rao  02:08

I guess, like literally like a week ago, because everything is constantly changing. So, um, yeah, that's my title now, I guess.

Podcast Host  02:18

Yeah, it's a great way to think of yourself. And I guess it gives you that breadth and flexibility to do what you want to do and explore a whole lot of different areas, because I know there's a lot of different strings to your bow that you've developed apps, and you have developed technology, Tethys, as well. And you have written a book, and now you're learning to fly as I saw by your Twitter feed yesterday. So there's a lot of different things going on. Is there a story perhaps that encapsulates your love of science? Like if you were to go back through your, you know, how Gitanjali found her love of STEM, what would be the one story that comes to mind?

Gitanjali Rao  02:53

I guess it would be a combination of a lot of different things. But if I had to stick with one, it would actually be my uncle got me to science kit. When I was four years old, I actually asked for like a Barbie dream house, which I didn't end up getting. It honestly changed my life forever and projected that I realized that the, I guess the way science can be incorporated in the world around me. And even though it was like, how can you make a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar, it still kind of gave me that, you know, an idea of what science is and how it can be used to solve real problems.

Podcast Host  03:25

And you are solving real problems, which I'm excited to chat to you about. But before we get to those real problems, I think that there's a lot of interesting skill sets that you have, and a lot of interesting knowledge that you already have. What do you see as being some of the most important things that you now know, that helps you to become a promoter and innovator, and advocate of STEM? So there's obviously coding, I'm going to guess you know that because you do some app development. There's like how carbon nanotubes bond to fluoride and lead and all those kinds of things as well. So yes, I've done a little bit of research about what you do, which is awesome. But yeah, is there any particular kind of body of knowledge or skill set that you think has enabled you to step forward and become like such a great innovator in STEM?

Gitanjali Rao  04:06

Yeah, I think honestly, beyond all the technology skills that I've kind of personally developed over the years, it's also a strong sense of community and realizing the reason for innovation and the reasons behind innovating and coming up with ideas. Like obviously, there is an aspect to, you know, creating a device or coding something. But I think beyond that, it's more important to understand how coding something can lead to an impact on the world. So most of all, it's just my curiosity and being aware of what's going on around me because I can fully tell you that you can create an idea without knowing how to code or without knowing complicated cam concepts. But I think the more important thing is developing a curious skill set in which you can, you know, continue to maintain your passion, just the power that you put in everything you do.

Podcast Host  04:52

Yeah. Which is an interesting point I was going to ask you about whether you think it's mindset or skill set that enables you to do what you do. I think a lot of people kind of look at your story and say, Oh, she's a genius and kind of dismiss it as like you being a freak of nature type of thing, when in actual fact, it's probably due to more of like a mindset and how you see the world. So how you look at a problem like say contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, and look at yourself and think that you are the best person and well placed to make a difference in this problem, right? A lot of students will look at this problem and be like, that is beyond me. You know, there's people working in government, there's people working in private companies, etc, who are working on this problem. How does like a 12 or 13 year old Gitanjali Rao help in this situation? But you did. And you created Tethys, which is awesome. So what was your mindset at that time that enabled you to think that you were able to help in that situation?

Gitanjali Rao  05:45

Yeah, I think beyond anything, it was the idea of like, going into some sort of problem like this. It's basically like you were talking about that mindset of looking at the world in a different perspective than you normally would. Like, it's easy to just let the news play in the background. But I think it's another thing to try and pick up what's going on in society. So like, I heard about the water crisis in Flint, and it honestly kept me up. I think, just like knowing how many people were affected by that problem. And when something is that has an impact on your life more than anything, if no one else is going to do it, I realized that I needed to do something. And that didn't have to be through an innovative approach. It could have been through activism through raising my voice through other people to make it happen. But I chose to go that path. And I think that's the mindset you need to keep in mind when innovating and coming up with ideas or when even identifying a problem. It's the idea that what if I look at this from a different perspective, what if I pick it up, as you know, something that I can do instead of waiting for someone else to do it?

Podcast Host  06:45

Well, I am interested in your quote, actually, which we could probably bring back to this Tethys project that you worked on, which was and I got quoted a fair bit after your interview with Angelina Jolie, which was observe, brainstorm, research, building communicate, as like your process in how you approach these problems. And I think it's a really good way of thinking about things. And for students who are listening to the podcast, I think this is a really interesting way that you see a problem and you don't look at the entirety of the problem, you break it down into these steps. So can you perhaps take those steps and apply it to a project that you've done? It could be Tetris, but actually take us through, like, what was it that you observed? How did you brainstorm How did you razors? How did you build and how you communicate? understanding that this could be a long answer?

Gitanjali Rao  07:30

Yeah, so the idea of this whole process is actually something I developed, just by doing it over and over again. So the whole concept of observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate, it's always been this thing that I have, you know, stuck with, and I didn't know it at the time. But now I've basically been able to flesh it out into words. And I think that's the really exciting portion of it is, this is something that I have used, but more importantly, anyone can use. So this whole concept of this process that I've created, essentially just a prescriptive process towards innovation, it's my take on it. And I think that's really what differentiates it from our guests. Let's see what have we learned until the scientific process like the scientific method, it's like, come up with a hypothesis, test out your hypothesis, analyze your data and come up with a conclusion. If it doesn't work, do it again. And that's obviously so straightforward. And then we have the engineering design process, which is fairly similar, but it's more of like, I need to basically build something. And if that building thing doesn't work, then I need to tear it down and build it again. So the thing about innovation is it can really be taken in your own way, you can make innovation, whatever you want it to be. And that's really why I stuck with it. Knowing that I wouldn't get bored of it because of the different ways that I can innovate. So an innovation can take anywhere from what two days to three years, it just depends on how you want to spend your time and how you want to work your way through the process. So this process essentially just came about, by me doing it over and over and over again. And now I'm basically just sharing what worked for me with so many other people around the world.

Podcast Host  09:08

Well, it's good that you are sharing these lessons with a lot of other people. And I know that you've been a TED speaker and a lot of other things getting on the stage quite a lot and sharing your message. When you do get up on a stage. What do you think students? Like if you're talking to a high school audience? What do you want them to take away from your talks?

Gitanjali Rao  09:25

Yeah, I think the biggest thing is, anyone can do it. Yeah, I see that all the time. And people don't believe it. Like you were talking about how a lot of people think I was born like a freak of nature. And it's, I guarantee you I was not I like was basically like, I still am like every other kid out there. I just basically take that energy and passion that I have for the things I love to do and put it into the real world. And if you're doing great things for the world, that's all that matters. All this recognition. While it is fantastic for my own motivation, it's almost like a side effect that happens. And I think that that's what everyone needs to understand is that if you are doing great things in the world, if you are putting in the effort to do what you love, the secondary things will come automatically. Like my dad actually recently told me that, like, we were talking about it, we're like, oh, if this hadn't happened, this wouldn't have happened. Like, if I didn't win Kid of the Year, then I probably wouldn't be doing all these interviews now. And I think we both have to take a second and reflect and be like, well, if someone is doing real world, or real work for the world, they will be recognized in some sort of manner. And I think that that's just what I want to put out there to everyone. And hopefully, that's what people take away from my talks is if I can do it, and you can do it, anyone can do it. And I said that to Angelina... Jolie. I can't be on first name basis. That's so weird for me. But no, yeah, I did tell her that. And I think she felt moved by it. Because it's so true. Like, I'm basically just a kid doing what she loves. And I think it's so important to put it out there that I no, by all means am not a freak of nature. I am just a kid, like anyone else out there doing what, you know, creating an impact for the world.

Podcast Host  11:06

Yeah, that's a really great way of thinking about it. And I love that response. I have been thinking about that quote, though, in that mindset of if I can do it, anyone can do it. And my challenge to that one is then what is stopping a whole legion of Gitanjali Raos, you know, young innovators, etc. coming out into the world, I know, there's like, I mean, through just the Top of the Class podcast, I've met some amazing people. And I challenge anyone to have a more inspiring follow list on Twitter than I do. But it's interesting to kind of think if there's, you know, any kind of barrier or limitation that students are potentially experiencing, that is kind of stopping them or preventing them from unleashing their potential and unleashing their innovations on the world, whether that be a mindset, I think the common one being like, Oh, I'm just a student, what could I do maybe something else, or, you know, when I'm 20, or 30, I'll make a difference. Or it could be, you know, that idea that a lot of students are just saying, focusing on school, like getting a good score, and doing those kinds of things and staying within the limitations of the school curriculum. But yeah, I'd love to get your take on that in terms of like, what do you see is the common limitations that are stopping students from achieving at that kind of heights that you may have set and understanding that the heights that you said, are fairly dizzying heights?

Gitanjali Rao  12:23

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it's first important to address that the education system has stayed the same for what, like 50 years, and we haven't changed a thing about it until now, like the whole virtual aspect idea. But I think the thing that needs to change is the fact that we shouldn't be judged on our ability to get an A in math class, instead of should be our ability to solve problems use it for real world situations. So I do get that because I am a high school student. And I do want to get an A in the class while doing the things that I love. So I think the reason that's stopping all of these high school students is one, they don't know where to start. Second, they don't know if they can do it. At third, it's almost like I have to do the bare minimum for school, and then be done with it. And I get that feeling. And I know how hard it is to try and balance everything. So like to address all those problems. Why for not knowing where to start, that's exactly why I'm putting out this process for anyone to use, why I'm sharing my story is to show the importance that people can anyone can do it. Secondly, balance your time has always been a hard thing for me too. And I think it's the idea of being able to combine what you love to do with school. So I was recently doing an interview and something that I really liked that I said was, when you go to school, you don't say I learned math, or today I'm going to learn math, English, science, you know, history, art, music, whatever you say, I'm going to school. And I think it needs to be that same sort of concept as I am, you know, I'm innovating for better. And that could be using things you learn in school, like using that a in math class for something better. And that's just what people need to understand. And it's so hard to kind of pick that up as well. But and it was hard for me to pick that up. And it's still hard for me to pick that up. And then lastly, the idea of taking it beyond an assignment. I think like the idea for tennis actually started out as a science fair project, it started out as something I wanted to do for like, it was an idea I came up with. And I was like, Hmm, maybe I get submitted into this challenge. And you know, I did end up winning, and I like the young scientist challenge and things like that. But I realized that I didn't want to stop there. Like it motivated me to go further. But I think that's where people are finding that holting point is when you see you know, you have a solution, you have an idea, and you get it so far. And then you compete and you forget about the whole thing. I honestly say take it beyond a classroom assignment, take it beyond a science fair because you can't do so much more with it. So those are basically some of my ideas of why there aren't more of me out there. And I think we really need to clear that up. And whether that's the way switching up how the education system works or whether that's in a way, you're just putting out the message to anyone can do it, I think it does need to be changed. And it's a valid question that kids are still asking.

Podcast Host  15:12

Yeah, I can see that you are very passionate about this, which is awesome. I think it's that idea that the endpoint is the assignment grade, whereas like, maybe teachers instead of, you know, writing '''A" Great Job', they should be writing like '"A" Keep going, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next with this project', like giving students the option or giving students the the in to say, hey, look, you've done great on that project, keep working on it, you know, I'd love to see it continue and evolve. And not just over the course of say, a couple of weeks, which is what most science projects are at school, but over the course of a couple months, and maybe even a year or two, for a student really to play out the full story or the full potential of these projects. Which actually leads me to one of my other questions, in terms of like Tethys to these kinds of things. I know that you develop them within a fairly short frame of time, you know, it was only a couple of months, in some instances, I was chatting to the Google Science Fair winner from 2019 Fionn, who's lovely. And one of the things he said, which I thought was really interesting was that, surprisingly enough, if you're going to be an expert in a field, it doesn't take years and like a PhD to be an expert in that field. Sometimes it can take like a couple Google searches, reading Google Scholar, reading some articles watching some YouTube videos. And very quickly, you can be in the top like three or 4% of people in that field. Is that something you experienced? And if so, like, what are your shortcuts?

Gitanjali Rao  16:36

He's totally right. And I think that that's the important thing is the idea that we have almost made this reality that you can only be an expert, if you do like, you know, your four years of high school, and then four years of college and then a PhD, and then take up full time research and build, it's not true. And while you know, you probably do need that to master like all of biology, like say, for one specific topic that you want to use out there, a couple Google searches is all it takes, I actually have a whole chapter in my book about the idea of you don't need to know all the things in the world. Like when I was learning about nanotubes, sensor technology, I was at the time. And I was kind of scared at the beginning, because I did not want to memorize the periodic table. And I went and told my mentor who was talking to you at that time, like we have to memorize the periodic table. And she's like, no, for what why? Why would you need to do that. And I think that we that's what I've grown up with is understanding that if I need to master something, I need to know everything about it. So if you want to learn about nanotubes, sensor technology, learn about nanotubes, just everything you need to know about nanotubes don't learn anything beyond that I cannot recite the full periodic table by heart, but I can tell you everything there is to know about carbon nanotubes. And I think that that's what we need to put out there is you do not need years of school to be an expert in the field, and you do not need years of research to come up with an idea, you know, the bare minimum sometimes helps out the most.

Podcast Host  18:02

Yeah, exactly. And it kind of allows you to cut to the chase and say, you know, and then meet experts and kind of feel like you know what you're talking about, right. And I feel like there's probably that speed bump a lot of students faces, they feel like they know a topic, but they feel like they don't know enough yet to go out there and actually start approaching professors and that kind of thing. But I think a lot of students would probably surprise themselves like after, you know, a couple weeks of research that probably be able to hold a fairly sensible, you know, intelligent conversation with nurses in the field, just because they've gone deep into one particular topic, which is really good advice. Now I'm going to ask you some kind of practical questions, because I feel like this is an interesting side of young scientists in particular, what does your room look like? So I'm going to guess that you do a lot of like playing around with different experiments and ideas, etc. Do you have like books lying around? If so what books like you have a beaker lying around? I don't know. Like, can you give us a bit of a mental picture of what your room might look like?

Gitanjali Rao  18:55

Yeah, I mean, it's usually messy, because I'm kind of chaotic all the time. But um, it's, it looks like basically every other teenagers room by the LED strips and have one for Christmas, but it's fine. Um, but I think that the whole idea, it basically looks like every other teenager's room, but obviously there are like, all sorts of books in there. I'm an avid reader, but I think the books aren't exactly what you're thinking. There's like the whole Percy Jackson series and the Hero's Olympus series. And that's it, basically. And I think that that's such an exciting question too, because you would expect it to be more than that. But oh, I basically just like every other tanger term, because I am like every other teenager, and I feel a lot of my research on a computer. But most of the time that I spend working on my stuff is in the lab at the University of Colorado, Denver. So that's where my whole lab desk and table and stuff like that is but my room is fairly simple. There's not really much going on.

Podcast Host  19:53

That's okay. I mean, I think that's heartening to know that I think students if they thought well, I got to, you know, have a whole kind of lab set at home, while you've got the great situation of having a lab set at a university, what's it been like working at a university when you are 15 years old? 

Gitanjali Rao  20:09

Yeah, it's definitely a new new experience, just to. And it's almost humbling to because you go there and you realize, like, Whoa, these people know a lot. And I have learned so much over the past couple of years, I've been at the cell biology lab at MIT. And specifically, there's so much you can get out of every single person there. And whether it's like literally going down to grab lunch with someone, there's always something new to learn. I remember the expensive emails and forums that I had to sign just to get a 13 year old into the lab. But it has been so important guys getting into lab, the second thing was trying to get a key card into the lab, which another like two months. But I think the exciting thing is, I have the opportunity to do that. But I take advantage of it every second of the day. And I think, yeah, that's the biggest thing is I am so fortunate to have that opportunity. And I love working at that lot. And while it does benefit me in my project, I also spend a lot of time, you know, helping out at the lab, like running DNA gels, just, you know, doing the normal because there's always something to learn.

Podcast Host  21:17

Yeah, I'm not sure like doing DNA gels is like doing the normal, but maybe for not many 15 year olds, maybe it is for you. But that's very cool. That's great to hear. And what are some of the goals of TIME magazine's Kid of the Year?

Gitanjali Rao  21:30

I was telling someone the other day, I was like, I hope I haven't hit peak. Like, I'd be like, I don't know what could get better than the cover of TIME. But I think it's almost like a go with the flow situation. And I guess we'll just see what's in store for me in 2021. I guess the biggest thing is, I do want to keep coming up with ideas. whatever I'm doing, I want to keep innovating. I will obviously still be a high school student. I'll keep innovating, coming up with ideas, breaking up the lab, just to see where the world takes me.

Podcast Host  21:57

Yeah. And obviously, like University is something that is in the sights. And I'm sure like, I know, actually, you've been an avid reader of some of MIT's publications in the past, which is awesome. Which universities are you potentially aiming for?

Gitanjali Rao  22:11

Yeah. So there's a lot actually. And I do course, I'm still looking and I do change my mind a lot based on the different programs. But I think obviously, the bigger schools like MIT and Stanford are long shots for everyone. And I think, but I love their programs. And I love the campus as a whole. I've visited MIT a couple times, actually. And I love it there. And yeah, I'd love to go there one day, but I'm also really loving, like, local stuff like the Colorado School of Mines has a fantastic bio engineering program. And I've worked with a lot of people there as well, let's just see you better. Like I like it's fun for me to go in every day. And I could definitely see a future there is about I honestly don't know, I think it ranges a lot right now. And I do have a couple more years. So I'll probably just end up picking it out. But hopefully around this time next year, I'll have a closer idea.

Podcast Host  23:05

Well, who knows? I mean, Stanford, MIT, you can't go wrong with these kinds of schools. And I'm sure like the Colorado School of Mines, and a lot of these other great universities are fantastic as well. But for someone who's already done so much, and is like already working at labs, what value do you see in a college degree?

Gitanjali Rao  23:20

Yeah, I think so many things are important about higher education, I think it's just so hard to pick out. But the biggest thing about you know how higher education will involve is, I think, you have that opportunity to be able to do research full time while working on school. And that's the kind of lifestyle that I would love to live is using what I learn in class for real world experience. So like, I don't know, doing a unit on like genetics one day, like gene editing one and then going to the lab after class and, you know, trying it out. And I think that sounds so fun to me. But it also sounds so important for our future is being able to use what we learn in school for the real world. So I think that's the most important thing about higher education that prepares you to go out there and do whatever you're going to do after college.

Podcast Host  24:11

Fantastic. My last question for you, Gitanjali, is, what do you think the world or educational science will look like in 2050? 

Gitanjali Rao  24:19

Oh, in 2050, I know, that's definitely. It's so far out too. So it's kind of hard to think about. But hopefully, we basically sorted out the education idea like we're going for more problem based learning approach. And I think I definitely want to see education for everyone. I know we're really struggling with that right now, especially in third world countries. So I don't think education should have a price put to it. So hopefully, we see education widely distributed. And apart from that, I hope we're living in a much safer and cleaner world. Like, I guess just contamination of natural resources is the thing of the past. And of course, everyone is just looking together towards one common goal, because I think that's what we need right now is just people who are all passionate about making change coming together for something bigger.

Podcast Host  25:11

I love that. I love that. Well, Gitanjali it's been awesome to have you on the show. And thank you so much for sharing your insights. I know you got another interview to go to. And I know you've been doing some multitasking on the side there, which I'm very impressed by, by the way, it's been awesome having you on the show. And I really hope students connect with you on LinkedIn or Twitter or where could they find you?

Gitanjali Rao  25:31

Oh, yeah, so you can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram. Um, both my twitter and instagram are @gitanjaliarao. And my LinkedIn is just at Gitanjali Rao and you can come check me out there. And yeah, feel free to talk to me.

Podcast Host  25:46

Awesome. Well, thanks so much. It's been great to chat and enjoy the rest of your afternoon there in Colorado.

Gitanjali Rao  25:50

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Podcast Host  25:52

No worries. Talk to you again soon.