At just 11 years old, this girl has already claimed top prize at this year’s Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and was named America’s top young scientist for her potentially life-saving, ingenious invention.
Gitanjali Rao, 11, from Lone Tree, Colorado, came up with the idea for a cost-effective sensor that can detect lead levels in water more efficiently after learning about the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
In 2014, the drinking water in Flint became contaminated with lead, which was eventually linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and resulted in at least 12 deaths. Additionally, dangerously high levels of lead were found in local children.
“I was appalled by the number of people affected by lead contamination in water,” Gitanjali told ABC News.
“And if somebody drinks lead in their water, their children might have small, minor defects,” she told Business Insider.
Flint wasn’t the only place in America with water contamination issues; over 5,300 water systems in the United States are in violation of the EPA’s lead and copper rule, according to CNN.
Gitanjali came up with the idea when she saw the way her parents tested lead levels in their water, which wasn’t reliable. “I’ve got to do something to change this,” she said.
Previously, testing lead levels in water was done either by using paper strips—a fast yet not entirely accurate method—or sending water samples to an Environmental Protection Agency office for testing, which is time-consuming.
While browsing the website of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the seventh-grade student came across an article about utilizing new technologies to detect hazardous substances.
That’s when Gitanjali came up with a solution.
She designed a portable device comprising of a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotubes that can be dipped into the water to detect the presence of lead.
The device also has an arduino-based signal processor that can be linked to a mobile app, which then quickly delivers an accurate analysis of the tested water.
After numerous failed experiments, Gitanjali finally finished her lead-detection device, named Tethys after the Greek Goddess of fresh water, after five months.
“I knew all these failures, which were learning experiences, would make my experiment better,” she said.
Throughout the process, she received assistance from her parents, Bharathi and Ram Rao, both of whom are engineers, as well as from her teachers and experts at local colleges.
All her hard work paid off in the end!
On Oct. 17, Gitanjali’s invention garnered the top prize at the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, beating nine other finalists. She was awarded $25,000 for the achievement.
“It’s not hyperbole to say she really blew us out of the water,” said Dr. Brian Barnhart, one of the 3M judges and an Illinois school superintendent.
Gitanjali hopes to further refine her device so that it can be available to the public.
When she grows up, she wants to be either a geneticist or epidemiologist. She also hopes to continue her aspiration “to save lives and make the world a better place.”
What a remarkable young lady!