Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.

By Shalayne Pulia
Apr 04, 2019 @ 3:00 pm
Rachel Murray/Getty Images

Gitanjali Rao estimates that she’s been interested in science and innovation since she was about 3- or 4-years-old. Barely a decade later, she's made a name for herself on a global stage for developing a small, portable device that detects lead in drinking water, for which she earned the title of American’s Top Young Scientist at age 11.

Rao says she was inspired by the Flint, Michigan water crisis that has been making headlines since 2014, when the city changed its drinking-water sources from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River in an effort to save money. The crisis continues today as dangerously elevated blood lead levels, among other illnesses, are being found among adults and children who live there. Rao, who says she’s determined to do hands-on work that solves real-world problems, decided to jump into action.

It wasn’t always easy — gathering enough supplies and finding mentors willing to support a young scientist with big ideas proved tricky. But she persevered. And now, she’s working with other scientists in the water industry to further develop her device, make it more accurate and easier to use so that it can eventually make it to market. “I want my device to be in every household or any place that uses water for consumption or as a resource,” she says.

Rao’s determination and successes have already landed the now 13-year-old on Forbes’s 2019 30 under 30 list and has garnered attention from A-listers like Tory Burch, who invited the scientist to speak at her recent International Women’s Day #EmbraceAmbition event series last month, and even Jimmy Fallon, who had Rao on his late-night show as a guest.

“I want people to know that in general If you have an idea, go for it and have fun,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to fail, because that’s just another step toward success.”

WATCH: Gitanjali Rao's Tedx Talk on Problem Solving and Innovation

What led to lead: “It was just appalling to me to see how many adults and even kids my age were affected by lead in drinking water,” Rao says of her motive for developing her device. “Putting myself in their shoes made it seem really scary to me. Tomorrow’s on us. We need to take care of our water.”

Role model ladies: Rao aims high. It’s only natural that her scientist role model is one of the very best: Marie Curie, a physicist and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win twice. “[She had] the courage to put others before herself,” Rao says. “I think that that's an example of a true passionate person.”

Proudest moments: Rao says seeing her idea through to fruition has been the most rewarding experience of her work so far. “I've learned to come up with and brainstorm ideas, and with skills like coding and 3D printing, I can make them come to life,” she says. “I think that's something that I'm most proud of over the years.”

Underage obstacles: Trying to change the world as a pre-teen has its challenges. Rao remembers struggling to convince potential mentors that her work was worthwhile. “A 12-year-old emailing a college professor seems very absurd, so most people are like we just don't have the time for it we're sorry,” she admits. “So, it was really difficult to understand more about these topics that I was really looking forward to learning about.”

But not much can stand in Rao’s way. “In the beginning I was very hesitant about doing this project since it’s really difficult to get a hold of carbon nanotubes and huge lead molecules and things like that,” she says. “But I think that first of all not being afraid to ask for help and guidance, and then finding out that if I just have the right resources then I can actually make this come to life through all my hard work [made me realize] what I’m capable of if I put my mind to it.”  

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Genius off-duty: When Rao's not in the lab, you can usually find her swimming, fencing, playing piano, or baking. “Our family travels a lot, so we like to bake treats from around the world,” she says, adding that coconut macaroons have been a personal favorite.  

Woman on a mission: Rao doesn’t often think about being a woman or a woman of color when she’s in the lab. For her, it’s all about the work and pushing to succeed. “When I got to a recent stem lab that I wanted to join, it was me and seven other boys. My instant reaction was, ‘I don't belong here, this is not where I'm supposed to be,’” she says. “There's always been road blocks in my path telling me to not do science, that it's not meant for me. This is a boy’s thing, or things like that. But after one lesson, my whole perspective changed. I realized this is what I like to do, and it doesn't matter what others think of me.”

Up next: Rao has her sights set on studying at MIT to become a geneticist. “I want to go into genetics working on gene editing,” she says, excited at the prospect. “It's such an interesting property that there can be switches in your body which turn on and off. There’s like a world endless with possibilities, and I think that's something I'm really interested in.”

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