Gitanjali Rao, 15, of Lone Pine, was chosen from a field of more than 5,000 nominees to earn the 2020 honor, the magazine reported. The field was narrowed to five finalists before a committee of kids made the final choice, along with comedian Trevor Noah, according to NPR.
“I was beyond surprised,” Rao told The Denver Post in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “Just the idea … it’s something you dream about, but something you don’t expect at all.”
Rao, in a Zoom interview with actress and activist Angelina Jolie, discussed several topics, including water pollution, opioid addiction and an app she created to combat cyberbullying.
“She is super cool,” Rao said of Jolie, according to the Post. “Her activism is beyond inspiring.”
Rao was named last year to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, according to NPR. In 2017, Gitanjali earned the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” while attending the seventh grade at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the Post reported. She won the award for her invention of a device she called Tethys, named for the Greek goddess of fresh water. Rao told the newspaper she entered the project into the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge to try to find a solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Tethys uses carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead in water, NPR reported.
“Everyone should know what is in their water and everyone should have access to clean water,” Rao told the Post.
“I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar,” Rao told the magazine. “You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is. The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.”
Each of the finalists will get a cash prize from Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, and will appear with Noah on a TV special on Friday.
The other finalists, who are also profiled in the Time article, are Tyler Gordon, 14, of San Jose, California; Jordan Reeves, 14, of Columbia, Missouri; Bellen Woodard, 10, of Leesburg, Virginia; and Ian McKenna, 16, of Austin, Texas.
Rao said her message to other young people was not to attempt to fix every problem, but focus on the one that excites.
“If I can do it,” Rao said, “anybody can do it.”
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