LONE TREE, Colo. — A 15-year-old Colorado high school student and young scientist who has used artificial intelligence and created apps to tackle contaminated drinking water, cyberbullying, opioid addiction and other social problems has been named Time Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year.”
Gitanjali Rao, a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver who lives in the city of Lone Tree, was selected from more than 5,000 nominees in a process that culminated with a finalists’ committee of children, Time for Kids reporters and comedian Trevor Noah.
Time said in a statement that, along with Nickelodeon, it wanted to recognize “the rising leaders of America’s youngest generation” in making the award. For 92 years, Time has presented a “Person of the Year,” and the youngest ever was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was 16 when she graced the magazine’s cover last year.
Time said Rao stood out for creating a global community of young innovators and inspiring them to pursue their goals — and that starting with small innovations doesn’t matter.
“If I can do it,’ she said, “anybody can do it.”
She told actress, activist and Time contributing editor Angelina Jolie in a Zoom interview that her science pursuits started early as a way to improve social conditions. The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, inspired her work to develop a way to detect contaminants and send those results to a mobile phone, she said.
“I was like 10 when I told my parents that I wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab, and my mom was like, “A what?” Rao told Jolie. She said that work “is going to be in our generation’s hands pretty soon. So if no one else is gonna do it, I’m gonna do it.”
The sensor technology involves molecules of carbon atoms that can detect chemical changes, including chemicals in water.
Rao said she also created an app called Kindly that uses artificial intelligence to help prevent cyberbullying. It allows teens to type in a word or phrase to find out if the words they’re using are bullying and lets them decide to edit what they’re sending or to proceed.
Rao has partnered with rural schools; museums; science, technology, engineering and mathematics organizations; and other institutions to run innovation workshops for other students.
“I really hope the work that all of these kids are doing identifies innovation as a necessity and not something that’s a choice anymore,” she told Jolie. “I hope I can be a small part of that.”
Time planned a Kid of the Year broadcast special at 7:30 p.m. EST (5:30 p.m. MST) on Nickelodeon.