Gitanjali Rao, a 16-year-old STEM School Highlands Ranch student, is among the top 50 finalists for the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2022. The prize awards $100,000 to the student making the greatest positive impact on their peers and society.
Rao’s interest in STEM began at the age of 4 when her uncle gifted her a science kit. She has always been interested in innovation and “using science for kindness.”
Her most notable accomplishments include earning a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30—a list created by Forbes magazine recognizing 30 game changers under the age of 30 in 20 different industries — in 2019 for creating a lead detection device called Tethys to recognize lead in drinking water. She also created a tool for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction and launched an anti-bullying app in partnership with UNICEF.
Rao’s research aims to help the people she cares about and beyond to make the world a better place.
“So for me, personally, I heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and then one of my friends got into a car accident and ended up getting addicted to opioids,” said Rao. “Beyond that, cyberbullying is something I went through, and a lot of my other friends went through as well, and so it’s always these things that are either personal experiences or ones that I form connections with.”
Rao also published a book in March 2021 called “A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM.” It details the steps from identifying problems to developing solutions in a more modern way. Some problems occurring now never existed before, so Rao argues for a new approach to innovation.
“It’s really a methodological way of how to go about the innovation process and really [move away from] what we think is normal and break it down into five steps for anyone to take their idea from a problem to a solution because it’s really easy to get lost somewhere in the process,” said Rao.
Recently, she worked on lung tumor research and easier drug delivery methods. Rao said her current research focuses on the optimization of gene sequencing technology. She wants to figure out how to create vaccines for diseases like COVID-19 with faster turnaround.
She is currently completing a summer program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to further her research and interact with other like-minded students.
“She’s hard to quantify because she’s so unique in her worldview,” said Dr. Penny Euker, the former executive director of STEM School Highlands Ranch. “I think what sets her apart is she’s always scanning her environment and people around the world on what she could create, on what she could invent to improve lives.” Euker said Rao has a “restless mind” and she admires her optimism and resilience in tackling global issues.
Rao said her support system has been a crucial part of her ability to turn her ideas into reality.
“My best friends back home, since day one, have been everything and more to me to kind of lift me up, but also humble me when needed,” said Rao. Her family also supports her in any way they can.
However, the scientific community isn’t always as welcoming and supportive.
“Many times, I feel I’m the only girl in the room, more importantly, the only girl of color in the room, and the biggest thing I’ve had to remember is you can’t change what other people say about you, but you can change what you say about yourself,” said Rao. “At the end of the day, by being the only girl in the lab, I’m setting that up for anybody else who comes along after me because one day there’s no longer going to be a stereotype of women in STEM. It’s just going to be people in STEM.”
The top 10 finalists for the Global Student Prize will be announced in late August.
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