Pioneering Women

11-year-old Gitanjali Rao Just Won $25,000 for Her Lead-detecting Invention

Not sure about you, but when we were kid, the most science we knew was the made-up gobbledygook that makes the starship Enterprise go. But 11-year-old Gitanjali Rao has a more practical grasp of science and technology than we probably ever will — and that just earned her $25,000.

Leading the Way to a Lead-Free Future

Gitanjali won the 2017 Young Scientist Lab challenge, and that means that not only did her project just win a nice chunk of change, but she has also been paired with research specialist Dr. Kathleen Shafer to develop her idea further. That idea? A fast and cheap way to test water for lead, since current methods are slow, expensive, and/or unreliable.

Her inspiration for the project was the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but the seventh-grader from Lone Tree, Colorado, had personal experiences with lead testing as well. Current methods for testing water for lead are limited to testing with lead strips, which aren't particularly reliable, or sending water to the EPA for testing, which can be expensive and costly. "The idea just came to me when I saw my parents testing for lead in our water," she told Business Insider. "I went, 'Well, this is not a reliable process and I've got to do something to change this.'"

Called Tethys, after the Greek goddess of fresh water, Gitanjali's project uses carbon nanotubes that are sensitive to the electric current flow. Treating the tubes with atoms that have an affinity for lead adds measurable resistance to the current. Then it's just a matter of sending that measurement to, what else, an app that you download on your smartphone. You can get an answer in a matter of seconds, and that could save a lot of lives in the long run.

Brillianter by the Day

Of course, Gitanjali was only the most recently crowned "America's Top Young Scientist" — since starting in 2012, the contest by Discovery Education's Young Scientist Lab has produced an inspiring parade of youngsters ready to change the world. Like Gitanjali, 2012 winner Deepika Kurup was concerned with cleaner water; her project was a solar-powered water purification system. In 2013, Peyton Robertson created a sandbag that could stand up to salt water flooding. The years between have been a hat-trick of environment-friendly projects with Sahil Doshi pollution-powered battery cell in 2014, Hannah Herbst's ocean-based power generator in 2015, and Maanasa Mendu's wind power upgrade in 2016. With these kids in charge, we're actually feeling pretty good about the future.

Gitanjali Rao's "Tethys" in Her Own Words

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 29, 2017

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