15-Year-Old Gitanjali Rao is a Genius. But Do We Really Need a “Kid of the Year”?

Social Commentary

15-Year-Old Gitanjali Rao is a Genius. But Do We Really Need a “Kid of the Year”?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year is a prestigious and much-awaited yearly announcement. In a refreshing addition, the magazine has now decided to also feature children who will shape the future. Fifteen-year-old Indian-American “scientist and inventor” Gitanjali Rao is TIME’s first-ever “Kid of the Year”.

Rao, a resident of Colorado, was selected from a field of over 5,000 nominees for her “astonishing work using technology to tackle issues ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addiction and cyberbullying”. She made it to the cover of the magazine, wearing a white lab coat and sneakers, with multiple medals hanging from her neck.

In an interview with Angelina Jolie for the magazine, the teen stated that her passion for science derives from wanting to put a smile on someone’s face. “That was my everyday goal, just to make someone happy. And it soon turned into, how can we bring positivity and community to the place we live? And then when I was in second or third grade, I started thinking about how can we use science and technology to create social change,” she said.

Rao’s latest innovation is Kindly, an app and a Chrome ­extension which uses machine- learning technology to detect early traces of cyberbullying. “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. 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,” she explained.

Rao is currently working on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water. She hopes for it to be an inexpensive and accurate way for people in Third World countries to be able to identify what’s in their water. “There are problems that we did not create but that we now have to solve, like climate change and cyberbullying with the introduction of technology,” she stated.

During the interview, Rao also pointed out that she doesn’t look like your “typical scientist” on TV. “Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist. It’s weird to me that it was almost like people had assigned roles, regarding like their gender, their age, the colour of their skin,” she said.

“Even over video chat, her brilliant mind and generous spirit shone through, along with her inspiring message to other young people: don’t try to fix every problem, just focus on one that excites you,” TIME wrote about her. The teenager is all everyone can talk about on social media today.

However, the decision by TIME has also been criticised by some, for setting unrealistic expectations from children – Rao was selected from a field of more than 5,000 nominees. Kids, especially in the Indian-American community are pushed hard to succeed from a young age and this could just amplify the “Sharma ji ka beta” syndrome.

While TIME’s decision can be debated, there is no taking away from Gitanjali’s passion for science, and the real social change that she is bringing about in the world. And that is worth celebrating.