By Arré Bench Dec. 04, 2020
Fifteen-year-old Indian-American “scientist and inventor” Gitanjali Rao is TIME’s first-ever “Kid of the Year”. Rao’s genius needs to be applauded, but does the magazine’s decision to scrutinise young talent put unnecessary pressure on children?
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”.
— TIME (@TIME) December 3, 2020
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.
.@TIME named first-ever Kid of the Year: 15yo scientist + inventor Gitanjali Rao
“Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist… I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it” https://t.co/lEYXnIE2ux pic.twitter.com/X4Bo5h3RJ8
— Kerry Flynn 🐶 (@kerrymflynn) December 3, 2020
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.
Gitanajali Rao became first ever Time kid of the year. As a scientist & inventor. She invented a mobile device to test for lead in drinking water. The right purpose of technology is to solve people’s problems. She rightly did that. Many wishes. pic.twitter.com/80KzuLh9wb
— Parveen Kaswan, IFS (@ParveenKaswan) December 4, 2020
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.
At 15, your drive and innovation is an inspiration. When we met in 2018, I knew you would go far. I look forward to celebrating everything you will accomplish in the years ahead. https://t.co/Aw7odtvUGJ pic.twitter.com/se1cXK1IrN
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) December 4, 2020
— Barbie (@Barbie) December 3, 2020
Some of Gitanjali's recent projects include building an AI-powered app to prevent cyberbullying and using gene therapy to detect water contamination.
Oh, and baking eggless, flourless, sugarless cookies. A true innovator 👏🏾 https://t.co/t6LxXBZ0YR
— Malala Fund (@MalalaFund) December 3, 2020
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.
Props to the child, but WTF, @TIME? Let the kids be. Don’t add one more entry to the humongous list of aspirations their parents have. For every Kid of the Year, there will be many who wouldn’t be one. Imagine the parental expectations and the unleashed trauma!
Don’t. Please. https://t.co/BWcVzsWyPU
— Vaibhav Vishal (@ofnosurnamefame) December 4, 2020
TIME doesn’t know what this is going to do to Indian parents everywhere. 😞 https://t.co/rz7CeBOUwO
— Sriram Krishnan (@sriramk) December 3, 2020
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.