She’s 15 years old, but Gitanjali Rao’s understanding of science and list of achievements belie her age. A resident of Denver, USA, she was recently awarded the maiden title of Kid of the Year by TIME magazine. Gitanjali Rao has harnessed technology to tackle issues such as contamination in drinking water, opioid addiction and cyber-bullying. And we’re not kidding when we say that Gitanjali has mentored 30,000 other students, creating a community of young innovators. Nina Davuluri too works on a community level, fighting colourism with her documentary and campaigns, such as #SeeMyComplexion. ELLE got together these two breakout POC stars, and the result is this engaging interview:
Nina Davuluri: First off, I’m so impressed by how you’re managing to find a balance between school and interviews! How has the pandemic impacted you, and how are you finding a new groove?
Gitanjali Rao: It’s definitely different because it’ll be like classes with interviews in between on Zoom, but it’s fun nonetheless. It’s always a new adventure that is exciting every day because I get to meet cool people from everywhere around the world!
ND: How did you get started on the work you’re doing?
GR: I honestly got involved in science and technology when I was very young – like four or five. It was mainly because it was something I’d love to do. My uncle got me this science kit that I had fun with basically every day, and it’s just something I just grew up with. It was almost instinctual that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to come up with ideas and create my own experiments. And soon that translated into how can I use science for a positive change, so that’s really what I do every day.
ND: I really resonated with the Kindly app that you built, to help teenagers with cyber-bullying. It’s sadly become a serious issue that’s so common now, especially with social media. How did you get started on this?
GR: Colorado, where I live, actually has the highest rate of teen suicides (in the USA) and most of them are due to cyber-bullying. Something like that, so close to your hometown is definitely scary. And if you dive deeper, it’s everywhere. Anyone is vulnerable, and I think that’s what makes it such a widespread problem—that anybody can do it, and anybody can be cyber-bullied. I looked towards a way that wouldn’t be focused on punishment, but one that allows teenagers to be aware of what they’re saying.
ND: Was there a moment that you experienced yourself that led you to this?
GR: I’ve moved to seven different schools in 10 years. So there’s not really one moment that I can pick out because it was a combination of a lot of different elements. There were people who put me down for a long time, and there were things that I found hurtful.
ND: Was it in relation to being South Asian or your identity?
GR: It was everything. Everything from how old I was, to my favourite colour, my favourite subject in school (which was science at the time), being South Asian, and being the new student as a whole. There have been attacks from every angle, regarding every part of me, and that’s what makes it even more frustrating because it’s true. But if you look back on it, it’s because they were insecure about themselves and they started to take it out on someone else. And that’s the only reason cyber-bullying happens. So I wanted to create something that you can learn from and reflect with.
ND: I can understand that. Once I started accepting my identity and staying true to who I was, I found so much more success. As someone who can relate to being the first in their field, do you feel there’s a lot of pressure on you?
GR: I like to say that there is a layer of responsibility. I’m the face of Generation Z, which is so exciting. But then I’m also up there representing all the girls, all the young innovators, all the South Asians who are looking to come up with ideas or just go after their passions. That makes me more excited to be me and embrace who I am as a person. I do feel that responsibility, but I’m willing to accept that responsibility, and if I continue doing what I love, then I can fulfil that responsibility.
ND: What do you think the crisis has shown us as a community, and how do you imagine the world to look like post-COVID-19?
GR: It’s obviously so heartbreaking that so many people were impacted with the COVID-19 pandemic, but I think more than ever, we have to look at the silver lining on the cloud. It honestly blew up my ideas and made everything so much more exciting for me. I have much more time to do the stuff I love at home, and I was able to triple my numbers of students that are impacted because I had never really thought of using a virtual platform like Zoom for a workshop, which is kind of crazy to me now that I think of that we could’ve been doing this a long time ago.
I definitely want to see the world taking advantage of these huge strides we’ve made in technology. We’ll probably start looking at how we can prevent future pandemics, and how we can develop the education system, so it’s not the same as it has been for 50 years. I think that we should take advantage of this time period that we’ve had to grow as a community, but I also really want to see us stick together towards one cause. Because that’s really what COVID-19 brought us—we all wanted out of this, so we all came together to make a difference. I think that’s what made this year so exciting for me personally because everyone is supporting everyone’s dreams.
Photographs: Getty Images