Gitanjali Rao is on a mission to break all stereotypes in the male-dominated STEM world. The 16-year-old TIME magazine’s ‘Kid of the Year’ and the Laureate of the Young Activists Summit at UN believes girls need to push their own boundaries to get ahead. A dash of kindness helps always, she also says.
Indian-American Rao is an inventor, author, scientist and engineer, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) promoter. From developing a device called Tethys that can send water quality information via Bluetooth, to developing an app, “Kindly”, that uses artificial intelligence to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, Gitanjali’s journey has been inspiring but not completely bump-free.
From breaking the glass ceiling to Covid-19’s impact in STEM, Rao talks to indianexpres.com.
How did you develop an interest in science?
I developed an interest in science by trying different things—whether it was art, writing or something else. I always tried to share whatever knowledge I acquired with others. At the age of 4, I remember playing the piano in assisted living centres or cancer hospitals with an aim to share what I know because my parents always told me that you need to give back time to the community.
Slowly, as I was introduced to more science concepts, there was an affinity for that and for trying different things. My uncle’s gift (a science kit at the age of four) probably enhanced my enthusiasm since there were so many things to do with the kit and I kept working on it one after the other.
You have several achievements in your kitty — America’s Top Young Scientist, Forbes 30 Under 30, TIME’s Young Innovator, TIME’s Kid of the Year, Health Pillar award and many more. How tough has it been navigating through a man-dominated world?
I believe recognitions follow hard work, and I see these recognitions to amplify the message of incorporating innovation in our curriculum. My mentors have been both, male and female, and they gave me the time and guidance required, which I believe every adult should do.
There were times when I was questioned on my ability, and it was an unconscious behaviour from society. In a group setting, if I mention soldering wires or pulling apart the Wi-Fi or configuring the LAN or simplifying the layout of the network, there is usually a surprised stare with words such as, “Can you do it?” or “Why do you want to solder a wire when the boys are around?”
While none of this is intentional or hurtful, it is just that our society expects some of us to work on certain things and it is in the power of every girl child to change that thought process. While I had a lot of support when needed and I could navigate the male-dominated world with the support, there was a need and requirement to prove again and again that we can do it too.
Do you think there are better opportunities for girls and women in STEM in Western countries, in comparison to India?
I believe the opportunities available are pretty much at par everywhere. Where it differs is the ability to retain them in the areas of STEM. We have multiple reasons why girls and women do not stay in the field of STEM such as wage gap, flexibility, biased roles and many others.
A 3M state of science Index survey in India showed that 83 per cent acknowledge that underrepresented minority groups often do not receive equal access to STEM education. Corporations and schools can play a huge role in encouraging diversity and removing barriers. Solutions of tomorrow need diversity.
From the early 2000s to now, has there been any improvement in opening up more opportunities for girls and women in STEM? Do you think the future will be more hopeful?
I believe the trust in science has overall increased with the pandemic. Children, youth and adults all over the world are seeing science, scientists and research as important for our future — whether it is to fight another pandemic or our sustainability. I am very hopeful for our future, and I see the trend to support more diversity.
More and more organisations are supporting STEM careers, but we still have a long way to go. We need to understand that introducing STEM fields to girls cannot work the same way as we introduce these to boys. To add to it, STEM is not just coding and robotics.
The combination of an interdisciplinary approach to solve problems and its practical applications in society inspires a girl when they see the connections. We can always combine this with art and creativity when introducing STEM.
What worked for me is that I was introduced to many concepts, and I grew up with a mindset that a chemist can be a computer engineer and a biologist can be a 3D designer or a computer engineer can be a geneticist.
Has Covid-19 pushed back the opportunities that were opening up for girls and women in STEM?
Covid pushed back more career opportunities and education in classrooms in general, and as a result, STEM got impacted. However, with the pandemic, we were able to reach remote areas of the world within minutes, and it is a norm now. Virtual internships, remote mentoring and connections to experts have opened tremendously. So, each one of us should use that opportunity to gain knowledge and make the best use of it.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, what is your advice to the girls and women who are hoping to make a name for themselves in STEM?
My only advice for all of us will be to take risks and work towards solutions with empathy at its core. If we look around, we have many problems to solve and we have the talent. We can alleviate the problems in society with whatever talent we have and the only person who is stopping us from doing that is us ourselves. If you need to improve, compare yourself with the previous you.