FIU Students Chat With TIME 2020 Kid of the Year

Gitanjali Rao speaks with Michael Hearon about her accomplishments during FIU’s Fireside Chat.

Jesse Fraga / Asst. News Director

Science and technology can be used as a catalyst for social change, said 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, who was named TIME Magazine’s 2020 Kid of the Year.

FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg along with several Miami-Dade County Public School officials including superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho commended Rao yesterday Mar. 17, for her contributions to science.

“It’s wonderful to be able to welcome all of you today in what promises to be just a very splendid engagement of young and inspiring minds… who have already begun to change the world to make it a better place,” said Rosenberg.

Some of her recent research aims to solve early detection of lead in drinking water, cyberbullying and opioid addiction.

Rao spoke on how girls her age studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can overcome setbacks as young innovators from ethnically marginalized communities.

She discussed the challenges she faced as a young Indian-American, encouraging others who come from underrepresented communities to pursue careers in science and technology. Many adults doubted her abilities and knowledge, studying what takes many people years to learn.

Despite these challenges, Rao is also one of the leading figures in citizen science, or “voluntary involvement of the public in scientific research,” as defined by the National Park Service.

“This idea [of citizen science]… needs to be understood by the public as a whole, regardless of age, zip code [or] socioeconomic status,” said Hearon, assistant vice president of FIU’s Regional & World Locations. “The clearest image of that that I have is embodied by Ms. Rao and her work.”

The event, hosted by Hearon, held hundreds of FIU and Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy students, being the only Florida high school that partners with a public university.

Rao said she felt problem solving was always in her nature.

“This idea of wanting to act on a problem has always been intuitive,” said Rao. “If I saw a problem on the news… I couldn’t wait around. It felt like if nobody else is going to do it, I had to take that first step.”

Rao, who currently lives in Lone Tree, Colorado, attended the virtual event and spoke on how she tries to solve day-to-day issues, such as snow ruts back at home.

Midway through the event, she saw a car outside her window stuck in the snow. Hearon asked if these snow ruts are an everyday issue she tries to address.

“Yeah, no matter how small, I’m constantly innovating and coming up with ideas like that,” she responded. “That’s what makes every day so fun.”

Rao addressed weather problems such as sea level rise and hurricanes, specifically in South Florida.

The growing issue of flooding, caused by climate change, is more than doubling the risk of storm surges by 2030, according to Climate Central, a U.S. nonprofit studying climate change.

Audience members, including FIU freshman and biology major Hannan Shabaan, submitted live questions through the Q&A Zoom feature. Shabaan asked how to motivate younger generations to create solutions for sea-level rise in South Florida.

Rao recommended sticking to what you know.

“Use your own talents to solve [these issues],” she said. “Not all problems can be solved by science and technology. All [studies] can be used as avenues to make a difference in society.”

While her main research focus is science, she is also interested in activism and art.

“All of that feeds into this main idea of solving problems in society, and making an impact,” said Rao.

She explained how growing up, her family would pressure her to become something she was not. After years of playing soccer, ice skating and cooking, Rao realized she needed to follow her own passion, rather than what others expected of her.

“What started off as creating simple solutions for simple problems, turned into my driving force,” said Rao. “It was just an idea of bridging the gap between creating a baking soda and vinegar volcano, to using the context there to solve the world’s problems.”

However, her young age made it difficult to get to this point as a young scientist and innovator.

Audience member and MAST Academy sophomore Benalex Rabara pointed out how ideas and goals are taken less seriously as a child. He asked how she was able to overcome this challenge.

“I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you’re doing good things for the world, recognition will follow,” said Rao. “Communicate clearly based on the audience, and have a positive, optimistic attitude towards the work you’re doing.”

Rao explained how some adults doubted her abilities growing up due to her gender, age and ethnicity. However, she said that these should not be obstacles in achieving what she has done, as long as you have a passion.

With a focus in science and technology. Rao questioned why coding is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about women in STEM.

Less than one third of the world’s STEM majors are women, with computer science in the lead, according to the World Economic Forum in 2020.

Rao believes cultural diversity and collaboration should be the driving force in diversifying women’s focuses in STEM.

“Imagine the potential of… bigger organizations [donating] their time and effort to third-world countries,” said Rao. “Those are the partnerships that need to be made.”

She worries that financially underprivileged students are not given access to equal opportunities in education.

Approximately 132 million girls are out of school worldwide due to poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence, according to the United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF). 

Rao added building these relationships between international students is the number one solution to creating future leaders.

“Seeing people who look just like you changes everything,” she said. “If these opportunities are provided to more girls, specifically to underrepresented groups, people can pick and choose [their study focus].”

Rao’s closing remarks emphasized how every conversation is a learning opportunity to move forward.

“As a 15-year-old… it still is terrifying hopping onto a call with a new person,” she said. “But I have realized that mentorship isn’t one-sided… and we’re all learning from each other.”

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