Gitanjali Rao is working in a lab. Her black hair is in a ponytail and she is wearing a white lab coat, safety glasses and teal rubber gloves.

Gitanjali Rao: Young inventor

The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Gitanjali Rao to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.  

#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?

Gitanjali Rao: There are several problems that affect us in our communities today. For example, poor water quality, especially lead contamination is a growing problem. Each one of us has the right to know our water quality, and my aim is to provide a device in everyone’s hands so they know what they are drinking. Lead in water is a serious condition and with my invention I hope to detect lead contamination faster and cheaper than today’s techniques.

Similarly, prescription opioid addiction is turning into a national crisis. Today there are no fast and easy techniques for physicians and individuals to diagnose the onset of addiction. I am currently researching options using the latest developments in Genomics and Genetic engineering, to develop a portable kit that can diagnose addiction early.

#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?

GR: When I was recognized by Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist as America’s top young scientist in 2017, I realized that there is scope for the innovation and that bringing awareness of our water quality is equally important along with the innovation.

#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?

GR: Initially, finding a safe lab was a constraint, but with more and more persistence, I was able to test it, component-wise, in safe labs. Knowledge of carbon nanotubes and finding a manufacturer to provide me the nanotubes as per my specifications was my second biggest challenge. Fortunately, we were able to find somebody who supported and helped me. My 3M scientist mentor, Dr. Shaffer, and my current mentor Dr. Selene Hernande-Ruiz, both believed in me and hence I was able to continue my research and can still keep working on it.

#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?

GR: Our generation is growing up in a world with problems such as cyberbullying, climate change and contamination of resources that have never existed before. I don’t think we have an option but to look at problems and take action now.

#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?

GR: Observe problems around you and try to solve if they’re basic. It need not be through science. It could be through art, write an article, organized activity and anything that you are comfortable with. None of this needs a real big budget, just our determination. I would advise to start small and mentor others in whatever they want to learn and pursue with whatever talent you have. If you like to build and you like 3D designing, mentor younger students and show it to them. Because the jobs of tomorrow are going to be different from today and we all need to be ready.

#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?

GR: Attracting more women in STEM workforce will maximize creativity. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time. When women are not involved, experiences, needs, opinions, and desires that are unique to women, may be overlooked in the solutions that we come up with.

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Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.