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 the UN believes girls need to push their own limits to get ahead. A touch of kindness always helps, she also says.
Indian-American Rao is an inventor, author, scientist and engineer, and promoter of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From developing a device called Tethys that can transmit water quality information via Bluetooth to developing an app, “Kindly”, which uses artificial intelligence to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, Gitanjali’s journey has been inspiring but not entirely without its bumps. .
From breaking the glass ceiling to the impact of Covid-19 in STEM, Rao talks to indianexpres.com.
How did you become interested in science?
I developed an interest in science by trying different things – be it art, writing or anything else. I have always tried to share the knowledge I gained with others. I remember playing the piano at 4 years old in residential care centers or cancer hospitals with the aim of sharing what I know, because my parents always told me that you have to give time back to the community.
Gradually, as I became acquainted with more scientific concepts, an affinity developed for them and for trying out different things. My uncle’s gift (a science kit when I was four) probably heightened my enthusiasm as there were so many things to do with the kit and I kept working on it one after the other.
Your cat has several achievements – 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 difficult is it to navigate a human-dominated world?
I believe that recognitions are the result of hard work, and I see these recognitions reinforcing the message to include innovation in our curriculum. My mentors were both men and women, and they gave me the time and guidance I needed, which I believe every adult should do.
There were times when I was questioned about my ability, and it was an unconscious behavior of society. When I talk in a group about soldering wires or taking WiFi apart or configuring the LAN or simplifying the layout of the network, there is usually a puzzled look with words like, “Can you do it?” or “Why do you want to solder a wire when the guys are around?”
While none of this is intentional or hurtful, our society just expects some of us to work on certain things and it’s in every girl’s power to change that thought process. While I had plenty of support when I needed it and I was able to navigate the male-dominated world with the support, there was a need and requirement to prove time and time again that we can do it too.
Do you think there are better opportunities for girls and women in STEM in western countries, compared to India?
I believe the available options are about the same everywhere. Where it differs is the ability to maintain them in the STEM field. We have multiple reasons why girls and women don’t stay in the STEM field, such as pay gap, flexibility, biased roles, and many others.
A survey by the 3M State of Science Index in India found that 83 percent acknowledge that underrepresented minority groups often do not receive equal access to STEM education. Companies and schools can play a major role in promoting diversity and removing barriers. Tomorrow’s solutions 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 that trust in science has generally increased with the pandemic. Children, young people and adults around the world regard science, scientists and research as important for our future – whether it’s fighting a new pandemic or our sustainability. I have great hopes for our future and I see the trend to support more diversity.
More and more organizations are supporting STEM careers, but we still have a long way to go. We need to understand that introducing STEM fields to girls may not work the same way introducing it to boys. Plus, STEM isn’t just coding and robotics.
The combination of an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems and its practical applications in society inspires a girl when she sees the connections. When introducing STEM, we can always combine this with art and creativity.
What worked for me was that I was introduced to a lot of concepts, and I grew up thinking 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 reduced the opportunities that opened up for girls and women in STEM?
Covid pushed back more career opportunities and classroom education in general, and as a result, STEM took an impact. However, with the pandemic we were able to reach remote areas of the world in minutes, and it is now a norm. Virtual internships, remote mentoring, and connections with experts are hugely open. So each of us should take that opportunity to gain knowledge and make the most of it.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, what is your advice to the girls and women who want to make a name for themselves in STEM?
My only advice to all of us is to take risks and work towards solutions with empathy at the core. If we look around us, we have a lot of problems to solve and we have the talent. We can alleviate the problems in society with whatever talent we have and the only person holding us back is ourselves. If you need to improve yourself, compare yourself to the previous you.