Learning of Flint’s woes with lead, Rao, 11, invented a $20 device to test for the contaminant
It was a Pulitzer-nominated photo-essay on lead in the waters of Flint, Michigan, that drove Gitanjali Rao, 11, to invent a device that tests for the contaminant in water. For that, Rao went on to win the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, being named America’s Top Young Scientist.
The award included $25,000, a small reward for developing Tethys, a sensor-based device that can detect lead in water faster than currently available techniques.
Rao, a student of STEM School and Academy in Lone Tree, Colorado, told indica she had been following the problems in Flint, Michigan, for the past two years but May’s photo essay had a huge influence on her.
She said she was surprised that Flint residents were not aware of the lead in the water, nor did they have a device to test for it. They had to wait for the EPA or the local water utility to let them know the status of their drinking water, all while they and their children were being exposed to lead.
“It was shocking to me that this is not happening just in Flint. With aging infrastructure around the country and the world, it could be happening in other places that we were not even aware of,” Rao said.
The seventh-grader started working on the project in March 2016 but found it a challenge to get access to safe labs where she could conduct experiments with lead. She was lucky that her high school chemistry teacher Debra Richardson provided her some space after school hours.
Rao said Tetthy is a combination of a hardware device and a smartphone app. The app is free to download and comes ready to use with the hardware device. However, in areas where there are no smartphones, the device can be easily reconfigured to rely on an LCD display or even plain LEDs to give updates on lead content in water.
Tethys costs about $20, and can used by anybody who want to seeks their water themselves. However, with further improvements, including scaling up production, she expects the cost will be significantly less.
Rao said that credit for her award-winning work also goes to her teachers, professors, 3M mentor Dr. Kathleen Shafer, and her parents.
“I went to the finals to share my idea, learn from the 3M scientists and make life-long friends with other amazing peer young scientist finalists,” she said. “I was also very excited to meet my mentor face-to-face. I did not think about winning, but I am honored that 3M and Discovery
Education selected me.”