Moved by the plight of Flint, Michigan, residents who have been coping with their community’s ongoing water crisis, a Colorado seventh grader has invented a revolutionary high-tech device to test for lead contamination.
“I started following the Flint water crisis two years ago when I was nine,” the plucky Gitanjali Rao, 11, tells PEOPLE. “And I was surprised that there wasn’t a fast, reliable process for testing water for lead.”
So Gitanjali — from Lone Tree, Colorado — set out to change that, spending five months developing and fine-tuning the technology behind her invention that consists of a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotubes that can be dipped into a water sample.
An Arduino-based signal processor beams the information via Bluetooth to a cellphone and a smartphone app reads the test results in seconds.
Her device, which is called Tethys (“She’s the Greek goddess for clean water,” explains Gitanjali), won her the title of America’s Top Young Scientist on Oct. 17 in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge competition.
The novel technology she harnessed for her project can reportedly process accurate findings about lead levels in water faster than existing methods which involve using paper strips or sending samples to an Environmental Protection Agency office for testing.
“I’ve always been interested in science because it’s all about providing real world ways to solve problems in the world,” says Gitanjali.
The budding musician — who plays piano, clarinet and bass guitar — hopes to use the $25,000 check that came with the award for her college fund (“I’d like to go to MIT,” she says, “and study epidemiology or genetics”) and to help fine-tune her device in order to make it available to the public.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t Gitanjali’s first invention. “I invented a tool that detects snakebite severity by identifying the type of venom in the bite,” she says.
“I found that different types of venom have different heat signatures and they show up differently when you use a thermographic camera.”
Asked what wisdom she’d like to pass on to other kids who are intimidated by science, she says, “Don’t be afraid to try it. When I was working on my experiment, I failed a lot and got frustrated.
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“But I learned from those mistakes and now I have a working device. Failing is just the first attempt at learning.”
Besides making her invention available to the public, she also hopes to continue spreading the gospel of regular water testing.
“It’s just as important as going to the doctor or a dentist for checkups,” she says. “The average person should be testing their water at least two times a month.”