Gitanjali Rao from Lone Tree, Colorado, won The Discovery Education’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge this year for her sensor that detects lead in water better than current methods.
Rao, 11, was proclaimed “America’s Top Young Scientist” on Oct. 17 and will take home $25,000 for her winning invention.
“I had been following the Flint, Michigan, issue for about two years,” she told ABC News. “I was appalled by the number of people affected by lead contamination in water.”
The Flint crisis has a long history that stemmed from cost-cutting measures which eventually resulted to residents turning to a contaminated river for water supply. They ended up drinking water that contained lead and other toxins, CNN noted.
It was after seeing her parents test the water in their own home when Rao decided to do something. She told the Business Insider:
“The idea just came to me when I saw my parents testing for lead in our water. I went, ‘Well, this is not a reliable process and I’ve got to do something to change this.’”
Today, people can opt for one of two methods when testing their water for lead. They can use strips, which are convenient but could be inaccurate, or they can send a sample to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would be more reliable but more-expensive and time-consuming.
Rao started developing her idea about five months ago. As part of the competition, she was then paired with 3M scientist Kathleen Shafer, who specializes in developing new plastics technologies, in the past three months.
The result of Rao’s labor is a portable lead detector that shows results in a smartphone app. She called it Tethys, in requiem of the Greek goddess of fresh water.
— scott_kinney (@scott_kinney) October 18, 2017
Brian Barnhart, one of the judges, told ABC:
“It’s not hyperbole to say she really blew us out of the water. The other nine kids, they were also such amazing kids, so for her to stand out the way she did with a peer group like this is like an exclamation point on top of it.”
Rao plans to save some of her cash prize for college and use the rest of it to refine Tethys, which she hopes to sell in the future. She aspires to either be a geneticist or an epidemiologist.
Watch her entry video below: