"The Flint crisis hit me hard, and I wondered how I could help the residents. I have always been inclined towards science and experimentation, so I took up the challenge. When I expressed my concern and wish to experiment on an easy, low-cost way to detect lead in water, my school teachers too started helping me out."
The Flint water crisis began in 2014, when the drinking water in the city of Flint, Michigan, became contaminated with lead after the source was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the cheaper Flint River.
Due to insufficient water treatment, lead percolated from the lead water pipes into the drinking water, potentially affecting over 100,000 residents. As a result, an advisory to boil every drop of water before drinking it was issued in several counties in Michigan.
Gitanjali Rao, a resident of Colorado, was a 9-year-old at the time and it was when she was her parents testing their drinking water for lead, that the crisis truly hit home.
She was aware that the method her parents were using was expensive and unreliable, and there was a risk of the result being inaccurate. Gitanjali wanted to ensure that not just her family, but thousands of those dealing with the crisis had low-cost, reliable solutions at their disposal, and that is why she decided to do something.
Speaking to The Better India, the young prodigy says, “The Flint crisis hit me hard, and I wondered how I could help the residents. I have always been inclined towards science and experimentation, so I took up the challenge. When I expressed my concern and wish to experiment on an easy, low-cost way to detect lead in water, my school teachers too started helping me out.”
Gitanjali understood that there is no quick method in place to test the water coming out of taps at homes. If you want to get the water tested, you have to send samples to a lab for an analysis and the results can take hours, if not days. Also, the testing kits which be used at home were expensive, difficult to use and even unreliable.
Speaking to the Business Insider, she said, “If you take a shower in contaminated water, you do get rashes, and an epidemiologist can easily study that. And if somebody drinks lead in their water, their children might have small, minor defects.”
Through intense research and experimentation, she started the journey to develop Tethys—a low-cost, accurate method to monitor the amount of the amount of lead in water.
Named after the Greek Goddess of fresh water, the innovation uses specially tuned carbon nanotubes for the purpose.
“Tethys also has a Bluetooth pairing device that can be connected to your phone. Once the water is tested, the results will be sent to your the results will be sent to a mobile phone,” she told TBI.
Just a couple of weeks after she came up with the idea of Tethys, Gitanjali sent an entry video to the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and ended up becoming a finalist there!
“I entered the Young Scientist Challenge because it combines my love of science, solving problems by new inventions, and creating films,” she told the Young Scientist Organisation.
Here, the young scientist received a real boost to her innovation in terms of both, resources and guidance.
“For three months during the summer, I worked alongside my mentor, Dr Kathleen Shafer who helped me understand how my device could be developed, where its strengths are etc.
I also started reading more about technology development at school which helped me design and develop Tethys,” she says.
In the process of developing and refining her innovation, Gitanjali showed that young as she may be, her device is incredibly accurate and applicable in the USA. At the time, Tethys was the need of the hour in the USA and today, a year after the 3M Challenge, the application can find use even in India.
Gitanjali won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, receiving $25,000 as a cash prize, and has been inspiring young scientists ever since. Earlier this month, she was also invited as a TEDxGateway 2018 speaker, and she spoke about the applicability of the device.
“While I was studying the problem, I realised that [lead] detection is a primary issue. People do not know if their drinking water is safe. So I focused on creating a solution that is portable, fast, accurate and cheap so each one of us can test our own water,” she said at her TED talk.
And now that Tethys has received the recognition it deserves, Gitanjali plans on taking her project further still.
“Now I plan on advancing the technology so we can expand the use of Tethys. I am currently working extra hard at school so I can take the innovation forward. The possibilities are endless. Various regions experience different types of water contamination, and I wany Tethys to help people as much as possible,” she informed TBI.
Speaking to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, she said, “I plan to continue evolving my device,” adding that “I plan to continue evolving my device. Mainly I would like to test for accuracy such as doing false-positive testing and manufacturing chemically doped carbon nanocubes as my main sensor material. I also plan to make it a more compact design and possibly even add the option to crowdsource device data.”
“I plan to expand it to other contaminations such as Arsenic, Cadmium etc. which are major contaminations of water in India,” she told India Times, adding that “My only message is to be aware of the advancements in technology and be curious about the issues and impacts that [they] have on people.”
Young innovators like Gitanjali who take up contemporary issues, give a scientific spin to them and create unusual solutions are always an inspiration. With an easy, reliable and low-cost device to tackle a great crisis like lead infected water, Gitanjali has undoubtedly proved that the future of science in is good hands.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)