The Future Looks Bright According to Young American Inventor and Author, Gitanjali Rao

Meet the college student who’s changing the world with innovative solutions and promoting the power of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for positive impact every chance she gets

A young girl wears a lab coat, safety goggles and blue latex gloves in a research laboratory
Teen innovator Gitanjali Rao promotes the power of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for positive impact. Courtesy of Gitanjali Rao

Like many teens, Gitanjali Rao enjoys finding media she can dive deep into–she’s currently creating a personalized world in The Sims 4 video game, while rewatching “The Gilmore Girls,” and can probably recite the 1993 film Jurassic Park from memory if asked. But unlike many of her peers, Rao has been recognized by the likes of Time as 2020 Kid of the Year and Forbes as a “30 Under 30” innovator, plus she’s given over 200 talks and workshops and just published her second book.

Rao credits her parents for her ongoing success in applying her passion for STEM towards developing solutions of critical challenges of our time. Throughout her childhood, her parents never forced her to a specific pathway, but instead exposed her to a wide range of possibilities. She recalls, “In our family, we have a rule that you try everything at least once, before you say it’s not for you.” This has given her the chance to pursue passion projects and to be open to a wide range of experiences and perspectives, without being intimidated if it’s not the right fit.

After completing her freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in June 2024, Rao sat down with Smithsonian Under Secretary for Education, Dr. Monique Chism, ahead of her keynote speech during the upcoming 2024 Smithsonian National Education Summit. Together, they discussed her interests, accomplishments, and hopes for the future.

The Impact of Teachers

Naturally, as a leader in education, Dr. Chism first asked Rao to reflect on any educators who might’ve had an impact on her ongoing curiosity and passion for STEM. Rao immediately lit up and whittled her long list of inspiring teachers throughout her public school trajectory down to two–her second grade teacher and her high school physics teacher. What is striking about her responses is that the actual subject matter that these teachers shared weren’t what drew Rao to name them; it was how these teachers made her feel

With vague memories of possibly diagramming sentences and learning about grammar and writing mechanics, her second grade teacher stood out because of a comment that was made in passing: “You’re going to change the world one day!” Armed with this affirmation, Rao considered this to be a pivotal moment in her own sense of self-efficacy and motivation. 

Fast-forward to high school physics, in which Rao credits her teacher with leaving the class with the feeling that he wanted to watch them learn and grow as individuals, with content and grades taking a bit of a back seat and the learning process at the forefront.

Novel Challenges for Gen Z

While she considers herself to be especially optimistic about the future, Rao is also keenly aware that we, as a global society, are seeing problems that have simply never existed before. Throughout her childhood, she has developed prize-winning innovations around testing lead content in water and a tool for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction. Rao can’t help but want to make a difference with the causes she cares about and notes the important role that each of us have in acknowledging ourselves as problem solvers, no matter what field we’re in.

Rao thinks a lot about issues ranging from climate change and depletion of natural resources to equality and global access in education. But one issue that’s especially top of mind at the moment is teenage mental health and digital safety. Among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15% were bullied online or by text. Enter an ever-evolving project she’s created, called Kindly

With teens having seemingly unlimited access to a wide range of online communication tools with each other, Rao notes it can be easy for cyberbullies to hide behind a screen when sending unkind messages to peers without thinking about the repercussions or impact. The app Kindly is an add-on extension on social media platforms and online tools, like Instagram and Google Chrome. 

The tool doesn’t actually stop someone from sending a message, but it does provide users a chance to take a pause before sending. In that way, it aims to address a core cause of the issue by highlighting words or phrases that might have a negative impact on the recipient. 

What started as a passion project created by teens for teens has since transitioned to a partnership with UNICEF and is currently being developed as a Digital Public Good. By making the app open-source, there’s also been new interfaces developed in other languages–allowing teens, developers, and other organizations globally to build on this idea. Rao seems especially proud of this approach and development process, noting she’s just one person who put this idea out into the world inspiring others to take it to the next level on a global scale. 

A teen with a black sweater on poses with two books
By age 18, Gitanjali Rao has published two books for young innovators as a way to share ideas with fellow teens for finding their passions and applying STEM practices to problem-solving for the future. Courtesy of Gitanjali Rao

What’s Next for Gitanjali 

On the day of the interview, Rao had just published her second book, “A Young Innovator’s Guide to Planning for Success” as a way to share what she’s learned from her own transition from high school to college—focusing on balancing the pressures of maintaining a strong grade point average, alongside advanced placement classes, extracurriculars, and everything in between. While her own personal story is impressive, she’s certain that there are many students just like her, who just need a mentor to help them see their full potential. 

This guide is the follow-up to her first book, “A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM” which places readers at the intersection of identifying problems and developing solutions. She sees writing as a way to amplify her learnings to a wider audience, having led hundreds of innovation workshops for students on a global scale with after schools clubs, schools, and museums. 

Speaking of museums, Rao is an unapologetic and self-proclaimed “museum-person,” who loves the way museums offer a space to dive deep into topics you might not have considered before. Much like the way she consumes media and explores passion projects, Rao is motivated by an inherent desire of wanting to know more about the world, but also being a part of making it a better place for everyone. 

This summer, she will work on campus with the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research At MIT, working on the development of microarray patches for making extended release vaccines. While she’s identified a double major in bioengineering and business, one thing is clear: the possibilities are endless for where her passions will lead her, as they align with challenges the world is facing. 

Editor's Note: Gitanjali Rao will be featured as a keynote speaker during the 2024 Smithsonian National Education Summit on Wednesday, July 17 at 3:30pm, Eastern with a session entitled “The Power of Interdisciplinary Innovation to Solve Global Challenges.” To learn more about the session (offered both in-person and livestreamed) and to register for free, please visit