11-Year-Old Girl Inspired by Flint Water Crisis Creates Device That Quickly Detects Lead

She was named "America’s Top Young Scientist" for the device that detects lead faster than any other current technique.

She may only be 11, but Gitanjali Rao has already caused a big bang in the science world.

The seventh grader, from Lone Tree, Colo., has created a device to detect lead-contaminated water faster than any other current technique.

She beat nine other finalists to be named "America’s Top Young Scientist" in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a national competition for middle school students held in St. Paul, Minn. She won $25,000 for her invention.

At present, testing for lead is expensive and samples need to be sent away for analysis to generate reliable results. But Gitanjali's low-cost invention uses on a disposable, easily portable cartridge to test the water. It's linked to a mobile app that can display the results almost immediately.

"I like finding solutions to real problems," she said in a demo video for her product, which is called "Thethys" after the Greek goddess of fresh water.

Gitanjali, a student at STEM School and Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colo., was inspired to make the device after studying major water crises in places like Flint, Mich., for two years.

"Imagine living day in and day out drinking contaminated water with dangerous substances like lead," she said.

She came up with the idea after reading about new nano technologies being used to detect hazardous substances on the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering's website, and wondered whether it could be adapted to detect lead.

She reached out to teachers and engineers for help and worked on her invention at home. After being named one of 10 finalists in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, she spent three months working with a scientist to develop her idea.

"Clean water always makes you feel good," she said in her demo video. "The tool allows easy testing at home or agencies for quick detection and remedial action. It can be expanded in the future to test for other chemical contaminants in portable water. I hope this helps in a small way to detect and prevent long-term effects for lead contamination for many of us."

Her nine fellow finalists also worked with scientists and each received $1,000 for their inventions, which included a robot that helps reduce the amount of water wasted during lawn care and a product made from pomegranate husks and orange peels for cleaning up major oil spills.