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The discovery of lead in drinking water systems in Flint, Michigan, and other cities around the country has motivated researchers to find new—and faster—ways to detect contamination in water supplies. One scientist who recently invented a way to rapidly test for lead in water developed her award-winning solution between swim team practice and piano lessons.

Girl Genius: This 12-year-old invented a device to detect lead in water—and as far as science goes—she's just getting started.

The Flint water crisis that started in 2014 brought the problem of lead contamination to the nation’s attention. Since that time numerous school districts across the country have found lead in their systems, and people in Flint still don’t trust that their water is safe—even though some government officials say it is. A person in the Denver area has been working on lead contamination since she first heard about it. But she’s not a professor at a university–yet. And she has no degree—yet.

Twelve-year-old Gitanjali Rao heard about the water crisis in Flint about three years ago and realized it was a big problem, “It was just a question of why is this happening because a lot of children my age were drinking water and using it as a natural resource, which we all take advantage of and are getting poisoned by it and that just didn’t seem right.”

So she set to work to invent a device to rapidly detect lead in water. Sitting with her at her house in what she calls her science room, she explains that the idea of how to test for lead came to her while reading articles in the MIT News Journal about its latest research. “They were using carbon nanotube sensors to detect hazardous gasses in the air, and that’s when I connected this idea back to the Flint water crisis, and I wanted to expand that idea to apply for liquids as well to detect lead in drinking water.”

Carbon nanotubes are very small, about one-billionth of a meter and Rao describes them as essentially like a tube that makes hexagonal patterns with carbon ions: “It’s a tube but it’s kind of like a beehive around it.” Rao installed them in her tester, which she can hold in her hand. When in contact with water, the nanotubes detect lead because it sticks to carbon or chloride ions creating a sort of speed bump that interferes with a current.

Her device then sends the information to a smartphone app—an app that Rao was able to develop herself thanks to her parents, who both work in technology and who taught her to program when she was about six or seven.

Tethys Rao calls her lead detector “Tethys,” named for the Greek goddess of fresh water. It’s so promising that she has been working to perfect it with Denver Water, the largest provider in Colorado, who see it as a very good tool not just in Denver, but in many places of the United States and in the world.

Rao has been working with Selene Hernandez-Ruiz, the lab manager for Denver Water who is very impressed with Rao’s maturity, intelligence, and her abilities as a scientist, which Hernandez-Ruiz considers on par with a college-level student or a person who has been working in a laboratory for some time. Hernandez-Ruiz explained that providers are required to use certain instruments and tests to assure that lead and other contaminants aren’t in their system. But those processes take time, so the beauty of Rao’s device is that homeowners, or even schools, could use it to quickly assess if they need further testing.

Rao is now in back in school after a summer of swim team practices, hanging out with friends, and doing some baking in the kitchen, but she continues to work on her invention with a plan to make 50 prototypes to send to residents of Flint. Depending on how it goes there, Rao would like to see if she can take Tethys to market.

But even if the market doesn’t reward her, others already have. Last year she was named America’s Top Young Scientist by Discovery Education and the 3M Corporation, and recently on September 21 she was awarded the President’s Environmental Youth Award from the EPA.

As one might guess, there is a whole lot more in Rao’s future, but it may or may not have to do with water. She say she has huge interest in going to MIT to study genetics and epidemiology.

And if all that doesn’t work out, Rao could easily think about being a concert pianist. As we left her science room she played a piece for us by her favorite composer, Chopin. 💧

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President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA)

In a ceremony in Washington D.C. on Friday, September 21, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded Lone Tree, Colorado, student Gitanjali R. the President’s Environmental Youth Award for developing an innovative technology for water quality testing. Gitanjali, a middle-school student at STEM School Highlands Ranch, was honored among winners of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) and the most recent winners of the President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA). This year, ten educators and 49 students from across the country were recognized for their efforts.

Gitanjali’s project developed a speedy, accurate, and inexpensive test to detect lead contamination in water, with the potential for application to identify and prevent human exposure. She developed a device to accurately measure lead levels in water using nanotechnology and display it on a custom mobile app. The device is portable and can be reprogrammed for other contaminants. In addition to securing research and development funding and testing a prototype, Gitanjali is also actively promoting water quality awareness in her community, participating in TEDx conferences in India, and acting as a reporter for "TIME for Kids." Read the news release.


Photos: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.

Published: Sept. 27, 2018
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