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Girl, 11, vying to be America’s Top Young Scientist

Eleven-year-old Gitanjali Rao is one of just 10 finalists for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, and her invention just might save lives in the future.

“My name is Gitanjali Rao and I like finding solutions to real problems,” says the 11-year-old girl finalist in one of the most distinguished science competitions in the U.S. Her invention, a sophisticated method for testing for lead contamination in water, could significantly improve the response to chemical disasters like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In fact, Rao’s water-testing device was partially inspired by stories of chemical contamination like the situation in Flint.

“Imagine living day in and day out drinking contaminated water with dangerous substances like lead,” Rao explains in her entry. “Millions of people around the world are exposed to water containing lead and its harmful side effects. There are over 5,000 water systems in the U.S. alone with lead contamination issues. Timely detection and preventative action can help mitigate the problem, but today it takes a long time because of chemical labs and expensive equipment. My solution addresses a core issue of speedy detection of lead contamination, allowing preventative action and even saving lives!”

Rao is a student at Brentwood Middle School in Brentwood, Tennessee, and one of 10 finalists in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. It’s a one-of-a-kind video competition aimed at sparking the imaginations of students across the country.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her solution is positively radical. In reading through materials on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s material science department website (as typical sixth-graders are not known to do), Rao learned about a new type of nanotechnology — and made the correlative leap to recognize a new practical application for it.

Her test device, which she has dubbed “Tethys,” uses a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotube arrays. This connects with an Arduino technology-based signal processor with a Bluetooth attachment. The graphene within the nanotube is highly sensitive to changes in flow of current. By treating the tube with atoms that are sensitive to lead, Rao is able to measure whether potable water is contaminated with lead, beaming the results straight to a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. When it detects levels higher than 15 parts per million, the device warns that the water is unsafe.

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