Teen Trailblazers Who Are Shaping The World

She might not look like a typical scientist, but at age 15, Gitanjali Rao has several accomplishments under her belt, the latest being Time’s ‘Kid of the Year’ for 2020. The Colorado teen was chosen from more than 5,000 nominees for her ability to apply scientific ideas to real-world problems and her desire to motivate other kids to take up their own causes.

Joining Rao are a host of young Indian American women who have worked against odds to innovate, create, connect and inspire. Some innovated, discovered and done research in science and technology; others shined bright in the field of entertainment; a few took to leadership and activism.

Among those who excelled in 2020, despite its challenges and limitations are ‘America’s Top Scientist’ Anika Chebrolu, 14, who discovered a potential therapy for COVID-19; Ishana Kumar, 12, who worked on a project that could lead to better understanding of eye disease and cognitive processing; Sarvani Kunapareddy, 17, who is raising awareness about loopholes in the U.S. immigration system; and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the star of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever.” 

Chebrolu, Kunapareddy and Ramakrishnan are among Teen Vogue’s ’21 Under 21’ list, along with Bangalore, India-based TikTok star Megha “Bootleg Megz” Rethin.

Overachieving, accomplished and enterprising young Indian Americans is not a new phenomenon. For over a decade, Indian American kids have been ruling the national spelling bee circuit, repeatedly claiming the championship trophy. In fact, Scripps National Spelling Bee data shows that 27 of the last 35 winners were of Indian origin. Last year, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey was among eight winners — seven of them Indian Americans — at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This December, Rao made history by becoming Time magazine’s first ever ‘Kid of the Year’ “for her her astonishing work using technology and her mission to create a global community of young innovators to solve problems the world over.”

Rao’s mantra is “Observe, brainstorm, research, build and communicate.” Along with creating her own devices – be it a mobile device to test for lead in drinking water, a tool to tackle cyberbullying, or an app to combat opioid addictions – Rao says she realizes the importance of inspiring others.

“I don’t look like your typical scientist,” she told actress and activist Angelina Jolie in an interview for Time.

“Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white man as a scientist,” she said. And that is why her goal “has really shifted not only from creating my own devices to solve the world’s problems, but inspiring others to do the same as well. Because, from personal experience, it’s not easy when you don’t see anyone else like you. So I really want to put out that message: If I can do it, you can do it, and anyone can do it.”

But innovation is not new to Rao, a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in Douglas County, Colorado. She started thinking of ways to use science and technology to create social change from the time she was 10. That was in 2015, around when Rao learned about lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan. 

After spending two months researching how the area’s drinking water became contaminated, Rao began designing a device that used carbon nanotube sensors to instantly detect lead in water. Called Tethys, after the Titan goddess of fresh water, it attaches to a cellphone and informs the resident via an app if their drinking water contains traces of the harmful metal.

The prototype earned her the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2017 and a spot on the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2019. The budding entrepreneur is currently working with scientists and medical professionals at the Denver Water Facility to test Tethys’ potential and hopes the device will be ready for commercial use by 2022.

In 2019, the teen took on another social issue — opioid addiction. Her app, called Epione, is designed to catch drug addiction in young adults before it’s too late. The app won the “Health” Pillar Prize at the TCS Ignite Innovation Student Challenge in May 2019.

More recently, Rao developed a phone and Web tool named Kindly, which uses artificial intelligence technology to detect possible early signs of cyberbullying.

“I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar,” she told Time. “You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is. Rao said the goal is not to punish. 

“As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes,” she said. “Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.”

Rao’s accomplishments don’t end here. She is an author as well. At age 9, she published her first book, “Baby Brother Wonders.” The self-illustrated book, based on the story that won 2nd prize in the PBS national writing contest, described the world through her younger brother’s point of view. Her second and latest book, “A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM,” details a prescriptive process and encourages everybody to be a problem solver.

Despite being way ahead of her age with the daunting task of making the world a better place, Rao insists she’s a typical teenager. She likes to bake, play the piano, and mentor youngsters in STEM. “Actually I spend more time doing 15-year-old things during quarantine,” she told Time. “I bake an ungodly amount. It’s not good, but it’s baking. And, like, it’s science too.” She has also mastered the art of playing the piano, and also enjoys classical dancing and singing, swimming and fencing.

Anika Chebrolu

Chebrolu of Frisco, Texas, won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, the nation’s premier science competition for grades 5-8, for her discovery that could provide a potential treatment for COVID-19. Chebrolu, a freshman of Independence High School, used computer simulation to find a drug molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The last two days, I saw that there is a lot of media hype about my project since it involves the SARS-CoV-2 virus and it reflects our collective hopes to end this pandemic as I, like everyone else, wish that we go back to our normal lives soon,” America’s Top Scientist told CNN in October. 

Chebrolu submitted her project when she was in the eighth grade – but it wasn’t always going to be focused on finding a solution to COVID-19. Initially, her goal was to use simulation to identify a lead compound that could bind to a protein of the influenza virus. 

“After spending so much time researching pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this,” she told CNN.

She told Teen Vogue that science has always been a big part of her life. She told the magazine that she wants girls who want to enter the STEM field to believe in themselves. 

“While STEM may be male-dominated, I feel that a lot of us, as girls, limit ourselves by not challenging the status quo, by creating our own imaginary boundaries,” she said.

Although winning the prize and the title is an honor, Chebrolu told CNN that her work is far from over. Her next goal: to work alongside scientists and researchers who are fighting to “control the morbidity and mortality” of the pandemic by developing her findings to fight off the virus.

When she’s not in a lab or working toward her goal of becoming a doctor or researcher, Chebrolu finds solace in dancing. She has been training in Bharatanatyam for the past eight years.

Kumar of Chappaqua, New York, won the Broadcom MASTERS award in October, for a project that could lead to better understanding of eye disease and cognitive processing. Kumar was one of five top winners in the nationwide competition, taking home the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize.

The seventh grader’s project explores whether it is possible to change someone’s perceptions of imaginary colors. She was inspired by playing with Benham’s top, a spinning disk with black and white patterns that causes people to see different colors.

“I wanted to see if I could sort of change the way we perceive these colors through something called retinal fatigue,” Kumar told NPR’s Morning Edition. Talking about how COVID-19 restrictions on gathering in large numbers forced her to keep her testing sample small. She had her subjects first look at the spinning top, then look at bright colored lights, and finally look again at the top. 

She told NPR that she wants to apply her research to a larger number of subjects and upgrade to a lab where the light can be controlled. And she has a longer-range goal as well: she wants to keep doing research so she can one day help Alzheimer’s patients.

Kunapareddy of St. Louis, Missouri, dreamed of going into the medical field after college, but her dreams were halted because of the green card backlog. 

“Everything seemed to boil down to one thing: my visa status,” she told Teen Vogue.“Learning about this at a younger age than most helped prepare me for the worst before it arrived. The green card backlog affects hundreds of thousands of students like me, and I realized that I had to speak up.”

Kunapareddy founded Hidden Dream, a platform to raise awareness, support, and create community for those in the U.S. immigration system. In addition to offering resources and tips, they built the Hidden Dream inaugural scholarship. 

“The system that stopped me from applying to scholarships fueled me to save at least one dreamer from the despair I felt not being able to control my future,” she said.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the lead actress of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever.”

One of the most high-profile teens listed in Teen Vogue ’21 Under 21’ is Ramakrishnan, the lead actress of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever.” She plays Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian American growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley. Devi, a high school sophomore, is coping with her father’s death and struggling with her identity, while also trying to navigate the high school social scene. The series, co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, is loosely based on Kaling’s years growing up.

Ramakrishnan’s “compelling portrayal of Devi thrust her into the spotlight and into our hearts,” Teen Vogue says. The teenager who was born and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, told the magazine that it is exciting to see how her family from around the world is engaging with the show.

“Even when they didn’t understand the language or even [the] context, to have their kids translate it for them and support me has been super amazing,” she says.

Ramakrishnan, 18, has a few words of advice to anyone else who wants to make an impact like she has: 

“No matter where you want to create change, you’ve got to start with yourself. Do your research and dive deep. Really be confident in yourself, the idea that you can make change, and just be your own best friend. Support and be kind to yourself through whatever you are facing.”

Also listed in the coveted list is Bangalore-based Megha “Bootleg Megz” Rethin, who started posting more regularly on TikTok during quarantine “just out of sheer boredom.” Since joining the platform a little over a year ago, the 20-year-old has amassed more than 600,000 followers due to her charming, funny, and often relatable content.

Read more teen success stories and find out why the STEM pipeline is leaky.