Christina Ortiz-Dixon

Oct 17th 2018

A Young Scientist Takes on Flint’s Water Crisis


While the Flint, Michigan, water crisis maintains its spotlight in the news, everyday people are taking it upon themselves to help. Take Gitanjali Rao, a 12-year-old seventh grader from Lone Tree, Colorado, with a budding interest in water safety and epidemiology.

An avid reader of MIT’s Materials Science and Engineering website, Rao got the idea for a more effective way to test for water quality after watching the turmoil in Flint and seeing just how difficult the process was when her parents tested water in their own home, NPR reported.

What Is the Flint Water Crisis?

According to CNN, pipeline construction to send water from Lake Huron to Flint began in 2014. While construction was underway, the city relied on the Flint River as its main water source. Over the course of a year, multiple water tests were conducted, and each showed elevated lead levels. Since then, multiple lawsuits have been filed against the state of Michigan, the city of Flint and many of the officials involved in the switch in water source.

Water Testing Needs an Upgrade

Some of the most common methods of testing water for lead include sending out water samples to the EPA or purchasing at-home lead testing kits from a hardware store. The former requires a lot of time and patience, while the latter is less than reliable, said USA Today.

Wrangling information from a water provider is also difficult; they may not even know the state of their pipes or what they’re made from. USA Today documented the hurdles to getting this kind of information, describing an arduous process of communicating with customer service and many unanswered questions.

Taking on the Challenge of Water Safety

Rao felt existing methods for water testing weren’t effective, and late last year, she decided to do something to change it, according to NPR. Rao’s solution was a water lead contamination detector known as Tethys, named for the Greek goddess of fresh water.

In her submission video for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Rao explained that the carbon nanotubes in the device’s sensor are sensitive to changes in the flow of electrons caused by heavy lead concentrations. When the sensor is submerged in water, it measures the reaction of the electrons; an app translates this data to tell the user whether the water is safe to drink.

Last summer, Rao was awarded the title “America’s Top Young Scientist” in the challenge, earning $25,000 and the opportunity to work with scientists from 3M to further develop her detector.

What’s Next for Rao?

While Rao plans on using some of her prize money for college, she also wants to invest it to develop the sensor into a commercial product to take on the ongoing water crisis. At the end of her submission video, Rao explained her hopes for the future of her device: “It can be expanded in the future for other chemical contaminants in potable water. I hope it helps in a small way to detect and prevent long-term health effects of lead contamination for many of us.”

If working on technology to keep people and the environment safe is what you’re looking for, check out careers with Northrop Grumman.