Planning for Success with Gitanjali Rao • ep. 102

Gitanjali Rao: inventor, social activist, STEM advocate, and author of “A Young Innovators Guide to Planning for Success.”

This Girl is Changing the World

I am thrilled to welcome our special guest today. We have inventor, social activist, STEM advocate, and author Gitanjali Rao. Thank you so much for joining us!

GITANJALI: Of course. Thanks for having me.

There’s a big old list of things. First, could you briefly share a bit about yourself?

GITANJALI: Yes, absolutely. So my name is Gitanjali, my friends call me Anjali as well. I’m 18 years old. I just finished my first year at MIT. But apart from school, I spent a lot of time on my own personal projects and research. And so a lot of times I’m doing research for either, you know, organizations that I’m passionate about, but also really taking that research and some of these passion projects of mine and turning them into products that people can use as well–which I started doing when I was about four or five years old. But alongside my research and projects, I also run these innovation workshops for students all across the globe to kind of get them interested in STEM and help them realize that if I can do it, they can do it, too. So yeah, that’s kind of been my mission these past couple of years, and I’m excited to keep going.

Gitanjali Rao’s Accomplishments

Oh, that is incredible. And you guys listening may remember I featured Gitanjali back in episode 62, Girls Changing the World. And I was like fangirling in that episode and highlighting a lot of her accomplishments.

In 2017, you won the discovery education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.
In 2018 you received the United States Environmental Protection Agency President’s Environmental Youth Award.
In 2019, Forbes highlighted you as one of their 30 Under 30.
And 2020 was a big year for you. You were named Time Magazine’s Top Young Innovator and Time Magazine’s First Ever Kid of the Year. And now you’re attending MIT. You’ve invented multiple devices and services.

GITANJALI: Sometimes I don’t even know kind of where I’m going next, which I think is the most exciting part of the journey, right? It’s kind of just riding the wave out and seeing where I’ve ended up. What I’m most known for is my device called Tethys, which helps detect for lead in drinking water faster and cheaper than current tools out there today. I’ve also built a device which is the first ever clinical tool to diagnose for prescription opiate addiction. And that one’s called Epione. It’s named after the Greek goddess of soothing of pain. And it uses protein detection mechanisms to be able to tell you if you’re at the onset of addiction, which I think is a super, super important problem as well.

One of the recent ones that I’m very, very proud of is actually my tool Kindly, which started out as a prototype, but is now a UNICEF digital public good. And it’s an anti cyberbullying solution built on artificial intelligence, specifically natural language, understanding and processing. And so I like to call it the Grammarly or the spell check of cyber bullying, because you’re able to type something out and then it underlines it and it points it out, but it doesn’t actively stop you from sending anything. So it’s a solution created by a teenager for a teenager.

Wow. What an incredible tool. It’s kind of like, Hey, before you send that, are you, are you sure about that?

GITANJALI: Exactly. 

A Young Innovators Guide to Planning for Success

Oh my goodness. Okay, a few years ago you wrote this book, “A Young Innovators Guide to STEM,” and you just released another book right here, “A Young Innovators Guide to Planning for Success.” Now I wanted to ask you what inspired you to write this second book?

GITANJALI: Yeah, I think the biggest thing when I was in high school or going into high school was that I had a lot of different ideas of what I wanted to do in the future. And I was very stressed by this concept of trying to find my passion while also dealing with the short term struggle of having to get into college and get into a college that should allow me to kind of get my passion driven forward as well. And so that was kind of really where that motivating factor started out, is how do we balance life in and out of high school while also focusing on our long term goals and our short term goals in front of us.

And I had never written a book about the stress or fear of college, and I’ve never seen any other student write a book like that, you know. You see things from admissions officers, you see things from teachers and educators, but never from another student that’s a college age or a high school age. So that was the real goal behind this book, what do I think I would have wanted in high school to kind of take that stress off me and help me recognize that one college isn’t the end all be all. And secondly, how do you stay true to yourself when coming to college decisions, when it’s about writing an application, and how do you plan out your four years of high school to make it exactly what you want it to be?

Her Top Tips for College Admission Process

Wow. So you recently went through this whole process and your perspective is super fresh. I wondered if you could share some top tips or highlights for high schoolers who are preparing to apply to colleges and universities.

GITANJALI: When I think back to high school, I went through four years of high school torn between this passion of mine, right? And I saw a lot of my friends around me making up extracurriculars, rushing to volunteer. Which honestly felt so different from the way that I was approaching it. And so I wanted to help everyone else out that was kind of torn between that.

So one of my biggest tips for you guys is don’t worry about the admissions process at all. Worry about what you truly are good at, but also focus on your academics and your learning, and the rest will fall into place by itself. I think that’s the biggest thing that I learned across the whole process as well.

I think another thing is when you’re going to this application process, there’s a lot of them. There’s a lot of essays you need to write. There’s a lot to do. But apply to every single school like they’re your top choice. Admissions of officers read thousands and thousands and thousands of applications, but they recognize these essays and applications that mentioned specific programs and majors. And so really do your research on the school and apply to them like they’re your top choice. And I think those are some of my biggest tips, um, kind of diving into it because I know it’s scary and it’s supposed to be scary. 

What She Would’ve Done Differently

Yeah, it is a lot. And I, I feel like there has been pressure culture around it, uh, that hopefully is starting to like get taken apart or, or maybe just shifted a bit. And also there are a lot of other great opportunities for you. Like it doesn’t just have to be your, your top choice.  I just imagine you’re like, Oh, like this is it! This is my path. And I can’t imagine any other path! When there actually could be a variety of ways you can still get to your career goals or your future steps. I wondered, is there anything that in hindsight, now that you’re like, “Okay, I’m removed from that, I’ve written this book, I’ve processed things.” Is there anything you wish you wouldn’t have stressed about, whether that’s through high school itself or with the admissions process?

GITANJALI: I think even through high school, it’s actually kind of both–you don’t wake up one day and know exactly what you want to do with life. And I think that’s what everyone’s kind of like, when you think of someone finding their passion, they wake up one morning and they’re like, “Wow. I found my passion!” It never, ever, ever works like that, right? And so I think that’s the same thing–going into college, going into high school even, or the application process, don’t worry too much about having or knowing what specific major you want to do. A lot of students apply to college undecided, and admissions officers understand that. So you’re not going to have a better chance if you apply to MIT knowing you want to be some sort of engineering major versus applying anywhere else undeclared. Colleges look for curiosity, motivation, willingness to learn. So really put yourself like that out there. Like, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do and that’s okay. They like seeing that. I think that’s the big thing, when I was thinking about going into college, I was like, “Wow I have so many cool ideas of what I want to do!” And you heard all my different projects as well, they’re super diverse. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I applied as a major that I’ve not stuck with, and I declared as a bioengineering and a business major just this past month. I don’t know if that’s gonna last either, but I think again that’s the beauty of it. At the end of the day, we’re all still super super young, right? A lot of people don’t find their passion until they’re really, really experienced in life. They’ve worked multiple jobs. They’ve seen everything. So don’t worry about waking up and finding your passion one day. 

 Oh, I think that is incredible insight and perspective. When there are so many incredible opportunities and skills to learn  you’re going to figure it out and you’ve got to give yourself time and space and patience and opportunity to do that.

GITANJALI:Something else I’ve convinced myself too is that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to absolutely enjoy it.

Advice For Struggling Girls

So I know some of the girls listening struggle with anxiety, they struggle with imposter syndrome, and they struggle with not feeling good enough. I wondered if you could offer some advice to them as they’re growing and they’re trying to figure themselves out. If that’s something that you’ve either experienced or witnessed in others, if you can offer some help for them. 

GITANJALI: Yeah. I mean, I’ve experienced and witnessed that. It’s very much not easy being the only girl in a coding class or, you know, going to a school where everyone has a little bit of imposter syndrome as well. It’s a very, very normal thing. And I think that’s the first thing to remember, is you are not alone and you will never be alone, right? Chances are everyone else around you is just as stressed as you and just as anxious as you. So try to remember that before you think that you’re the only person in the world kind of feeling this–you rarely are. And I think the big thing is, I used to knock myself down a lot because of things that other people would say. I cared way too much about everyone’s thoughts on me. It got to this point where I felt like I was convincing myself not to do things and not to love things because I was so scared of being judged. And this is much, much easier said than done, but you know, to all the girls listening as well, don’t attempt to be like someone else because you’re unique and you are the best version of yourself. And no one else can do you like you do you. So I always like to convince myself, I actually have a quote as soon as you walk into my apartment, it says “Unapologetically Be Yourself.” Just be yourself unapologetically, never apologize for being you. And a lot of people are going to be out there with their sole mission to knock you down. But at the end of the day, it’s about listening to the people whose opinions actually do matter. The mentors, the parents, the friends, the people who will be there to support you, right? It’s’s about listening to the people whose opinions matter versus those who don’t. If you listen to everyone else around you, there’s always going to be people who say negative things, but your biggest enemy is your own self doubt. And so don’t let people feel that fire.

Wow. Okay. That was like solid wisdom. I I really appreciate you sharing that. I know that’s really gonna mean a lot to the girls who are struggling or maybe feel like, “Oh, like how, how could I ever achieve what she’s done!”

GITANJALI: People are always like, “Oh she has her life sorted out at 18. No, I don’t! And I think that’s the beauty of it, right. I don’t know, I always stay on the whim. 

Gitanjali’s Goals

Well, that’s wonderful! You’re giving yourself space to figure out your path and carve it for yourself. I wondered if you do have some plans or goals for the near future. Could you share a bit about them? 

GITANJALI: Yeah, absolutely. I do have a couple of ideas. I definitely am excited to start and finish sophomore year, which will be fun as well. I also do want to continue my research right now, I’m looking at mRNA vaccines,I’m working for the Langer Lab, who’s one of the co-founders of Moderna. That’s where kind of our vaccines are coming from for future pandemics as well. And I want to focus more on my outreach as well and focus on fundraising for students and influencing this K through 12 problem solving curriculum, and kind of seeing that in schools across the world. Taking innovation and kindness and empathy just as seriously as all those other subjects that we see. So those are my big plans as well. My long term goal is to be the CEO of a biotech company. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but that sounds pretty cool as well. Um, But I don’t know, I’m very much living in the moment. I’m excited for the summer. I’m doing research all summer as well and it’s just barely started for me. So, I can’t wait to ride up this wave. I think it’ll be an exciting couple of years.

Take Risks While You Can

Oh, that sounds fantastic. I’m honestly so excited to keep tabs and see where it’s going. And I think that you’re going to be that CEO a lot sooner than you think you will. If you have thoughts on this, I wondered what is the most important thing you want girls listening to know? And it could be any topic. 

GITANJALI: I think probably the most important thing, I wish someone had told me to take risks when it doesn’t matter versus when it does. When you’re young, when you have the time to try new things, take risks, right? I’m here because of the risks that I took across the way. Every single decision in my life, there’s going to be a risky decision and there’s going to be the safe one. And I think I’ve always taken more of the risky decisions, which is what’s led me up to this moment, right? You’re not making money yet. You don’t have a job that’s going to be compromised in any way if you mess up. So mess up, try things again, do things again, brainstorm ideas, right? No one’s stopping you at this age. And you know, when in doubt, when someone does stop you, blame it on your youth. That’s my favorite thing to do.

Also Learn to Plan For Meals

That is such great advice. Like when you become an adult and you’re responsible for things and bills and people, it’s a lot harder and the consequences are a lot bigger. 

GITANJALI: It is. I turned 18. I live in my own place now. And I’m like, “Wow, these are like my dishes and like my bed. I have responsibilities. I have to live life.” One thing that’s so underrated–this is also what I want girls listening to understand–is the constant fear of trying to figure out what to eat next. I’m never at peace. I’m never at peace because I’m eating lunch, but I’m like, “Wow, what am I gonna eat for dinner?” Because I feed myself. I feed myself. This is insane. I have to, like, cook. And I have to go to Trader Joe’s. And I have to buy groceries. And I have to make a list.

How to Connect with Gitanjali

Yeah, I have to adult! And honestly, that’s actually like, it’s a big thing. And so like learning and practicing some of those skills as you get older, it makes the transition into “I’m on my own”- hood a lot easier. Okay. Before we wrap up, I would love to have you share where can people find your book and where can they connect with you? 

GITANJALI: Yeah, absolutely. So you can find my book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, anywhere else you find books, hopefully your local bookstore as well. And you’re able to connect with me on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter. That’s probably where I’m most active.

Awesome. Fantastic. Honestly, I am eager to see what is ahead for you, Gitanjali. It has been an absolute pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

GITANJALI: Of course. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

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