Women of Water
How six women are raising their voices and using technology to lead the charge for clean water
10 Min. Read
The government wasn’t listening to the adults, the adults [weren’t] listening to the government, so I thought [they] would listen to kids like me.
We knew the water in our schools wasn't good because they had lead testing every year. We knew it was an issue we wanted to combat.
What do you do if people don't know that there are 3,000 locations in the United States with more lead in their water than Flint, Michigan?
I think that being a scientist is like being a superhero, because superheroes save people, and want to do what is best for their society – scientists do the same exact thing.
When the Zika virus broke out, Gitanjali Rao, now 13 years old, looked into new gene-editing methods that could help fight the disease’s spread.
When Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, she took a look at building a better black box flight recorder.
And when she heard about people in her school getting bullied on social media, she created an app to detect and monitor cyberbullying messages.
If a problem has Rao’s attention, she’s probably trying to crack it.
Most people thought I was an 11 year old with a simple, science fair idea, but if I could get this to work I could help so many residents of Flint.
Rao is a whirlwind of activity – doing projects with the STEM Scouts of America, cohosting a children's science programme on public radio, playwriting – but what truly sets this child apart is an innate desire to help others. 'I have always loved to help other people, no matter if it was just doing the dishes that night or playing the piano in the hospital,' she says. 'I want my impact on the world to be something that is life changing.'
When activists in Flint, Michigan, turned the world’s attention to the water crisis there, Rao was inspired to invent a tool using Android technology that could empower millions of people. Little did she know that she would become part of a larger movement – one started by a young girl inspired to bring those who could help, together.
Meet the spark plug who roused a nation
At a rally in Flint about a year ago, an organiser pulled Amariyanna 'Mari' Copeny onto the stage with Janelle Monáe and Stevie Wonder. Little Miss Flint received a familiar cheer from hometown fans.
Copeny, 11, loves a crowd, but what makes the young girl special is her outsize sense of duty. After she won the Little Miss Flint pageant in 2015, she used her title to initiate a dialogue between Flint’s children and the police.
And when the Michigan city’s water began to go bad – taking a long shower hurt Copeny’s skin, and her younger siblings got rashes – she knew something had to be done. The corrosive water was actually eroding iron mains and leaching lead from old pipes in homes and buildings throughout the municipality, though people didn’t yet know that. A period of misinformation and confusion gripped Flint – that’s when Little Miss Flint raised her voice.
Changing its water source to the Flint River was only a temporary measure as the city waited to join a new regional water system. Unfortunately, river water is often the most challenging to treat. Naturally high in corrosive chloride, the river presented a series of water management problems. Although the high acidity wasn’t dangerous in itself, the chemical interaction between the new water and old pipes was.
Lake Huron, the previous source, was more pH-balanced, creating mineral residue in the old pipes. But the Flint River’s acidity broke down that protection, causing lead to leach into the drinking water. What’s worse – Flint is just one of thousands of communities across the United States affected by lead-contaminated water.
In early 2016, a new friend came to visit Little Miss Flint: The President of the United States. She’d written a letter to President Obama, requesting a visit when she was in Washington DC, to attend a congressional hearing on the Flint crisis. He came to Flint instead, met with her and redirected the national spotlight onto the city.
I am one of the children affected by this water, and I’ve been doing my best to march in protest and to speak out for all the kids that live here in Flint.
Over the next year, Little Miss Flint would appear in Teen Vogue and Time for Kids and at the rally. The pageant winner’s big voice is always speaking for the children of Flint – whether she’s raising money for tickets to Black Panther or getting school supplies donated so that families can afford filters for their home taps.
'I don’t do pageants anymore,' Copeny says. 'I started speaking up for other people.'
As Little Miss Flint’s message resonated across the nation, people began looking for long-term solutions… including three young engineers inspired by NASA technology to create a water filter that you can see working.
Washington DC’s S3 Trio works with NASA to get the lead out
For old friends Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell, there was no question where they’d do their 270 hours of community service to graduate high school: The Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3). Founded as a place for would-be DC entrepreneurs to learn code, develop soft skills and network, In3 was a perfect fit.
When the girls’ In3 mentor, Marissa Jennings, suggested that they compete in a NASA contest – the Optimus Prime Spin-Off Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC) – the girls, now high school seniors, were excited to develop a 'spin-off' of an existing NASA technology.
The girls kept coming back to water. Their school’s drinking fountains had recently been covered with plastic rubbish bags after construction polluted the school’s water supply. With Flint and nearby Baltimore schools distributing bottled water, the closed fountains seemed part of a larger problem.
Taking NASA’s Apollo programme water filtration technology as an inspiration, the girls wondered how astronauts can stay hydrated by drinking recycled urine, but school fountains aren’t free of toxins.
'We know that there are water filters out there, so why do we still have impure water?'
The girls envisioned a transparent design demonstrating successful filtration. With so much doubt about water quality – 3,000 locations in the United States have higher lead levels in their drinking water than Flint, but testing isn’t widespread – it was important to see the filter work. 'Communities deserve to have clean water,' Skinner says. 'So what we decided was to create a filter that… you could actually visibly see the water being filtered.'
Their prototype uses a small fan to push toxins through a filter. To demonstrate that the water is clean, pH-testing strips in a clear tube show the balanced pH level.
The S3 Trio, as the girls call themselves, won second place overall and received their award at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, where they met with members of the National Society of Black Engineers to further develop the project. But for the girls, the best outcome might be inspiring others.
People in our community who were interested in STEM, they will see us. We just look like regular high school kids.
With Little Miss Flint giving voice to the voiceless, the S3 Trio was likewise inspired to set an example by pitching in. And for a young girl in Colorado, 'pitching in' means using a 3D printer, Android software and 'buckypaper' to empower people to find out what’s in their tap water at home.
How one girl is proving no problem is too big
When Gitanjali Rao started brainstorming about how she could help Flint, she thought she’d just have to find a way to get the lead out of the water. 'This was like solving global warming with just one solution,' she says, 'which seemed almost impossible.'
In the wake of Flint, the Rao family, like many others across the country, tested their own water. Rao was astonished by how cumbersome the process was. Not only was the test expensive, but it took two weeks. To Rao, one of the most frightening aspects of the Flint water crisis was simply not knowing if the water was safe. Rao realised that just being able to test your water could be empowering.
Rao, who often reads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Material Science web page, was thinking of Flint when something struck her.
I came across this new technology using carbon nanotube sensors to detect hazardous gases in the air. I immediately connected that thought back to lead detection… in drinking water.
Using a version of carbon nanotubes called 'buckypaper', Rao thought that she had the perfect material for a water-testing strip – in theory. It was thrilling to realise that she had discovered something that no one else had tried. But she would need to build the device to test it – a lot of work left to do.
A tour of Denver’s municipal water facility led Rao to lab manager Selene Hernandez Ruiz, who was immediately taken by the child with a PhD-level understanding of hydrology. The more she listened, the more Ruiz realised that she wasn’t just hearing a brilliant idea but meeting someone very special. 'Gitanjali… conducts herself, in terms of friendship and scientifically speaking, pretty much as an adult,' Ruiz says. It wasn’t long before she was working alongside Rao to help her test her device, which she calls Tethys.
When they offered me the lab space I acted really calm and collected there, but I come home and I start screaming my head off. It was one of the best days of my life, honestly.
As Rao and Ruiz worked together, they developed a bond that only makes Tethys more promising. With a recent test yielding results for other metals, it’s possible a device could check tap water for mercury, arsenic and cadmium. Rao just might invent a tool that could perform a whole battery of tests cheaply and accurately.
Ruiz believes that Rao’s embrace of cutting-edge technology and fearless curiosity inspires us to see what’s possible.
For Rao, empowering awareness is just the first step in responding to Flint. 'I hope that creating this lead-detection device can start pushing us further to do something about this issue,' she says. And for her the next step is obvious: gathering the data from Tethys and other sources in a single, transparent database.
Fortunately, one woman has just such a database in the works.
How big data could save us from another Flint
While researching business opportunities in water quality, Doll Avant learned that her father had been diagnosed with diabetes, which was a shock – he lived a healthy lifestyle and had only recently retired. Steeped in water research – including a fellowship at NASA Research Park – the successful consultant couldn’t help wondering if there was something in her father’s water.
As his condition deteriorated, she discovered an obscure study suggesting a link between arsenic and diabetes. His water could have been a factor in his illness. 'It didn’t take much for me to get copies of local water-quality reports and connect the dots,' she says. 'But my dad was already really sick at that point, and it was too late for much to be done for him.'
Her research began as a way to prevent another Flint crisis. But now the issue was personal.
Her father’s death spurred Avant to dig into everything she could find – EPA reports, news items and scientific studies. What she uncovered stunned her: Thousands of American communities with higher lead levels than Flint. Untold numbers of EPA violations. Thousands of known carcinogens unregulated by the EPA.
Avant realised that millions of people simply don’t know they are in danger from long-term exposure to waterborne toxins. 'They don’t take precautions,' she says, 'just because they don’t have the data.' So she started a company, Aquagenuity, to create the world’s largest water database.
We should treat it the same way we treat money. Money is a limited valuable asset, so you have all these sophisticated tools around managing it. We need the same sophisticated tool set around managing water.
Beyond releasing data once trapped in obscure reports, Aquagenuity intends to give consumers useful direction should they discover compromised water.
'You put in all your past addresses based on where you lived and how long you lived there,' Avant says, 'And the system actually tells you, hey, these are things that you can do to detoxify – certain metals and different things that are built up in your system.'
The key to pulling this off will be using Google Cloud to secure the information, as well as applying machine learning to provide customised health and wellness information.
'You put in all your past addresses based on where you lived and how long you lived there. And the system actually tells you, hey, these are things that you can do to detoxify – certain metals and different things that are built up in your system.'
Aquagenuity also plans to provide steps for businesses and governments. A new bottling facility could quickly know what types of filters to use, or local government could find out what kind of back-end filtration is best for a certain manufacturing process. 'We’re teaching the machine how to do those recommendations instantly,' Avant says. 'The machine-learning framework that’s built into Google Cloud is going to help us speed that up significantly.'
The 20th century was really hard on the planet. So let’s reinvent how we use water as a resource, and let’s do it the better way for the 21st century.
According to Avant, Aquagenuity is rooted in the belief that we have to do things differently. And the biggest things that she, Gitanjali Rao, Little Miss Flint and the S3 Trio are doing differently?
Not waiting for permission. Searching for answers. Getting involved.
'I don’t feel like anybody is thinking about these things,' says Avant. 'So it’s like… well, why not me?'
If you’re between the ages of 13 and 18 and have an idea for how you can solve a problem in your community using science, technology, engineering or maths, submit your idea to Google Science Fair here. And if you’re looking for an introduction to coding, take a look at Google’s Made with Code programme here.