Gitanjali Rao, 15, received the honor on Thursday as Time inaugurated the new annual award, which it established in partnership with the Nickelodeon children’s television network.
The award is a companion to Time’s famous Person of the Year recognition, which will be announced next week. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg won that honor last year — the first time it had gone to someone under the age of 25.
“I don’t look like your typical scientist,” Gao told Time. “Everything I see on TV is that it’s an older, usually white, man as a scientist.
“My 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.”
Rao was among five finalists for the honor, who were selected from more than 5,000 candidates between 8 and 16 years old. A committee of children and comedian Trevor Noah made the final decision.
In 2017, Rao earned accolades for responding to the Flint, Mich., water crisis by creating a device that uses carbon sensors to detect lead in water. She later partnered with water industry scientists in an effort to bring the device to market.
Rao’s latest innovation is an smartphone app called Kindly which uses artificial intelligence to help prevent cyberbullying.
Time’s is the latest recognition for the Lone Tree, Colo., teen, who last year was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list and won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge three years ago at the age of 11.