10 Influential Young Leaders In STEM

The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021It is never too early to start working towards your dreams. All over the world, young people are accomplishing great things even while facing enormous challenges.  As I wrote in Chapter 4 of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “Instead of simply taking a gloom-and-doom attitude, a record number of young people are tackling social change and becoming leaders both in their generation and across generations, throughout the entire world.” The 10 young leaders I’m going to introduce you to in this blog post are a perfect example of this. Today, more than ever, young people are taking on global challenges and creating their own solutions. Whether it’s developing a revolutionary technology or founding an organization, these young innovators are leaders in their generation. Keep reading to learn more about these inspiring individuals and how they’re working to change the world!


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021
Image credit: Periódico Síntesis Chiapas

1. Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López, Age 11, Mexico

Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López grew up in San Cristóbal de las Casas. In this area, residents often find themselves with little access to hot water as many are low-income and can’t afford to buy a heater. Without warm water, they often fall ill with respiratory diseases. Additionally, there is a negative impact on the climate as they are forced to cut down trees for firewood. Inspired by this, Xóchitl set out to find a way to make a more affordable, accessible heating solution, and she did just that!

Her Project

At only eight years old, Xóchitl developed Warm Bath, a solar-powered water heater. Warm Bath can be made from basic, recycled objects, and costs only about $30 to assemble. This innovation is environmentally friendly and brings warm water to residents of San Cristóbal de las Casas (and beyond!).

Currently, Xóchitl is working on getting a patent for this project. Warm Bath will be revolutionary for both developing countries and countries that struggle with deforestation. As climate change becomes a more serious issue, Xóchitl is leading the charge for change!


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2. Gitanjali Rao, Age 15, United States

Gitanjali Rao was Time Magazine’s 2020 Kid of the Year. At only 15 years old, Gitanjali has made numerous inventions to tackle a wide variety of conflicts and holds “innovation workshops” to mentor students. In 2019, she was named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space. To this day, she has worked with over 30,000 students, and her journey is only beginning.

Her Projects

Gitanjali’s first project was inspired by the Flint water crisis. Interested in learning how to measure lead content in water, she developed Tethys. This innovation uses carbon nanotubes, a 9-volt battery, and a lead sensing unit to send water quality information via Bluetooth. For this invention, Gitanjali won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and is currently working on a prototype with the Denver water facility.

That’s not all she has invented! In 2019, she developed a tool called Epione which uses genetic engineering to help make an early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction. She also made a version of this tool to be used as a mobile application.

Most recently, Gitanjali created an app called Kindly. This app detects cyberbullying in its early stages using artificial intelligence. kindly is always looking for volunteers to promote their mission of ending cyberbullying, so be sure to check out their website for ways to get involved!

Her Advice

In her recent interview with Time, Gitanjali shared how she comes up with her ideas: “observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate.” She goes on to advise young inventors to focus on one thing that excites them and run with it. She says,

“I think more than anything right now, we just need to find that one thing we’re
passionate about and solve it. Even if it’s something as small as, I want to find an
easy way to pick up litter. Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to
come up with something big.”

With that advice, she is already inspiring a new generation of inventors! By tackling problems one at a time, Gitanjali is leading the charge for young people to change the world.


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021
Image credit: Harsh Agrawal

3. Harsh Agrawal, Age 16, India

Since he was little, Harsh Agrawal has been passionate about solving global issues, and, in 2017, chose one he would dedicate all his time to – pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early, and because of that, the illness has only a 10% survival rate. This statistic struck Harsh, leading him to step in and do something about it.

His Project

After only a year of researching pancreatic cancer with professionals, Harsh came up with Cancer-EX with assistance from his friend Anmol Rathi. Cancer-EX is a strip that uses a patient’s saliva to detect pancreatic cancer early on. This method is non-invasive and costs about 125 times less than an MRI, CT, or PET scan (which are traditionally used for detection). This method also doesn’t require help from a medical professional, making it more accessible to patients! Currently, Cancer-EX is one of the only non-invasive methods of detecting pancreatic cancer in the world and the first to use saliva in detection!

Harsh and Anmol hope that one day this innovation can be used in hospitals around the world. Today, they are working to create a formula that could detect a patient’s risk for pancreatic cancer based on their basic information.


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4. Taylor Richardson, Age 17, United States

Taylor Richardson, also known as Astronaut Starbright, is advocating for STEAM education all across the world. Inspired by Mae C. Jemison, Taylor is aiming to be the first Black astronaut on Mars and is currently a full-time student, activist, and speaker (as well as one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space Award recipients!). She has traveled around the world, promoting STEAM education and inspiring young people everywhere.

Her Project

Taylor has put together numerous fundraisers and campaigns to raise money for education. She started a book drive and reading program called Taylor’s Take Flight and raised over $100,000 for young people to see the movie A Wrinkle In Time. She also raised over $20,000 for people to see the movie Hidden Figures, ultimately helping people in over 28 countries see the film. Taylor also has started campaigns to help send kids to Space Camps.

Taylor also co-founded the group STEAM Squad with four other girls. Together, they work to improve inclusion in STEAM fields for women and minorities. Taylor frequently visits different schools and even different countries to give presentations about her journey and to inspire others to follow their dreams.

Most recently, Taylor started The Black Friend Challenge. The Black Friend is a book by Frederick Joseph that aims to start a conversation about combating racism. Originally, she wanted to distribute 100 copies of this book, but since beginning the challenge, she has raised over $22,000 and distributed copies to libraries and schools in over 30 states. She believes that every kid should have access to this important book in order to help them better understand bias and how to combat racism.

Throughout her journey, Taylor has been open about her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which she called “Abundantly Different, Happily Divine.” She wants to make sure kids know that no matter who they are if they work hard, they can accomplish their dreams.


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5. Maanasa Mendu, Age 18, United States

When she was 13 years old, Maanasa Mendu noticed an energy scarcity problem in India. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, over 300 million residents of India live without electricity, and another 250 million only have spotty access. This totals to be over 40% of India’s population! Inspired by this, Maanasa decided to use her talents to help solve this problem.

Her Project

To make a difference, Maanasa came up with Harvest, an affordable invention that harvests energy from sun, wind, and rain. It uses materials that follow the piezoelectric effect and the photovoltaic effect. The piezoelectric effect is the ability of materials to produce an electric charge following applied mechanical stress, and the photovoltaic effect is what occurs when two different materials generate an electrical voltage when in close contact and struck by light. These materials are eco-friendly and cost-efficient, making it so more people can use the invention. Currently, Maanasa is working on obtaining a patent for her design.

In 2016, Maanasa won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention, and it was through 3M that I got to meet her in person. Two years later, she was named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space, and her story is just beginning!


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021

6. Joaquin Cortacans, Age 19, Uruguay

When he was 15 years old, Joaquin Cortacans became the first Uruguayan to attend Space Camp. He so thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity, he left space camp as a STEM advocate on a mission to provide more STEM opportunities in Uruguay. He wants to make sure all students dreaming of being involved with STEM fields have the opportunity to do so.

His Project

A few years ago, Joaquin began his nonprofit, Jóvenes Bajo la Lupa. With this organization, he hopes to spread the importance of science education and give students the space to explore and pursue their passions. He has also spoken to the Uruguayan Congress and on multiple TV and radio shows to try and increase STEM opportunities. His work to inspire young people to get involved in STEM is so inspiring, and in 2018, Joaquin was named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space Award recipients!


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021
Image credit: YouTube

7. Macinley Butson, Age 19, Australia

Macinley Butson came up with her first invention when she was only seven years old: a pair of tinted glasses that could be customized for different light conditions. Now, at 19 years old, she’s won the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and the NSW Young Australian of the Year award for her inventions! This invention would just be the first before she embarked on her exciting work in radiotherapy.

Growing up, Macinley learned about radiation and radiotherapy from her father, who works with cancer patients. She was taken aback by the suffering radiotherapy brought and decided she wanted to do something about it. In a 2019 interview, she explained, “I decided it wasn’t fair [the patients] would be subject to side-effect radiation which can cause skin burning as well as the chance of another cancer forming, so I decided to dedicate my time to finding a solution.”

Her Project

This dedication turned into a revolutionary invention: SMART Armour, or Scale Maille Armour for Radiation Therapy. This device limits excess doses of radiation for breast cancer patients. It is a handmade shield made from high-density copper that protects the untreated breast from receiving excess radiation during treatment. It has gone through extensive testing and is now waiting for a hospital to pick it up for a pilot study.

Her Advice

Following her success of SMART Armour, Macinley has become an inspiration for young inventors around the world. Last year, she was a judge for Australia’s Little Big Idea competition, and in an interview with the organization, she offered some advice to contestants:

  1. Remain passionately curious about everything you do.
  2. Don’t be afraid to redefine success.
  3. Innovation is an iterative process – each mistake only gets you closer to the solution!

With this mindset, Macinley is changing the world, and she continues to work hard to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients.


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021
Image credit: Forbes

8. Fionn Ferreira, Age 20, Ireland

Growing up, Fionn Ferreira often kayaked around the coasts of Ireland. On these trips, he saw the effects of the pollution crisis firsthand and decided enough was enough. He started by building small machines from wood and LEGOs. Over time, he built on these ideas and has since created award-winning inventions to aid in the pollution crisis.

His Project

In 2017, Fionn developed a method to extract microplastics from the water using a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid. When ferrofluid is added to water, it sticks to the microplastics. Then, the ferrofluid can be removed from the water using a magnet, taking along with it roughly 85% of microplastics. This is a quick and clean method that doesn’t harm the surrounding environment.

Today, Frionn is working with Stress Engineering to advance and experiment on his design. He is currently studying Chemistry at the University of Groningen, Netherland. As pollution and climate change become growing problems on our planet, Fionn is working nonstop to make a difference!


The Mars Generation_10 Influential Young Leaders in STEM_2021
Image credit: Forbes

9. Erin Smith, Age 21, United States

Erin Smith had a unique motivation for her science fair project: Michael J. Fox. At 16 years old, she remembers watching Fox on television and noticing his early symptoms of Parkison’s disease. Whenever he smiled and laughed, he seemed distant, a symptom of Parkison’s called facial masking. Curious by this, Erin decided to study it more.

Her Project

To do so, she went to nursing homes and filmed different residents as they watched Super Bowl commercials. Then, she studied their expressions using facial recognition software and reported the results at her science fair.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation was so impressed with the results, they supplied Erin with the resources to conduct another study – only this time with 500 patients. Following this study, Erin created FacePrint, an AI tool that could identify early Parkinson’s symptoms by analyzing video footage.

Today, Erin is working with Stanford Medical School to further develop FacePrint. Her goal is for hospitals to be able to use this invention to diagnose Parkison’s sooner, before more expensive traditional tests.


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10. Pranvera Hyseni, Age 24, Kosovo

Pranvera Hyseni grew up on a farm and spent her childhood nights looking up at the stars. She expressed an interest in astronomy at only three years old, but in her country, Kosovo, access to astronomy-related opportunities were unfortunately limited. Passionate about space and her country,  Pranvera set out to change that. She has since revolutionized astronomy education in the Kosovo school system and even has an asteroid named after her (making her name the first Albanian name to go to space!).

Her Project

In 2015, Pranvera founded the Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo and currently serves as its director. This nonprofit organization conducts astronomy research and educates the public about space exploration. The group is currently fundraising to build the first planetarium and observatory in Kosovo and works to bring speakers and other educational resources to schools across the country. Today, the Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo has over 200 volunteers.

Pranvera has been named one of the five most influential women in Kosovo, and in 2018, she was named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space. Her work to bring astronomy to everyone has inspired young people across the country to reach new heights and shoot for their stars!


What Will You Do?

These young leaders are making a big difference in the world, from solving complex global issues to promoting STEM education. They are proof that age doesn’t have to be a limiting factor when it comes to pursuing your dreams.  More inspiring, they have only just begun their journey and doubtlessly will accomplish even more amazing feats!

Now it’s your turn! What are you passionate about? How do you want to change the world? To learn more about chasing your dreams and making a difference, check out my new book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. Here I share my journey to reach my dreams at a young age and tips and advice for how you can do the same!


  1. Kim Hay says

    These are such fantastic young leaders all with great ideas that are coming into being. There are more young people out there that just need the tools to help fulfill their dreams. Thank you Astronaut Abby for introducing the rest of the world to these new great young people.

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