Winner of Genes in Space competition hopes to plant UAE flag on Mars

Alia Al Mansoori’s proposal to study how space exposure affects the fitness of live organisms at the molecular level was selected by a panel of judges as the best from the five teams who made it to the final round of judging on Wednesday.

Alia Al Mansoori, 14, winner of the Genes in Space competition, makes her presentation yesterday. Christopher Pike / The National
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ABU DHABI // An energetic Emirati girl from Dubai who dreams of one day planting the UAE flag on Mars is the winner of the national Genes in Space competition.

Alia Al Mansoori’s proposal to study how exposure to space affects the health of live organisms at cellular level was chosen by a panel of experts as the winner from five teams of eight pupils who made it to the final round of judging.

Alia, 14, will see her experiment blasted into space from the Kennedy Space Centre between March and July to be tested by astronauts on the International Space Station.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, here’s the spaceship I’m going to Mars on,’ because I feel like I’m getting closer to that big goal,” the Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha pupil said.

“I’ve always felt that this is what I’m born to do, this is for me.”

The award was presented by Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency, who congratulated all of the students who took part.

“I think all of you are winners because the idea is gaining knowledge,” said Dr Al Ahbabi.

“Young people like you, you are the future. One day, inshallah, we will see one of you as an astronaut.”

The UAE is the first country outside the US to host the Genes in Space competition.

When it was launched by the UAE Space Agency, Boeing and The National in November 2015, it challenged children from Grades 7 to 12 to come up with an experiment that applied DNA analysis to real-life challenges in space exploration.

Organisers received more than 100 submissions from 75 schools, involving about 300 pupils and teachers from across the country. “For a nation the size of the UAE, that’s about 10 times the engagement we had in the US,” said Dr Sebastian Kraves, a molecular neurobiologist.

Dr Kraves co-invented a device called the miniPCR DNA Discovery System, which the pupils used to carry out their experiments.

Five teams of pupils from Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, Brighton College Al Ain, Brighton College Abu Dhabi, Gems Modern Academy and Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha were selected as finalists in November.

Each team won a miniPCR for their school and were paired with mentors to fine-tune their entries.

“Judges were impressed not only by the quantity, but by the quality and breadth of the submissions,” Dr Kraves said.

“They ranged from experiments to protect astronauts’ DNA from cosmic radiation to protecting their bones from degradation in ways that can cause us to not only travel to space better, but live healthier lives here on Earth.”

The teams presented their experiments to a room full of scientists, academics, journalists and a panel of five expert judges gathered for the final day of the Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi.

Each presentation was followed by gruelling questions from the judges. Eighty per cent of the judging had been made in the lead-up to the presentations.

“When we present our work, we are used to having our work criticised and challenged. This is part of being a scientist,” said Dr Luisa Cochella, a Genes in Space judge from Austria’s Research Institute of Molecular Pathology.

“The only way in which we grow and learn is by challenging what we know. This is what you want to develop in a scientist – a critical, curious mind.”

Kevin Foley, head of Boeing’s global sales and marketing, called Genes in Space an extremely successful event.

“It’s been an impressive display of how talented the UAE youth and education system are,” Mr Foley said. “The students were brilliant, their proposals were incredible. Our winner is going to be a tremendous representative for UAE youth.”

Dr Kraves said his team, with experts from Boeing and the Space Agency, would work with Alia for the next 60 days to prepare her experiment for space. For Alia, this will be the first step towards achieving her ultimate dream.

“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “When I go to Mars, hopefully I’ll be taking an Emirati flag with me and I’ll be planting it on the planet.”

Rashid Murooshid, Editor-in-Chief of The National, said: "On behalf of The National, I'm very pleased to congratulate Alia on her incredible achievement today and the exciting future that lies ahead.

“We are incredibly proud to have supported such a rewarding competition, particularly since this is the first edition of Genes in Space to take place outside the US.

"The support offered by The National is a reflection of our deep commitment to education, and forms part of our contribution to transitioning the UAE."