The Teenager Who Sent An Experiment to Space and Dreams of Visiting Mars

Alia Almansoori won a competition to have her experiment sent to the International Space Station, but she's not capping her ambitions at low Earth orbit.

|
Jan 9 2018, 8:41pm

Rei Watanabe

Alia Almansoori answered my phone call outside a movie theater in Dubai, where she had been watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the second time.

“You should see it—it’s amazing,” she said.

It seemed appropriate, given that I was calling the 15-year-old high school student to talk about space; specifically the experiment she recently sent to the International Space Station, and her dreams of traveling the universe.

Almansoori won the the "Genes in Space" competition last year, a contest run by Boeing and miniPCR, which challenges students from grades 7 through 12 to design experiments that will help uncover how space impacts DNA. It was the first experiment from the United Arab Emirates to be brought aboard the ISS.

Her experiment studied heat-shock proteins, a group of protective proteins that our body produces in response to stressors such as heat, cold, and UV light. In order to prepare for long missions, like a trip to Mars, scientists still have a lot to learn about the impacts of radiation and microgravity on the human body, and Almansoori’s data will contribute to that research.

“I wanted to see if these proteins are expressed in space, if the environment of space affected them,” Almansoori told me. “The first step in understanding them is to study if we can detect the genes turning on to make these proteins. When we got the results back we found out that, yes, we can detect these genes. It’s going to help us do so much more research.”

Almansoori told me her passion for science was sparked by a love of science fiction, something that she’s had since she was a child—the youngest of four kids.

“As a kid growing up, I always loved Star Wars and sci fi books and movies,” she said. “A lot of them involved genetic engineering and discovering other planets, and I realized it’s in the hands of the youth to make that happen.”

In August, Almansoori’s watched as her experiment launched, along with other cargo and supplies for the ISS, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. She got to spend the day exploring the Space Center and meeting NASA professionals who gave her tips on how she can get closer to her ultimate goal: becoming one of the first astronauts to travel to Mars.

“The trip to NASA and the trip to the US in general was life changing—and I mean it when I say life changing,” Almansoori said. “I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, and going there showed me how much it takes to be an astronaut, and gave me perspective. It showed me how to take the next steps.”

With two more years of high school ahead of her, Almansoori told me she knows she might change her mind, but at the moment she plans to study genetics at university. And when it comes to future career paths, astronaut is the only job title on her list.

“The most important thing is to remember that there’s no such thing as impossible,” she said. “Regardless of age, gender, whatever, if you have a dream, an ambition, and a goal and you work hard for it, you will reach it.”

Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.