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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

The results are in - and Alia's Genes in Space experiment is a winner

Dubai schoolgirl sent her experiment to the International Space Station for testing

Alia Al Mansoori, 14, sits in the Starliner simulation while visiting the Dubai Airshow. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Alia Al Mansoori, 14, sits in the Starliner simulation while visiting the Dubai Airshow. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Alia Al Mansoori has simple trick when she wants to avoid being recognised by her growing army of fans.

She takes off her trademark glasses.

It’s a strategy that works as well for Alia as it does for Superman in his alter ego, Clark Kent. “Except that Superman puts on his glasses,” laughed the 15-year-old Dubai schoolgirl.

This has been a unforgettable year for the pupil at Al Mawakeb School. After winning the prestigious Genes in Space competition, she has watched her experiment blasted into space, traveled the world, met international leaders, and become almost instantly recognisable wherever she goes in the UAE.

Finally, she is able to share the result of her experiment, which was tested on board the International Space Station - and reveal that it has been a complete success.

Watching the launch of the rocket carrying her experiment into orbit this August was the highlight of her year, Alia said, along with meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

She was invited to join them for a sneak preview of the Louvre Abu Dhabi last month.

“I got to meet the leaders of my country and I got to speak to them about my experiment,” she explained.

“I was really happy to do so because they inspired me in a way and it makes me really happy when I got to meet them because they make this country and they made all of this happen.”

Back in November 2016, Alia was one of five finalists in the first UAE Genes in Space competition, sponsored by The National, the aerospace corporation Boeing and the UAE Space Agency, and in February it was announced she had won.

Months of preparation followed, working with a team at Harvard University in Boston, to get her experiment, designed to measure changes in genetic material while in space, using a machine known as a miniPCR.

But beyond the world of science, the teenager has become an unexpected celebrity. Even before the launch, US newspapers and media outlets were quick to seek interviews for what they saw as a good news story from the Middle East.

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Read more:

'Capture complete': SpaceX capsule carrying Emirati schoolgirl's experiment docks at International Space Station

'You can do it': Nasa chief astronaut's space message to Dubai teenager

Dreams of Emirati teenager Alia Al Mansoori launched into space

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Her travels over the summer took her to Boston, Florida, and Canada, with a detour to New York for an interview with Teen Vogue. Back home, she was a guest of honour at the WorldSkills Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest vocation skills competition, and, of course made that trip to the Louvre Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

“They said so many things to me, so many words of encouragement, so much advice that it really did shape me as a person and I am really grateful for that,” she said.

“I guess my life has changed 180 degrees. It’s not just about what I have achieved, but (it has) also changed me as a person because now I have the responsibility of the whole country to display, the youth of my country.”

For many young people in the UAE, she has become a role model, with any public appearance involving multiple requests for selfies with her peers. Her black bomber jacket covered in space badges has become her trademark, as well, of course, as her glasses.

This week has seen her add another name to her collection of famous astronauts, which includes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, and most recently Al Wordon, the pilot of Apollo 15, who she met while he was visiting the UAE this week.

After the Dragon capsule docked with the space station, Alia’s samples were used for a series of experiments conducted by astronaut Peggy Whitson, then frozen and returned safely to Earth, when they were sent back to Harvard for the final analysis.

“I really happy I feel that the work I’ve done this year and last year really paid off when I found out the results,” said Alia.

There was praise from Dr Ahmad Al Falasi , Minister of State for Higher Education and Chairman the UAE Space Agency, who said: “This latest success represents the significant progress being made by the UAE in the field of space science education. The UAE Genes in Space competition contributes significantly to our vision of creating a generation of young space pioneers capable of leading regional efforts to explore and utilize space peacefully.”

Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director-general of the UAE Space Agency, said: “One of our core mandates is to develop national and regional capabilities in advanced Stem fields and space sciences. Alia's success during the inaugural edition of the UAE Genes in Space is a reflection of the progress that has been made throughout our burgeoning space sector.”

Laura Koot, The National’s Managing Editor, said she was pleased to see Alia’s efforts come to such a satisfying conclusion. “After covering every step of this journey it is so gratifying to know that Alia’s achievement will very likely impact the future of space travel. She has proven to be a remarkable and inspirational role model.”

As for Alia, for the coming months, she plans to spend time further analysing the results of her experiment, as well as concentrating on her school work.

Her longer term ambition is still to become an astronaut and to be the first Emirati to reach Mars. “Once the rocket launched I knew this is exactly what I want to do, this is exactly where I want to be,’ she said.

“By 2030 I want to pilot a plane - that’s the top of my list - have a degree in medicine and become a diver and have already started training to be an astronaut.”

How Alia's experiment will help humans get to Mars

Alia’s winning experiment examined how genes might change under the stresses caused by being in space, such as cosmic radiation and microgravity.

Her samples were placed in a machine on board the International Space Station. called a miniPCR thermal cycler, which can copy DNA multiple times.

After the samples were examined on return to Earth, scientists were able to successfully detect changes caused by being in space in the way DNA transmits instructions through proteins and other molecules in living organisms.

Although Alia’s samples were taken from nematode worms, the results have much bigger long term applications, especially for human space flight and long term missions, such as to Mars.

It also means that the first DNA experiments using human genomes can now be carried out on the ISS.

 

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