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Alia Almansoori: She’s Got The Whole World In Her Hands

Does life exist on Mars? Can humans survive a trip into deep space? These are questions that 18-year-old Alia Almansoori pondered as a child, while growing up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I have always been fascinated by space,” Alia said. “My earliest memory would definitely be when I was around 5 or 6 years old, and I remember becoming aware of how vast the universe is, and all of the unknown that lurks beyond the stars we see in the night sky.” 

The youngest of five siblings, her brothers teased her about her obsession with space, and once even convinced Alia that she was an alien. This propelled her to take a great interest in the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe.

She just might discover the answers first-hand, as she is on her way to becoming a scientist and hopefully, an astronaut. 

We managed to catch Alia in between university courses — virtually — at the University of Edinburgh, where she is a freshman, studying Biological Sciences. A huge Star Wars fan (her favorite part is Return of the Jedi), she is the youngest person ever to be appointed Scientific Research Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi. 

Her accomplishments in the field of space exploration are making an impact in the world and have helped put a spotlight on the UAE. 

Recently, the country’s Hope probe navigated its way into Mars’ orbit. “I am really excited about this mission and its scientific goals,” Alia said. “I am super proud of the progress the UAE has made over the past few years in exploring space.” 

Alia gathered with her enthusiastic family to watch the live broadcast of the probe entering the Red Planet’s orbit in February. She said that many in the UAE watched with pride, and “this is indicative of the change and progress that the UAE is making in encouraging people to take part in STEM fields.”

STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is a field that carries the misperception that it is dominated by men, but Alia told us, “I have many female classmates and professors, and I am working towards shining the light on these amazing women in the UAE and around the world, who are putting their mark on scientific history.”

Alia’s long-time fascination with space helped her win a prestigious “Genes in Space” competition at the age of 14: “My curiosity about the mechanisms of the human body honed over millions of years of evolution that can protect the DNA from external stressors is what inspired this particular project. I researched different proteins, and I found out about heat shock proteins, which protect the cell from different physical and chemical stresses such as heat.”

Alia is interested in further studying the link between heat shock proteins and their efficiency in protecting the DNA from damage induced from the harsh environment of space, in order to further protect astronauts on long-duration space missions. 

She would like to go to Mars herself one day. “I am interested in studying the Martian terrain and areas where water is present to see whether life can survive in such conditions, and even possibly if life did exist on Mars at some point.”

As for life here on Earth, the pandemic has affected everyone, including Alia, in countless ways. She graduated from high school and began university in the past 12 months. 

“It has been a little difficult to adjust, and when I’m feeling stressed, I like to take a book and sit in nature to read,” she said. She also practices mindfulness exercises to decompress. “Taking a break is really important, and sometimes, we put so much pressure on ourselves to always be productive, happy, and efficient. It is important to take a step back and give yourself a little break.”

Though Mars is at the top of Alia’s list for travel, she would love to visit Italy one day, when it is permitted to travel safely away from home, or California. 

When asked about blazing a path for women — especially in the Emirates — in the fields of space exploration and scientific research, Alia said, “I am proud to be able to spread my message to encourage young students like me to go out of their comfort zones and believe in themselves.”

Alia left us with one final thought: “I try my best to practice kindness towards everything that is around me, whether that be towards people, animals or the environment. I always take the initiative to try to understand different points of view, and treat everyone around me with respect.”

Roger that, Alia! Roger that.

To support Alia, follow her on Instagram

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