“I failed my driving test today,” Alia AlMansoori tells me in the car as we’re driving into the Martian-looking landscape of the Dubai desert.
Thank God, I think to myself. She’s normal.
At just 18-years-old Alia has a career that most adults would envy. She is the UAE’s next space prodigy; she has launched Emirati Astronaut, a platform that encourages dialogue between aspiring astronauts and veterans of space flight; and has become the youngest person ever to be appointed Scientific Research Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“The university basically gave me an opportunity to study biology on a much bigger scale. So I worked on campus in the labs with my supervisor doctor Mohamed Al Sayegh, who has become one of my biggest role models and mentors, and it gave me an insight into how biology works. It reassured me that this is actually what I want do for the rest of my life. I want to make impactful researches that will help humanity.”
Over the last few days, weeks and months, a new vocabulary has overwhelmed our Instagram stories, Twitter feeds and Whatsapp groups. We’re living in the midst of a historic moment as the Emirates Mars Mission set off to space. The world watched as the UAE's Hope Probe set off from base camp in Japan, and will become the first probe to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers when it reaches the red planet's orbit in 2021. “I know a lot of the engineers that are working on it,” Alia says. “It’s definitely something that I’m so proud of. I’m really proud to be at this young stage in the UAE as it’s expanding into this field.”
“When I was really young, we didn’t have Emirati astronauts, and now we’re talking about the first astronaut [Hazza Al Mansouri] and the Mars mission. It just makes me feel really proud to be alive at this moment and excited that I get to experience all of these things. It reminds me every day that nothing is impossible, you know, you can send astronauts from the middle of the desert to the International Space Station. It’s such a young country, so nothing is impossible.”
Jumpsuit: TRE by Natalie Ratabesi, Dhs3,000, at theoutnet.com. Headband: Asos Design, Dhs45. Shoes: Jimmy Choo, Dhs3,800.
“A lot of people assume that the UAE is all about industrialism or things like petrol and oil, but it’s so much more than that. The talent really resides in the people here, whether they’re expats or Emiratis, there’s so much talent everywhere. There are so many kids in schools in Dubai that are really interested in science or engineering, which really makes me happy because I’ve never felt like I was that weird nerd who was into science. I felt like I was a really cool person because science is really celebrated here. I’m excited to see how it becomes more celebrated day by day.”
Alia is a UAE national and has recently graduated from Al Mawakeb. She was all set to travel to Scotland this term to begin her degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, but social distancing plus travel bans equals another year of at-home learning. “I’ve grown up my entire life really wanting to be in this field. You know how when you’re younger sometimes you’re like, ‘I wanna be a ballerina’, ‘I wanna be an artist’, but in the back of my head, throughout all these phases, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist.” After all, she’s spent her career surrounded by a smart, successful, savvy family. “My dad has a PhD and my mum was a school teacher, so they've always focused on education. I also grew up with my elder sister taking me to conferences.”
It’s hard to believe that Alia is just 18 when she’s already lived a life of much acclaim. Unlike most teenagers, her weekend hobbies include Brazilian Jiu Jitsu rather than frequenting the mall until the wee hours of the morning, and she abhors the social media spotlight, too. “If you were to ask me how many followers I have on Instagram right now, I wouldn’t even know, because that’s not something I would check.” Spoiler alert: it’s a cool 35,000. “Sometimes, when I’m not on social media, I do feel like I’m missing out, but I think the greater things in life come in real life. They’re the moments that should be appreciated. Instead of snapping a picture of my breakfast, I’ll eat it and enjoy it.”
But Alia does glimpse the life of a pervasive teen every now and then. “I had my graduation ceremony over Zoom, and I had to give a speech to my entire year. I wore a fancy shirt under my graduation gown, but NGL I wore sweatpants below the camera. I mean, I had the opportunity to wear sweatpants to my graduation, who wouldn’t take that chance?”
It’s a harsh statistic, though: only 28 per cent of researchers are women. Even starker: only three per cent of scientific Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women. Yet Alia AlMansoori is hopeful. “It has always been my dream to go to space, but I understand that it’s a really selective process. If it doesn’t happen through a space agency, which I hope it will, but if it doesn’t, then I’ll just build my own rocket and go myself.”
We don’t doubt that for a second.
Photography by Efraim Evidor
Art Director: Cate Ward. Styling by Yasmin Reda & Nimotalai Oki.
Hair by Tanya Van Renen, senior stylist at Pastels Salon Mercato.
Make-up by Amber McCarthy.
Shot on location at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa - Dubai