By Jon Jensen and Rima Maktabi
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (CNN) — Can jumping spiders still hunt for their prey in space?
It may sound like science fiction or the start of a bad joke, but this is an experiment that will be carried out on the International Space Station later this year, thanks to Egyptian teenager Amr Mohamed.
Mohamed, 19, from Alexandria, came up with one of the two winning entries from around the world for the YouTube Space Lab competition, backed by Professor Stephen Hawking, which asked students to design experiments for space scientists.
The idea behind Mohamed’s experiment is to study how the zebra spider, which jumps on its prey rather than building a web, will hunt when it is in zero gravity.
It was conceived through Mohamed’s fascination with both science and spiders.
“I’m just interested in how things work, and science seems to answer all my questions,” said Mohamed. “For example, physics can explain the world with just a handful of equations. And biology tells you how your body works. I’m just interested in that stuff.”
Mohamed only heard about the Space Lab competition three days before the deadline, so he designed and made a YouTube video of his idea in a single day.
He said he was reading about which animals had been in space, and discovered orb weaver spiders among them.
“They were very interesting because they build the knots differently,” said Mohamed. “So I say, OK, they can survive, let’s make things a little harder. Let’s get a kind of spider that can’t build webs in space and that actually gravity is a factor in the way it hunts, so that’s how the idea came.
“I just started writing a script and turned the camera on and explained my experiment and edited the video and it was online before the day was over.”
Mohamed was announced as a regional finalist and after a week of public voting was invited to Washington DC as a regional winner to experience a zero-gravity flight.
During the trip, Mohamed and a two-girl team from Troy, Michigan, were announced as global winners whose experiments will be taken to the International Space Station.
Mohamed is currently taking a gap year before studying at Stanford University, California, in the fall.
He said: “Before the competition, I was just a kid struggling with my A-levels. Out of the huge ocean of the internet, the tide brought me Space Lab. So right now, I know where I want to be. I know who I want to be.”
Mohamed’s achievement is particularly impressive as Egypt’s math and science education came 125th out of 139 nations in a World Economic Forum survey.
“There’s not many Egyptians in the field of science and technology,” said Mohamed. “Egypt is not at the front of innovation. When it comes to technology or science, we’re always consumers, we’re never producers.”
Mohamed’s education was disrupted during last year’s revolution, when his school was closed for several months.
“There was so much stress and nobody knew where this was going,” he said. “We had to protect the streets, so we formed committees to protect the streets.
“I had a curriculum to study, and we didn’t know when the revolution was going to end or when this is going to stop, or when the school is going to get back. So we had to go on. I had to study and do the patrolling and and from time to time join the protests.”
Mohamed hopes one day to help change Egyptian attitudes to science through his passion.
“If I’m going to work in the field of science or technology, I might be able to bring the cultural or regional problems that people of the Middle East have into the field for tackling to solve them,” said Mohamed.
Mohamed’s mother, Safaa El Badbooly, saw his potential early. “Each person rises in a certain field, but for Amr it was reading all along. He read a lot and in everything. He was reading books at age three,” she said.
She, too, hopes that after her son has studied abroad, he will return to Egypt to create a better future. “To benefit his country and maybe start a project like many others who came back and developed Egypt to benefit their own people,” she said.
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