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Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

Zahaan Bharmal Founder of YouTube Space Lab In July 2012, Japan’s KOUNOTORI 3 cargo transporter carried two unusual experiments to the International Space Station. These experiments were the winners of an international competition called YouTube Space Lab. They were selected from among thousands of proposals submitted by teenagers around the world, and were performed on the ISS in September. We interviewed Mr. Zahaan Bharmal, who conceived and headed the project as part of his job at YouTube’s parent company, Google.

Zahaan Bharmal
Head of Marketing Strategic Communications, Google
Zahaan Bharmal earned a degree in Physics at Oxford University in 1999, and spent most of his early career as a policy adviser and speechwriter for the British government. He won a Fulbright Scholarship, and in 2007 earned an MBA at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. From 2008 to 2012, he was Head of Marketing Operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Google, moving on to his current position in 2012. He conceived the idea for YouTube Space Lab, a global competition challenging students to design an experiment for space, and headed the project.

  • Encouraging Teenagers to Think about Space
  • Sharing the Desire to Inspire the Next Generation
  • Two Thousand Applications from 80 Countries
  • Creativity, Imagination and Lateral Thinking
  • The World’s Coolest Scientific Classroom
  • A Fascination and Passion for Space
  • Searching for the Meaning of Our Existence

Encouraging Teenagers to Think about Space

Q. What is YouTube Space Lab?

Launch of the H-IIB rocket with the Space Lab experiments on board
Launch of the H-IIB rocket with the Space Lab experiments on board

YouTube Space Lab is a global competition that we launched in October 2011. The goal was to inspire the next generation of scientists. The competition challenged 14- to 18-year-old students around the world to record a two-minute video describing an idea for an experiment that could be carried out in space. We got an incredible panel of judges, including one of my childhood heroes, Professor Stephen Hawking, as well as astronauts past and present, space leaders, educators, scientists, thinkers. They watched these videos, scored them, and picked the best. JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide was one of judges.

In March 2012, we invited six finalists from around the world to a special event in Washington, D.C., where we announced the two winning experiments. These were the ones that were sent up to the International Space Station, and were broadcast live on YouTube as part of the finale of Space Lab. Q. How did Space Lab come about? The story probably begins about two decades ago, when I was a teenager. I became inspired by space. It captured my imagination, and it motivated me to study hard at school and even go on to study physics at university. So I experienced first hand the tremendous power of space to inspire, and for the last 20 years I’ve been carrying around this latent desire to pass on this inspiration to someone else, to the next generation of students.

And I guess I only really figured out how to do this when I joined Google four years ago. When I joined the company, I found out about these internal competitions that they run, where anyone can pitch an idea for something new. And so, relatively new to the company, I just pitched this idea to the senior executives at Google: "How about we send a kid’s science experiment into space. What do you think?" I didn’t really know what to expect, but they liked the idea. I think the idea resonated because fundamentally Google is a company founded by scientists - and so inspiring the next generation of scientists is something very dear to our hearts.

Space Lab combined the wonder of space with the amazing platform that is YouTube. Our hope was to inspire these young minds in their formative years, when they’re deciding what they’re interested in, what they’re going to study, and to get them excited about space and science more broadly.

Sharing the Desire to Inspire the Next Generation

Q. What were the factors that made YouTube Space Lab a success?

YouTube Space Lab channel
YouTube Space Lab channel

We relied very heavily on the amazing network of partners who supported us. At Google, we don’t know how to send an experiment to space! That’s not our area of expertise. So one of our first challenges was assembling the people around the world who could make this happen. That was NASA, obviously, and also the European Space Agency, and obviously JAXA, which played an incredibly important role, actually sending the experiment up to the International Space Station.

We also partnered with Space Adventures, the space tourism company, and with Lenovo, whose laptops are actually onboard the Space Station. It was this coalition of partners, with its broad reach, that really helped give Space Lab legitimacy and get the message out.

We also publicized the Space Lab through our channel on YouTube. We recorded a promotional video to launch the competition, which got over 13 million views. Professor Stephen Hawking also recorded a great video talking about the importance of space to humanity’s future. So I think the success of the project owes to the combination of our channel and our wonderful partners.

Related Link: YouTube Space Lab
Related Link: Professor Stephen Hawking welcomes you to YouTube Space Lab Q. What were they like to work with as the project was developed? I found it inspiring working with them. We simply couldn’t have done it without them. JAXA, ESA, NASA - they’re just incredibly smart, motivated, passionate people who care about the next generation of scientists and astronauts and explorers. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and as someone who has wanted to be an astronaut myself but never quite achieved it, working with these space agencies was a dream come true.

Two Thousand Applications from 80 Countries

Q. What were the submissions like, and where did they come from?

We received over 2,000 submissions from 80 countries around the world. The greatest number came from India, and the next most were from the U.S. There were about 40 submissions from Japan. To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect when we launched this competition, because no one had done anything quite like this before. I was blown away by those numbers - particulary the geographic diversity.

We were asking these kids not just to come up with an idea but to come up with an idea that could feasibly be carried out on the Space Station. And that’s not easy. There are lots of constraints to sending something to the Space Station. So I was incredibly impressed with the insights, imagination and creativity of these teenagers.

Q. Tell us about the two winning experiments.

From left: Amr Mohamed, Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen
From left: Amr Mohamed, Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen Many dead fruit flies in the jumping spider’s habitat
Many dead fruit flies in the jumping spider’s habitat

The winners in the younger group were two 16-year-old girls from Troy, Michigan, in the United States, Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma. Their experiment had to do with pro-biotic bacteria. There’s been lots of research showing that harmful bacteria becomes more virulent in space. And so their simple question was, what happens if you send good bacteria, a pro-biotic, into space? Could it become even better for you? They found a pro-biotic bacteria called B-septilus - Bacteria septilus - and that was sent into space. This kind of research in space could one day help us tackle super bugs on Earth. It’s really fascinating.

The experiment from the older group came from a boy in Alexandria, Egypt, named Amr Mohamed. His experiment had to do with the Zebra jumping spider. Most spiders catch their prey by spinning webs, but this one does it by jumping on them. And obviously what’s so fascinating is that jumping requires an understanding of gravity. So his thesis was, what happens when you send such a spider into microgravity? How’s it going to adjust? Will it still be able to catch its prey? So, if you saw the live stream of the experiment, you saw the habitat where the spider was living, and you saw lots of dead fruit flies, its prey. That suggests that it was able to adapt.

Creativity, Imagination and Lateral Thinking

Q. How did you select the winners?

Amr Mohamed taking part in the cosmonaut training program in Russia
Amr Mohamed taking part in the cosmonaut training program in Russia Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen observing rocket launch at the Tanegashima Space Center
Sara Ma and Dorothy Chen observing rocket launch at the Tanegashima Space Center
Regional finalists in zero gravity
Regional finalists in zero gravity

First and foremost, we were looking for good science. The first thing we said was, we’re expecting you to follow the scientific method. That meant they had to have a hypothesis, they had to propose the results, and they had to explain how they would interpret the results. That was the basic bar. But then beyond that, we were looking for some kind of "x-factor" - creativity, imagination, lateral thinking. That’s what set the winners apart.

For example, there are two reasons why the jumping spider experiment won. The first is that it’s just a fascinating question, and you can’t help but feel curious when you hear it. But the second reason it’s interesting is that, if we as a species are ever going to travel beyond the moon and get to Mars and beyond, we need to understand how our bodies are going to adapt to long periods in space, how we’re going to adjust to microgravity. And I think a very good place to start is understanding how animals do it. So I think that was a fascinating experiment, with far-reaching implications. Q. Were there any other entries that stood out as impressive or interesting? One that stood out for me was from an 18-year-old girl from Massachusetts. Her experiment was to understand how snowflakes develop in space. I love the simplicity of these experiments, but I also love how much thought went into them, and their far-reaching implications. The reason snowflakes were interesting is that the geometry of snowflakes is also seen in planets. If you look at the surface of some large gaseous planets, you can actually see patterns develop that resemble snowflakes. So understanding how snowflakes develop can have far-reaching implications for our understanding of planetary and galactic formations. Q. Other than seeing their experiments conducted in space, what else did the winners get? We always said that the best prize of all is the thrill and honor of having your experiment carried out onboard the International Space Station. But there were indeed other benefits. Amr went to Russia to experience the real-life cosmonaut training program. And the two girls, Dorothy and Sara, went to Japan to see the launch of the rocket, to see their experiment blast into space. And in addition, the six regional finalists who were invited to Washington, D.C., took a zero-gravity flight, on one of those jumbo jets that does parabolic flights and makes you feel like you’re weightless. Thankfully all our kids were very brave and none of them got too sick. It was just the time of their life. I don’t think words can describe how much this whole experience meant to them.

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