Ottawa Teenager Reaches For the Stars in YouTube Space Lab Competition

Sixteen-year-old Katie Gwozdecky has her head in the clouds. But though her aspirations are very much grounded in reality, they’ve also taken flight in the most unique way.

As part of a global contest in YouTube and Lenovo’s project called Space Lab, youths aged 14 to 18 had an opportunity to compete for a prize that would get them – or at least a video of them – onto the International Space Station. Of the over-2000 teens that submitted entries, Ottawa’s Gwozdecky was one of the fortunate few to get into the final 60.

Let’s break it down. Space Lab is a one-of-a-kind competition that allows youths to come up with a physics or biology experiment, video the process of the experiment, and submit the video with the hope that it gets chosen to be conducted on the International Space Station. The experiment – which will be done by astronauts on the Space Station – will be livestreamed over YouTube. Zahaan Bharmal, Google’s Regional Head of Marketing Operations, came up with the idea. According to a video on YouTube’s Space Lab site, Bharmal hopes that this competition will motivate teens to “study and be inspired by science.”

The all-star panel of judges that include some of the most renowned authorities in their fields – Stephen Hawking ring a bell? – will pick six regional winners, and two of those six will be the global winners. Those two global winners will get the ultimate space prize, along with a few other perks, which include a trip to Washington, a training course in Russia, and a zero-gravity flight.

Gwozdecky’s story has a serendipitous feel. She says that she has always been “insatiably curious about everything science, especially space.” Like many social media-savvy teens, she was browsing YouTube one day last October, and a Space Lab advertisement caught her eye. There is something of a motivator factor that is inherent in the premise of this project. For Gwozdecky, space is not the “final frontier” – as Star Trek, The Next Generation’s captain Jean Luc Picard touts – but the metaphor for what she feels are “infinite possibilities.”

And she’s keeping her eye on the prize. “If I won,” she says, “I would be most excited about my experiment being carried out in space. To be perfectly honest, I am very passionate about my idea and I would love to see the results of the experiment. It would be fascinating to see how that research could change life support systems design and engineering.”

Then there is the actual experiment that got Gwozdecky into this venerated position, which starts with the premise that space flights, like long-duration flights, can cause people to have larger blood clots on missions. “I wanted to do something […] with serious applications for the future of human space flight,” she explains.

Gwozdecky breaks down her reasoning to Ottawa Life, where she proposes testing blood clotting by adding a coagulating agent: “Muscle and bone mass degeneration has been investigated thoroughly and so as an extension, blood just seemed like a logical choice. Where it got more difficult though was in deciding what conditions in blood could be dangerous to astronauts on long duration missions. Finally I started to look into deep vein thrombosis and embolisms because these conditions occur most commonly on long flights, which is an environment similar to that in microgravity.”

Before the prizes are even awarded, Gwozdecky feels like she has already won. “I cannot even begin to explain how excited I am about this panel of judges,” she gushes. “One of my idols, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, is also a judge which is an amazing honour. […] I am so humbled to even be part of something involving these great minds.”

Growing up in Ottawa has its advantages too. Gwozdecky’s upbringing taught her the value of early entrance into her field of choice, which she says will be either aeronautical or biomedical engineering. As an Ashbury student, she has the advantage of attending one of the most acclaimed private schools in the country, but also recognizes her position. “I have been lucky to learn under some of the best teachers,” she says. “This year at Ashbury, I have the greatest support. […]  Generally, my education has enriched, advanced and clarified my curiosity for science.”

Her general enthusiasm for knowledge is palpable and even a little enviable. “On the whole,” she explains, “I would like to continue to learn and grow however I can after high school, through education and not. However, just because I did those things though does not mean it is over. I absolutely hope to continue to grow by the end of this competition and I hope to build connections with people that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise, be it professors or even friends.”

This talented teen appreciates all the support she gets, expressing gratitude where it’s deserved: “The unsung hero is my mom who has stayed beside me through thick and thin with this project even when we both know it was the most stressful thing in both of our lives.” But, her education is also engrained in her, as she mentions all the teachers that influence her in different ways, ranging from, “Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Moulton in middle school to Mrs. Brown, Mr. Miedema and Ms. Wall in high school.”

With this opportunity, Gwozdecky’s dreams fly beyond our too-oft-limited worldly boundaries.

The regional winners’ list will be posted on the site on February 21st and the global winners on March 21st, 2012.

See Katie Gwozdecky’s entry here:

Learn more about Space Lab here: