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IAEA and FAO Engage Youth in STEM with First-of-a-Kind Space-Themed Event


Students, Ambassadors and members of the scientific community met this week for the IAEA–FAO event on Seeds in Space: ‘Cosmic crops’ for food security and climate change adaptation. At the event, which took place at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, participants heard about the two organizations’ intensified efforts to develop new crop varieties, able to adapt to the increasingly harsh growing conditions on Earth, using space science.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) bolstered their shared efforts to promote early interest in science and technology by collaborating with BOKU, an education and research centre for renewable resources that combines expertise in the fields of natural sciences, engineering and biotechnology, as well as social and economic sciences.

“As we all know, space exploration captures young people’s interest and fires their imagination. And encouraging youth in STEM is a long term investment of the IAEA,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the event. “By holding the event here in a BOKU university lecture theatre and working with BOKU on outreach for this first-of-a-kind space-themed event, we are inspiring the nuclear experts of tomorrow.”

On 7 November the IAEA and FAO sent seeds to the International Space Station (ISS), to investigate the effects of cosmic radiation and harsh space conditions, including microgravity and extreme temperatures, on breeding new crop varieties that can withstand the effects of climate change and improve global food security.

“By 2050 the world’s population will reach about 10 billion. We will need to produce more food to feed the growing population and the new demands. Better production and better nutrition will be key,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in his opening statement.

The event, held on 27 March, shortly before the expected return of the seeds to Earth, featured Shoba Sivasankar, Head of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, and NASA Astronaut Kayla Barron, who presented their respective work, took questions from participants and encouraged young people to pursue STEM careers.

“It’s important to invest effort in sharing our research and future discoveries with young scientists, and engage with them as the next generation of leaders. The student audience showed impressive knowledge in crop mutation breeding and we look forward to supporting their scientific journeys,” said Sivasankar.

“We’ve been growing plants in space for quite some time. The International Space Station is the perfect laboratory for us to try this,” said Barron, who spent 177 days at the ISS from November 2021 to May 2022. “Eventually this is something we’d like to see done at scale, to support missions that are even longer in duration than what we see at the ISS, in more remote areas like on the lunar surface or eventually on a vehicle heading to Mars.”

BOKU Professor Hermann Bürstmayr highlighted that food security is a pressing issue and that the event will help to increase awareness among students and the general public that food security is neither granted nor available for free, but needs investment in research and development.

Watch the event recording here.

Comic competition

The IAEA and FAO have extended their youth engagement activities by launching a Seeds in Space comic book competition, inviting 14 to 18 year olds to submit artwork that tells the story of the seeds in space.

The competition, launched in the six UN languages, is open to youth around the world, inviting them to create a paper or digital illustration to portray one of the six main steps of the seeds’ journey to the ISS. The winning design will be used as inspiration to create the official comic book of seeds in space.

Artwork will be judged by IAEA and FAO scientists and designers, who will select a shortlist of 10 designs (the nominees), and from those they will select the winner.

The deadline for submissions is Sunday, 16 April 2023. Watch this video for more information. The winners will be announced on 23 April 2023, World Book and Copyright Day. Find more details here

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