Contributing to the advancement of the space frontier has been my greatest childhood dream. Recently, I had the privilege and great fortune to make this dream come true – albeit just a little. Let me first give a little background:
Space medicine (a sub-specialty within Aerospace Medicine) concerns itself with the medical hazards of microgravity and prolonged spaceflight. There are two ways that one can really contribute to this field:
- Via an operational/clinical capacity where you are the one designing the medical protocols/recommendations for spaceflight; you are doing the pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight medical exams for astronauts; you are sitting at console in Mission Control monitoring the health of your astronauts; and etc. Last year, I had the opportunity to get very slightly exposed to this realm of space medicine while rotating with a commercial space company. Fortunately, we also have a UMMS alumna who does exactly this on a regular basis as a NASA Flight Surgeon!
- Via a research capacity where you are the one researching the effects of microgravity and prolonged spaceflight on physiology and health, investigating ways to mitigate the associated health risks, and developing countermeasures to the health hazards of the austere environment of outer space. Last year, I had the opportunity to get slight exposure to this realm of space medicine when I completed a rotation with NASA researching the microgravity-induced blood flow anomalies within the jugular veins.
Space Medicine Elective at Michigan
I genuinely believe that I was fortunate enough to be chosen for these experiences because of the work I previously did to create a Space Medicine Elective at the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS). UMMS always strongly and proudly supports its students’ unique curiosities, and I will forever be grateful to the school for this! When I spoke about my interest in space medicine with my counselor, the administration and faculty mentors alike, I received so much support from everyone to bring my vision of a medical school Space Medicine Elective to reality. It took hard work and time, but last year the course was formalized as an official part of the course catalog (housed within the Anesthesiology Department), and it has since also launched at the University of Cincinnati’s medical school! I have so many people to thank for this – ranging from the student team that helped me build the curriculum, to the subject-matter experts who vetted the content, to Dr. Bagian for offering his expertise as course director, to mentors within the administration and Anesthesiology department who helped make the course come alive, and to my counselor who first sparked life into the idea.
I hope for everyone who reads this blog to enroll in the 2-week elective if you get a chance! The curriculum involves a series of readings, PowerPoints with integrated case studies, journal articles, online lectures/videos, podcasts, quizzes, assessments and peer student presentations. Through these, students gain insight into the field of space medicine, the effects of microgravity on human physiology, the health challenges associated with prolonged spaceflight and aviation, and current clinical applications to mitigate these risks. I know that with the support of the administration here, space medicine at UMMS will continue to grow and reach more students each year and expand nationwide! For those at other schools, we would love to work with you to help model something similar at your institution if you are interested, so do not hesitate to reach out!
Ultimately, my long-term career goal is to combine my medical training and passion for space by contributing to the advancement of commercialized spaceflight one day. Many folks ask me which of the two above ways I hope to contribute to space medicine, and my genuine answer to this is that I am not quite sure yet. What I do know with full certainty is that I am of no use to the space medicine community unless I am a competent physician first, so my first priority is to focus on my clinical training during residency. But eventually, as part of the next generation of physicians, I want to be ready for the responsibility to tackle the health challenges of this ultimate medical frontier, and I very much plan on making a niche in my future career for this work!
Overall, I can only thank UMMS from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to pursue my passion for space medicine, helping me set my career trajectory in motion, and helping me get closer to making my childhood dream a reality – and I want to help pay this forward to others. If you share this interest and/or are curious about the field but do not know how to get started, please reach out to me, and I would be more than happy to talk through it with you.
Advice for Gaining Exposure to Space Medicine
- If you have the means, go to the annual Aerospace Medicine Association’s (AsMA) Conference. Everyone everywhere in the world who is doing anything space medicine-related meets at this conference, so seek out this opportunity to network and get your foot in the door. This is also THE place to learn more about the field and assess for yourself if it is something you are energized by and if you can envision a niche for it in your future career.
- Become a dues-paying member of AsMA and AMSRO (which stands for Aerospace Medicine Student and Resident Organization – a constituent of AsMA). This gets you on their listserv, and thus gets you plugged into the community and opportunities within it.
- Apply for the scholarships offered by AsMA and AMSRO. Many of these are targeted towards students who are just starting to gain exposure to the field, so it’s a great opportunity!
- Take the initiative to educate yourself about the field at your own time! There are plenty of online lecture (like the Red Risk School Series and the Baylor Space Medicine Lecture Series). Take the Intro to Space Medicine elective as a Branches student to learn even more!
- If you have a local AMSRO chapter, join it!
- Take the initiative to reach out to and connect with students around the country who share this passion! It is a very niche field and a small community that is vastly spread out over the country. You may be the only one with an interest in space medicine in your immediate proximity, but I guarantee you that there are others who share this interest and who are probably doing work in it already too.
Many folks ask me which specialty they need to choose to get involved with space medicine in the future, and here I will share the advice I once received: it is likely that any number of days you spend being a “space doctor” is going to be less than the number of days you spend being a “doctor doctor”, so choose whichever specialty you genuinely enjoy and then find a way to make it relevant to space medicine. Throughout medical school, I was drawn to Anesthesiology and Ophthalmology – both fields that are not heavily represented in space medicine. In fact, the most heavily represented fields in the space medicine are Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine and Family Medicine, but do I also know a Plastic Surgeon in space medicine? Yes. Do I know a Radiologist in space medicine? Yes. Do I know a Urologist and Orthopedic Surgeon in space medicine? Yes. You get the point.
With the advent of commercialized spaceflight upon us, the “typical” person now has the chance to go to space, and with that comes a whole set of new medical challenges that will need to draw upon the skills of various medical specialties – so my advice to others now is also to do what you love and make yourself relevant!
Don’t miss the next Dose of Reality.
Taania Girgla, MD/MPH dual-degree student, hopes to match into Anesthesiology this year and eventually carve a career niche in space medicine as well.