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!
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.
My interest in the space sciences began in 5th grade when I read a biography on Robert Goddard (creator of the first liquid-fuel rocket). To say reading was a hobby would be an understatement because I could never be found without a book in my hands, but the stories I most enjoyed reading most were those that got me closer to space and the stars – stories such as biographies of Edwin Hubble, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Sally Ride. As a child, I would fervently follow all NASA updates, mesmerizingly look at the night sky for hours, and watch all the space-related documentaries I could find.
Contributing to the advancement of the space frontier became my greatest childhood dream. To make this dream a reality, I always naively believed that I had to pursue a career in engineering. So, when I fell in love with biology and medicine at the end of high school, I thought my dream would remain just that. I did not know how to marry my love for medicine with my avid interest in space until I eventually learned of aerospace medicine (and its subset field of space medicine) whilst researching medical schools. Albeit a little late, I realized that I no longer wanted to delay pursuing my passion for space, and – as Professor Randy Pausch once said in his famous book The Last Lecture – I wanted to make my childhood dream a reality. Thus, when I was accepted to the University of Michigan Medical School in 2017, I committed to making a career for myself in space medicine and to bring it to my school and my peers.
Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the field and tried to soak up everything about it. I first attended the Red Risk School webinar series as an M1, which was how I learned of the Aerospace Medicine Association’s (AsMA) meeting the following month. I instantly spoke to my school counselor, Amy Tshirhart, to arrange for time off to attend the meeting. Amy knew of my interest in space medicine, and she has been my greatest advocate in pursing this interest during medical school – for which I will be eternally grateful! Attending that AsMA meeting in May 2018 was nothing short of a breath of fresh air for me. I felt rejuvenated and at awe at the world I stumbled upon where everyone shared the same passion for medicine and space as I did. I was shocked that I did not know about this community earlier, but I was committed to getting involved as soon as I could.
Over the next few years of medical school, I slowly but surely began to reach out to faculty who could mentor me in this interest. It took me a while to collate a list of names – as this is quite a niche field – but everyone I spoke to was immensely supportive of my interest and supportive of helping me further develop it! This is what has been the best aspect of being at a school like the University of Michigan; instead of giving me a puzzling look when I said I am interested in space medicine, everyone at the school instead responded with curiosity, awe, and an equal eagerness to bring this unique topic to the school and share it with others.
With support from faculty and peer mentors (both at U-M and within the national aerospace medicine community I was now connected with) I applied to and have gotten accepted to NASA’s Aerospace Medicine Clerkship and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Course in Principles of Aerospace Medicine – both of which I am scheduled to attend this year. Just earlier this week, I also submitted my application to a new medical student rotation at SpaceX! The opportunities for students are expanding, and I have been very excited about this!
Despite this rapid growth of space medicine though, to date, there are sparse formal educational opportunities available for medical students to gain more knowledge and exposure to the field. The few opportunities that do exist are found at select universities and are in-person experiences, thus limiting their accessibility. As a result, many students around the country, and here at UMMS, remain unaware of the application of and possibilities within the field of space medicine. This was how I became passionate about increasing students’ knowledge of and access to this field. Quickly, I realized that a short, online mode of delivery for this content does not currently exist, and this is the gap I hoped to fill. This led me to work on two projects that are quite near and dear to my heart.
First, I led the development of a two-week online and self-paced Introduction to Space Medicine elective for Branch medical students, which launched this January! The aim of this course is to create an online curriculum that informs students about the field and principles of space medicine. The goal is to inspire students to engage with and contribute to the ongoing efforts within the field of space medicine, to explore the possibilities of building a niche in this field for their future careers, and to become the next generation of leaders in space medicine. Through a series of readings, PowerPoints with integrated case studies, journal articles, online lectures/videos, podcasts, other supplementary assignments, and quizzes/assessments, students will 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. Through this course, students will also be introduced to the work of various leaders in the field of space medicine, and interested students can ask to be connected to these folks as career and research mentors.
This course has been well received by the 20 enrolled students thus far, and my next goal is to expand it to other schools at the University of Michigan and other medical schools nationwide. I developed this course with the help of a six-student team (across three different medical schools) and my faculty course director, Dr. Jim Bagin (ex-NASA astronaut and faculty in the Department of Anesthesiology). I owe a lot to my team to helping make this vision a reality! My partner in crime in this project, Riley Ferguson, has also arranged for this course to launch at her medical school (the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine) in January of 2022!
Second, I created a chapter for the Aerospace Medicine Student and Resident Organization (AMSRO) in the Fall of 2020 to serve as an interest group at the school, and I have been using the platform to help other interested students gain a footing in this field. I organize monthly talks and seminars which have drawn students from all over the world (UK, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Australia)! At the end of the day, I am most happy to cultivate students’ interests in this way and to promote connections and mentorships in this field for all.
Overall, though it certainly took me some time to find the space medicine community, now that I have, I am more eager than ever to dive in and contribute. I am humbled to see what has come of a vision I had early on in medical school, and I am excited to see what more will come of it! 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!
Ultimately, my long-term goal is to combine my medical training and passion for space by contributing to the advancement of commercialized spaceflight one day. Achieving an enhanced understanding of this topic is of particular importance with the advent of commercialized spaceflight at the near horizon. 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! 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.
Taania Girgla, MD/MPH dual-degree student, hopes to complete an Aerospace Medicine Clerkship at NASA later this year and recently also got accepted to the top 30 for a new SpaceX Medical Rotation!