On the occasion of the World Environment Day, Canadian physician, astronaut candidate and aquanaut Dr. Shawna Pandya talks about the importance of preserving environment, no matter what field or profession one is.
Dr. Shawna Pandya is a physician, scientist-astronaut candidate, aquanaut, advanced diver, pilot-in-training, VP of Immersive Medicine with Luxsonic Technologies, speaker, Director at the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences, and much more. I had the pleasure of learning about her path through an interview, and how incredibly important engagement with the natural world is to her throughout her career. Whether she is practicing rural medicine or in an unpressurized aircraft at 19,000 feet, the resources that surround her enable her to take on new challenges, emphasizing the importance in conserving and maintaining them. As we mark the World Environment Day, Dr. Pandya sheds opinion on how important the environment is, no matter what (or how many) walks of life you choose to embark on.
What got you interested in both medicine and becoming an astronaut?
Like a lot of kids, I simply wanted to be an astronaut and I never grew out of that dream, and whatever I pursued was directly inspired by Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut in space. She was a neuroscientist, a neuropathologist, and an astronaut. So, I looked at her and simply said, “I want to do that.” I did my master’s at the International Space University, and that’s when I realized for the first time that you can make space and space medicine a part of your career. I was lucky enough to intern at the European Astronaut Center in the crew medical office. And later those opportunities led to conferences and qualified me for the aerospace medicine elective.
So now I understand you’re starting to be involved in wilderness medicine. Was this also inspired by another role model or was it entirely elective?
When we talk about the challenges of human space flight and the space flight environment, part of it is the hazards of the environment itself — radiation, isolation, the challenges of microgravity. Part of it is that you’re isolated, remote, and resource-limited. So that’s where principles of wilderness survival medicine come in because when you’re in the wilderness you need to learn to be resourceful and learn basic principles of triage and assessment and crisis management and manage with what resources you have at the time.
Where do you see the overlap between medicine and the environment and space?
There are many times when the environment impacts our daily life. At a micro level, increased respiratory pathology like in areas of high pollution or near refineries in the environment directly affects health concerns. Even in the OR, we have moved from laundering gowns to using disposable gowns to save on cost. There’s also the macro level which brings up the concern that’s on everyone’s mind — climate change and how quickly we are approaching the point of no return. We are in a position where we are unable to ensure access to clean water, open land, agriculture — and those factors are very clearly linked to health — both physical and mental, and psychological.
How do you think that the preservation of the environment relates to moving forward as a society technologically?
This is actually one of my areas of passion. We kind of already alluded to the challenges of surviving in space, and the bottom line is the further out we go the more we need technology to be self-sufficient. For example, if we’re sending a crew to Mars, it’s a 46-minute communication delay back to Earth. And with that type of delay, with things like a cardiac arrest or a hemorrhage, you don’t have time to wait for Earth — you have to help the crew be self-sufficient in a resource-limited environment. It’s no different from practicing rurally on earth. 80% of my practice is rural. We have to learn to be resourceful and use what we have at our disposal and make those decisions on when to transfer to the big city. And that comes back to what does our environment offer us in terms of support, how is it different than what we’re used to, and how can we maintain the environment as a tool to support us.
Is training teams for these scenarios part of your career?
I run my own operational space medicine organization called Project Possum. What we do is we take non-medical students — pilots, military veterans, software engineers, and we put them through the cases. We teach them the principles of assessment triage and we challenge them with increasingly complex scenarios — from simple trauma to mass causality — and they always rise to the occasion phenomenally.
What has been a formative challenge in your career or something you remember really well?
Oh gosh! There’s so many. When you’re in all the operational environments — whether you’re in an unpressurized research craft at 19,000 feet, whether you’re flying microgravity, whether you’re running a code in the emergency room — I’m always in these operational environments where every decision is critical and has an impact on mission, or on a life-or-death situation. Learning to be adaptable, learning to make these fast and important decisions has been a critical skill. And with that, building up the teams you work with and building those crew dynamics, learning to trust them. I’m in a different rural town every week, it’s not like there has been a lot of time to establish the crew dynamics. But the nurses, paramedics, and others I work with are absolutely incredible – we’ve run codes together, dealt with COVID patients crashing on us, dealt with mass causalities — you learn to trust in each other and trust your own skill set.
READ: Not a part of NASA mission, astronaut Shawna Pandya (February 10, 2017)
The roles you take on and the fields you work in are known to be predominantly male. With that, I want to ask how feminism has played in enabling you to pioneer this field.
Of the 570+ people who have been to space, 12 percent have been female and 1 percent have been black females. When you look at women who are working at governmental organizations it’s about 7-34 percent female. So, we definitely need to do better, and part of it is looking at where did we goof up in the past? Why is this distribution like that?
My hope is that we can move toward a goal where the term feminism is archaic because it is a common-sense perspective. Common sense perspective dictates that in our teams if we want everyone to perform at their best, we should treat everyone in an equitable way. In my view, why do we need a special term like feminist to say what is common sense — treat everyone fairly and treat everyone equitably so the entire team can perform at its best.
With regard to any type of activism, whether it be environmental or social, what role do you think scientific professionals can play to benefit different types of activism?
I would say that we are what we tolerate. There’s a fine line between staying diplomatic and ignoring our moral codes.
Is there any advice that you have received that you want to give to young women, especially those who are in STEM fields?
My advice is to pick something you love, and then work really hard to get there. A work ethic is free — it costs nothing to be the hardest working person in the room. And remember that you belong there — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Along with that, realize that no matter how junior you think you are, someone always looks up to you and wants to be you one day, so remember to pay it forward because none of us would be here today if others before us didn’t invest time into us.
Is there anything else important you’d like to add?
I think one last thing I want to add is one of the ways we learn to prepare for space is practicing in barren and isolating, confined environments, and that includes in the ocean and under water.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been an aquanaut, to have worked, lived, and preformed performed science under water. It’s critical to earth preservation. Ninety-five (95) percent of our oceans remain unmapped. We’ve mapped more of the moon than we have of our oceans. I think we have a duty to bring information back to Earth that we gain from space exploration and there’s so much out there to learn and explore ethically. And I think my last point is just to emphasize how much there is unexplored and the importance of ethical exploration.