Med student's NASA mission a dream come true

(Edmonton) Shawna Pandya has always had two passions: space and medicine.

When she found out the Canadian Space Agency chose her as one of five Canadian medical students or residents to take part in an aerospace medicine program at NASA this spring, she says she truly “was over the moon.” During her recent stay at NASA, the fourth-year University of Alberta medical student learned about every aspect of flight medicine, from changes in the cardiovascular system to nutrition to microbiology.

Pandya has had ambitions of heading to NASA since she was 12 years old.

“When I was in Grade 7, I wanted to be the director of NASA until I realized I wasn’t American. In grades 8 and 9, I wanted to be an astronaut until I realized the job prospects weren’t so great, so I decided to be a neurosurgeon instead.”

Pandya left for NASA’s Johnson Space Centre on April 1 and returned in late April. While in Houston, she created a medical workstation for the NASA Habitat Demonstration Unit. She also talked with NASA researchers working on a project examining inter-cranial pressure in zero-gravity situations, met three Canadian astronauts, saw mock-ups of the shuttle and the International Space Station, and saw lunar rovers.

“It was exciting, an incredible opportunity I have always dreamed of,” she said. “It was the perfect way to finish medical school.”

When Pandya applied for the aerospace medicine course at NASA, she had to fill out a 16-page application form and send in her references, transcripts and applicable space-related interests.

Her list was impressive. She had delayed medical school so she could take a master’s degree at the International Space University. She did an internship at the European Astronaut Centre where she developed a quick-reference guide to determine human hazards aboard a transport vehicle heading to the International Space Station. After her first year of medical school at the U of A, she decided to conduct research on the NeuroArm project at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary, which is based on the successful Canadarm technology used in space shuttle missions. She also founded the U of A’s space medicine club, which later evolved into the extreme medicine club.

“I have always loved space,” said Pandya. “It would be amazing to be on a manned mission one day.”