Updated: Jan 21, 2021
During the typical college icebreaker where we all state our name, major, and a fun fact, I am generally greeted with “Wow! I love Neil Degrasse Tyson!” when I say I am studying astrophysics. When I casually mention that I have to take chemistry as a pre-med course requirement to a friend, they typically respond with a sympathetic comment about how harsh the courses are. While many people know me as either astrophysics or pre-med, I hope to work at an intersection of the two: bioastronautics and space medicine.
I have wanted to be a doctor since early high school, but taking physics in my junior year caused me to rethink my intended career path. My interests quickly turned towards astrophysics and space exploration, and I eventually stumbled upon the field of bioastronautics and space medicine.
In an article about space medicine from 2016, the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote that “space wreaks havoc on the body” (https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/space-medicine-new-frontier-aspiring-physician s). During a typical space flight, there are hundreds of medical problems that could arise: bones almost undoubtedly become weaker, eyesight can worsen, muscle mass depletes, and radiation can cause a slew of side effects. Mental health can also suffer due to isolation and confinement during space missions.
While “space medicine” is a relatively intuitive phrase, bioastronautics is a lesser-known term. Bioastronautics is defined as “the study of the effects of space flight on living organisms”. Bioastronautics studies can range from how food and water are supplied to astronauts, to the effects of a low-gravity environment on the bones, to how fluid flow in plant and animal cells is altered in space.
Space medicine refers to the research being done to develop and improve medical treatments for space flight. It also includes research about medical complications that arise due to an aspect of the environment in space (such as radiation). Physicians can also become astronauts (with a lot of extra training, of course!) and roughly 10% of NASA astronauts are also medical doctors.
If any of this seems interesting, I encourage you to read more about it! I started by
reading Wikipedia articles about space medicine, and then read books and research journals about current research in the field. I had the opportunity to write a research paper about potential pharmaceutical treatments for treating side effects of space radiation for a class this past semester, which solidified my interest in this field!
However, I will say that this path can be academically demanding. Even just organizing the scheduling of pre-med courses (chemistry, biology, etc.) combined with astrophysics courses has required a lot of dedication and creativity. But being in STEM is incredibly rewarding, and I have always sought out a path where I can help people.
My rapid-fire advice for anyone interested in bioastronautics, or STEM in general, would be as follows: find a mentor, read fervently, and learn everything you can from those around you.