Interview with Shawna Pandya

Interview with Shawna Pandya

Shawna Pandya is a practicing surgeon, motivational speaker, citizen-scientist astronaut, aquanaut-to-be. Superwoman maybe? Well, she is one of the most intelligent, motivated, goal-achieving people ‘I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Last summer, I spoke with Dr. Padya about her experience in a pseudo-mars environment, a career in the space industry, and how she handles a life pursuing her dreams.

Dr. Pandya holds an Honors Neuroscience BSc, an MD from the University of Alberta and an MSc from the International Space University in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, France. Dr. Pandya also attended Singularity University, an international learning community geared towards scientific progress and “exponential” technologies. During her attendance at Singularity University, she co-founded CiviGuard, a real-time, disaster relief, and emergency response platform.

Currently, Dr. Pandya is a citizen-scientist astronaut candidate with the Polar Suborbital Science of the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM) project. The PoSSUM program is an international program dedicated to the study of the upper atmosphere. The program trains scientist-astronaut candidates to conduct critical research on climate change and IVA (intra-vehicular space suit testing}.

Dr. Pandya is also on track to receive her aquanaut designation with an underwater mission. She is also fluent in French, Spanish, and Russian and has a black belt in Taekwondo.

Interview of Dr. Shawna Pandya

The SR: Hello again!

Dr. Padya: Thank you so much for your patience, ‘it’s been kind of a crazy night.

The SR: Well. As I said, I ‘didn’t want to take you away from saving lives.

Dr. Padya: Yeah, some unexpected things have happened. So, as you can see, ‘I’ve changed from the last time we talked, ‘we’re headed to the OR in a little bit, but we have some time right now.

The SR: Perfect. So, I know in one of your chats you mentioned the analog experience, tell me about that.

Dr. Padya: So, I just completed a tour at the Mars Desert Research Station, or DRS, ‘that’s in the middle of Utah. And if Utah sounds like a strange place to go, once you see all the photos, ‘you’ll understand quickly why ‘it’s not. Because ‘it’s a red rock as far as the eye can see, and ‘it’s beautiful!

And it ‘doesn’t take much to imagine that ‘you’re on Mars. So, you practice living like ‘you’re on a simulated Mars mission with your crewmates, locked in a little tin can for two weeks; performing science, going to EVAs, donning your space boots and growing your plants in the Green Lab. So, ‘it’s a magical kind of experience!

The SR: Really. Was it sort of like… ‘I’m picturing that Matt Damon movie?

Dr. Padya: The Martian? Yeah. We watched The Martian while we were there as a crew, and definitely, some things were the same, some things ‘weren’t. So, his potatoes were tomatoes for us. We grew a lot of tomatoes in the greenhouse. A lot of the resiliency he displayed, a lot of the resourcefulness he displayed, are really wonderful traits to have if you want to be an explorer, or a pioneer, or an astronaut. Definitely as the crew doctor, I ‘didn’t have the medical supplies I needed, but sometimes ‘you’d have to be resourceful and think of other ways to treat things. And that was the same for our engineers; they ‘didn’t always have the full complement of instruments they needed, but they would just be resourceful, and engineer new solutions for themselves.

The SR: So was there a situation where you ‘didn’t have everything… like a dire situation where “I need to eat and I ‘don’t have…” I know it probably ‘wasn’t like that because you are not actually on Mars, but was there a situation where you had to think on the fly?

Dr. Padya: Yes. We also tried to prepare for that. So, you kind of alluded to creature comforts, and everyone has their creature comforts, which they definitely miss. So we were Gold Crew, and half of the citizen-scientist astronaut corps – or some of them actually had rotated before us, and we were laughing at them because when we did the handover, a lot of them were raring to go for a steak at the local restaurant. And we thought, “Oh come on! How bad can it be?” But you learn that you do miss your creature comforts while ‘you’re away from them. ‘I’m definitely not keen to go back to dehydrated broccoli anytime soon, because that was a large part of my diet. And then also, you practice — the way that ‘you’re used to thinking resourcefully is you simulate living resourcefully. So, during one of our shorter EVA days, I spent some time teaching the crew about principles of wildness triage, and wilderness medicine. And how that could apply to space medicine and operational space medicine.

So, we learned about how to triage someone. And then we actually donned our space suits, and then did that outside for real; practiced extractions in a [rover]. And actually, some of it was the same; some of it was thinking on the fly, realizing we had to adapt our methods to be able to protect ‘someone’s neck and spine, in case of a neck and spine trauma, realizing that ‘it’s actually not that easy when you [are wearing] a big, bulky spacesuit.

So that was kind of one example of just thinking on the fly, but also trying to plan for an altered, maybe less resource plenty environments.

The SR: ‘That’s a lot to think about. You talked about physical ailments when someone is physically injured. Is there anything to simulate mental illness, or something psychological?

Dr. Padya: Yeah, certainly. One of my own areas of interest is psychological resilience, [and] then in psychological resilience and long-duration space flight. And one of my friends who used to be involved in medical operations at Johnson Space Center often jokes that there are three steps to dealing with a psychotic astronaut in the International Space Station, and one of them involves duct tape. So that kind of points to the medical MacGyvering, and thinking on your feet, and you have to be resourceful.

In fact, I was reading a book on humans in space and psychological hurdles to space flight, and it was really — it was a little bit meta because I was reading about the pros and the cons, and the strife you can encounter. But then also kind of observing some of these [leadership] or positive effects, of being in kind of a character testing environment, and some of the strife that occurs. And you really — you realize that ‘you’re living it. So, ‘it’s a really neat experiment to read that, and then also kind of life through it.

The SR: So, ‘here’s a question. I know this may sound like an off-topic question, but what kind of music did you guys listen to?

Dr. Padya: You know what, that was actually one of my biggest lessons learned; in that when ‘you’re planning to go on a simulation, you need to plan that ‘you’re going to have some downtime, and bring music, and bring books, and bring movies. And luckily, we had a small library, but I ‘didn’t bring my own music, but that was kind of a good excuse for us to share music amongst roommates. So, we had everything from 90s music, throwback, to the old boy bands, to Bollywood. And then just a cool aspect of our mission was that one of our crewmates was deaf, and this was the first deaf crewmember on an analog mission. So, we spent some of our time learning American Sign Language so we could communicate better with them.

The SR: So moving on from that, I guess my next question is, I know that you are a doctor, ‘you’re at work right now. How do you find time for your other pursuits, like what does your day look like? ‘I’m looking at the list. ‘You’re a martial artist. You started, what is it, Civiguard, the app, in Silicon Valley.

Dr. Padya: ‘It’s a lot of careful time management. So, I kind of — when I joke about it, I call it kind of a Batman/Bruce Wayne kind of gig; ‘you’re always doing something, and by day and by night, you kind of must-do different jobs. But really, ‘you’re also planning everything out very, very carefully.

And sometimes those plans must adapt. So, when I started this year in extra surgical training, I sat down with the program director before I even started and said, “‘I’m going to have to use every single one of my vacation days because of this space stuff. And I sometimes know in certain surgical programs, ‘that’s frowned upon, but I just want to be upfront with you.” And within my first week of starting that program, I had the entire year mapped out; all the extra holidays ‘I’d work. All the extra, all the training periods for land survival tools, microgravity campaign flight. And ‘it’s not always easy, and the unexpected always – will crop up.

So sometimes there are times when you have a delayed flight; you’re landing at 3 AM, driving an hour and a half back to the hospital, and then ‘you’re starting a full day on call. And ‘it’s not ideal, but ‘it’s what has to happen, in order to balance this business. Sometimes – you just roll with the flow.

The unexpected can happen, and as long as ‘you’re malleable, you cannot get too distressed by it. And then also realize that ‘there are only 24 hours in a day, and ‘that’s true regardless of who you are, and where you are, and what your profession is. And you cannot change that; you cannot get 26 hours out of a day; maybe 24+ hours on Mars, but not here on Earth. So you have to prioritize. You have to say what needs to get done today, for today to be a good day. And ‘that’s what kind of helps keeping focused.

The SR: So, when do you have time to hang out, as it were; do you have free time, and if you do, what do you do in your free time?

Dr. Padya: What I tell people is that ‘there’s a season for everything. So when you look at the list of things I do, whether ‘it’s piloting, martial arts, skydiving, surgeries, space stuff, learning Russian, learning Spanish, all that stuff; the list goes on, but it ‘doesn’t mean ‘I’m doing all of those things all at once. And certainly, when ‘you’re coming into a surgical program, and having the citizen’s science gig, certain things have priority. So, I had a wonderful martial arts year, in the couple years leading up to this, I got to compete at the World Cup of Tae Kwon Do in 2016. I was competing at several major Taekwondo tournaments in Canada in 2017, and I went to Thailand to train at Muay Thai fight camps.

But all of that has been put on hold this year, for a variety of reasons. Because I had my priorities set out, and in a surgical program, your hands are your livelihood. So ‘that’s on hiatus. And ‘it’s not a forever thing, but it is a necessary thing. So ‘that’s what I mean when I say ‘there’s a season for everything; ‘you’re not going to get everything done at once. If that makes you unhappy, then you have to realize what your values are, and how much you can deal with the fact that ‘it’s a temporary thing or not. So ‘that’s how I get by, and ‘that’s how I get everything done that I do.

The SR: My next question is, you have your year planned out. ‘Let’s say ‘there’s a series of failures that happen, or you go through some life tragedy; we all have to some extent, I believe. But what is your daily mantra, or even the personal talk that you tell yourself when things get hard, or you need that extra boost to stay on schedule?

Dr. Padya: ‘That’s a really good question. Everybody has their personal mantras, things that motivate them, and I think the key is in knowing yourself, and knowing what gets you up and what gets you down. And seeking out the things that you get you up accordingly. And then avoiding things that get you down. And then also understanding a little bit about the nature of resilience.

So when we look at psychological resilience, ‘it’s not an innate trait. ‘It’s not something that you either have or you ‘don’t and you know, those guys “Go be astronauts or navy seals or whatever, who are super resilient and then the rest of us are just left to do whatever.”

No ‘there’s a specific subset of traits that define psychological resilience, including impulse control, positive self-talk, having a strong social circle, mental rehearsal, breaking things down. Those are the five components. And you are then looking at how you can build upon each of them a little bit every day — and then building your own psychological resilience. And then the final part of that is realizing that failure ‘isn’t final, and neither is a success.

So, ‘it’s not like you succeed once, and ‘that’s the end of it; you fail once, and ‘that’s the end of it. No, ‘it’s certainly not like that. ‘It’s, “What did I learn from this?” Whether it was success or failure, ‘it’s picking yourself up again. So I think that there is this misconception that if someone was successful, [‘it’s like], look at them, they were an overnight success, and they had it easy. Anyone who has done anything ‘that’s worthwhile in this world has certainly struggled to do it. And ‘it’s going on despite that setback. And when you have a setback, dissecting it, learning from it, and making yourself better and more resilient for the next time it happens. Because regardless of who you are, whether ‘you’re the commander of the International Space Station, whether ‘you’re a pro athlete, whether ‘you’re a top-level surgeon. ‘You’re going to encounter duress, ‘it’s just how you deal with it, and how you learn from it.

The SR: I agree. That makes a lot of sense. Switching gears; what is your best childhood memory?

Dr. Padya: Oh my gosh. There are so many. I think since ‘we’re talking about space, my parents were so good about just getting us involved in everything, and then just taking us camping. And I remember one time when I was seven, they took us out camping, it was the middle of August. We were up until two or three with the campfire, telling stories. And suddenly, we looked up, and it must have been the Leonids meteor shower that was going on. We just stayed up into the middle of the night, just watching shooting stars; watching the meteor shower. And ‘it’s one of those perfect moments encapsulated in time [like] something out of a Hollywood movie, or a storybook; where ‘you’re there with your family, you feel safe, you feel happy. ‘You’re by the campfire but you can still see shooting stars. It was just perfect.

The SR: Okay, excellent. Well, a couple of more. Who is your favorite band?

Dr. Padya: This one will surprise a lot of people, but I am a diehard Linkin Park fan.

The SR: Linkin Park, wow.

Dr. Padya: I absolutely love Linkin Park, and one of my favorite adulthood memories — so I did my masters at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.

And then as part of that masters, I did an internship at the crew medical support office, with the European Astronaut Center, with the European Space Agency. And ‘that’s in Cologne, Germany. So being in Europe, you get to travel around a lot, and ‘I’ve been a diehard Linkin Park fan forever, and ‘I’d never seen live up until that point. So they were actually live on tour at a big music festival called Rocking Park in the Netherlands. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, ‘it’s just a train ride away. I have to go!” ‘You’re always — I try not to go into a concert with expectations because ‘you’re like; well, ‘it’s life, things could be great [or] they ‘couldn’t. And they just did this amazing piano acoustic version of one of their big songs, “Pushing Me Away.”

I remember people releasing red balloons into the sky, and it was just this perfect moment, in the middle of summer. Again, staring up into the sky, and I remember thinking, if the world just stopped at this moment, it would be okay, because everything is so beautiful right now. The music, the ambiance, the people, being in Europe; it was fantastic. So yeah. Linkin Park has definitely been my favorite band for a long time.

The SR: So, about the International Space University; ‘I’m signed up for the executive course!

Dr. Padya: Oh, fantastic!

The SR: I think ‘it’s just a week-long course, but I am thinking seriously about attending the ‘master’s program. What can you tell me about your experience with the ‘master’s program?

Dr. Padya: So, I really enjoyed my time at the International Space University. It was the beginning of my space career; it was the first time that I realized that you could love space, but also do it for a living. It was the beginning of any Space Medicine Research that I did. And it was the beginning of some lifelong friendships.

So, their whole philosophy is “Triple ‘”I’s,” international, intercultural, interdisciplinary. Our year was 50 students from 31 countries, and you work like ‘you’ve never worked before. You do it all in teams. You get used to different work ethics, different work styles, different cultural norms. You learn so much; you learn about orbital mechanics, you learn about planetary geology, you learn about space medicine, you learn about space law and policy. My roommates from that year, ‘they’re still two of my closest friends today. To anyone who thinks they might want to do it, I think the only answer is to do it.

The SR: Very cool. At my age, ‘I’m 36, am I going to be a little bit older than everyone else there?

Dr. Padya: I think we had a reputation for being one of the younger classes on average, and people were the mid to late 20s. But the average age of the class, if the statistics ‘haven’t changed too much, tends to be a little bit older. So we spanned the entire gamut. I think the youngest was 23, 22, must have been 22. But ‘you’ll see all age ranges there; I think the commonality is the passion for space.

The SR: Alright, ‘I’ll fit in then. Star Wars or Star Trek?

Dr. Padya: Star Wars, for sure.

The SR: Really? I did not expect that. Why?

Dr. Padya: ‘I’ll be honest; I ‘don’t watch that much TV. So growing up, it was more movies. And it was always a Star Wars movie. If we had a day off from school, my brother was always the instigator and ‘he’d be like, “hey, ‘we’re watching Return of the Jedi.” So, ‘I’ve probably watched that movie more than anything. And I ‘wouldn’t say no to having Jedi-like powers.

The SR: Alright, alright, that makes sense. I like both equally! So alright. I ‘don’t want to take up too much of your time. I really appreciate you taking out the time to talk with me.

Dr. Padya: Yeah, no worries. And hopefully what we talked about can be useful to the space community, or anyone ‘who’s interested in resilience, and teamwork, and life in general.