Words of Wisdom: Shawna Pandya

Happy International Women’s Day!

To celebrate, I’ve decided to publish my recent interview with the incredibly inspirational Shawna Pandya. Shawna is a Canadian of Indian origin and a physician with a background in neuroscience, martial artist with a black belt in Taekwondo, pilot, skydiver, scuba diver, and to top it all off, a citizen scientist astronaut candidate!

Image credits: @shawnapandya, Twitter

I spoke with Shawna to learn more about her aspirations to become an astronaut, how her background and experiences have helped her, and any Words of Wisdom for young girls interested in space and looking to reach for the stars. Here’s what she had to say.

AT: What first interested you in science, medicine, and space?

SP: I have been interested in science, medicine and space for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I would look up at the stars and say, ‘that’s where I am going to go someday.’ Even my decision to pursue medicine was influenced by space: I was inspired by Dr. Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space, who also happened to be a neurologist. This was what inspired me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience, and later an MD in Medicine. 

AT: What is a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut Candidate and how did you become involved?

SP: A Citizen-Scientist refers to someone pursuing scientific endeavors – in this case space and astronautics – outside of traditional governmental or academic spheres. In this case, I am involved with Project PoSSUM and Project PHenOM as a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut Candidate, with the hopes of eventually flying on a suborbital flight as a scientist.

Project PoSSUM stands for “Polar Suborbital Science of the Upper Mesosphere,” and focuses on the study of Noctilucent Clouds, thought to be related to climate change. So the PoSSUM curriculum centers around the study of Noctilucent Clouds, including the mission parameters of a suborbital flight to study these clouds, and operating the instruments to collect more data on them.

Project PHEnOM stands for “Physiology, Health and Environmental Observations in Microgravity,” and focuses on qualifying suborbital scientists over a period of 2 years.

When I heard of Project PoSSUM in mid-2015, I was really excited by the concept, and joined the program. I subsequently underwent their ground school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have since completed 2 parabolic flight campaigns tested the world’s first commercial spacesuit in micro-gravity in conjunction with PoSSUM and Final Frontier Design, as well as a course in Emergency Spacecraft Egress and Sea Survival.

I became involved with Project PHEnOM shortly thereafter, after being selected by Project Poseidon as a prime crew member/aquanaut for its 100-day under water expedition to Aquarius Reef Base. Both projects are run by the Sea Space Society, and required a multi-round application process consisting of an written application, a video application, an interview and the submission of a research proposal. PHeNOM is just getting underway now with online course work and groundschool, and I am really excited for some of the courses coming up in the next year: one is an outdoor leadership and survival school through the National Outdoor Leadership School and another will be a 2-week analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert.

AT: How does what you’re doing differ to something the CSA is doing?

SP: The Canadian Space Agency, like NASA and the European Space Agency is a governmental space agency, and has a much bigger budget and operates at multiple levels: manned spaceflight, the International Space Station research program, earth observation and remote sensing, etc. The projects I am working with focus very specifically on suborbital science. Which isn’t to say that these organizations are at odds with each other; in fact, part of PoSSUM’s funding comes from a NASA Flight Opportunities grant. At the end of the day, our objectives are the same: to advance space science and knowledge through exploration and experimentation, and this is a mission I am proud to be a part of.

AT: What made you go down the route you’re taking rather than apply to the CSA astronaut selection?

SP: The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact I had applied to the CSA astronaut selection. I was out early because unfortunately medical training wasn’t counted towards the 3-year minimum work experience criterion. I think this is a good thing, because it is a straightforward ‘select-out’ criterion that I will have met in future selection processes, unlike failing a medical, intellectual or psychological screen. That being said, I feel like my experiences with PoSSUM, PHeNOM and Poseidon certainly make me a more competitive candidate for future selections. Questions on the initial application asked about diving, micro-gravity, centrifuge and changing gravity environments, for example, all of which I was able to say ‘yes’ to because of my involvement with these projects.

AT: Why do you think there is an under-representation of women in space?

SP: I think the under-representation of women in STEM fields is multi-factorial. Part of it is attitude, part of it is biology, part of it is environment, and these factors are interconnected. So for example, if from a very young age, girls are exposed to an environment where they are encouraged to build, ask questions, create and learn, and that they are on a level playing field with boys, I feel they will be more likely to embark upon a career in a STEM field without reservation.

The other tricky part of the equation comes down to motherhood. It isn’t easy to be a good mother and be there for your children full-time, while trying to build a busy, fulfilling, successful career. Certainly women have managed it, but from watching friends and family who have been-there, done-that, being a good parent is more than a full-time job. So it’s a multi-factorial issue, that starts with a low number of women enrolling in these fields to begin with, and this enrollment drops as life and family factors creep in.

AT: Did you ever find it difficult to be a woman aspiring to be an astronaut?

SP: Not really. I’ve been very lucky in that I have had tremendous support from my family, friends, medical colleagues and space colleagues, and that has made all the difference. So certainly I am in the minority – I was the only female in class 1502 at PoSSUM ground school – but that number is increasing.

AT: You’ve done a lot of engagement and speaking with people in India, but what advice would you give to young British Indians like myself who wish to follow their dreams but familial or cultural pressures may be deterring them?

SP: For every detractor that you have, you will have supporters, even if they aren’t immediately apparent. So find those supporters, whether they are friends, family, academic advisers or work colleagues, and build that support base. It’s important. If you have a dream, don’t let yourself be deterred by ‘what-ifs’ or ‘I can’ts’. Build your dreams and plans and create a roadmap for getting there. Just go ahead and do it, and people who can help you along the way.

AT: What advice do you have for a young girl who likes the idea of space, but is unsure about her prospects (especially of becoming an astronaut)?

SP: Explore! If you think you might like space, get involved! Read about it, ask questions, go explore the websites of the major governmental space agencies, visit your local science center, join clubs. We don’t just wake up knowing our passions, we find our passions by exploring, doing and discovering.

AT: What if she’s not good at science or maths, but still really interested in space? Are there any other options for her to get involved?

SP: Space exploration is a vast, complex endeavor. There is room – and a need for – everyone at the table: engineers, scientists, doctors, pilots, and yes, policy and law experts. Space policy and law is its own academic field of study, and with increasingly complex missions, collaborations and commercial ventures, there is certainly a need for experts in this field. Education and outreach is another avenue for space involvement.

AT: Any final Words of Wisdom?

SP: There is so, so much out there waiting to be discovered and explored, and it is not up to one person, nation or space program. Successful space exploration and advancement requires many heads at the table. If you are interested, ask questions, get involved!

“If you have a dream, don’t let yourself be deterred by ‘what-ifs’ or ‘I can’ts’. Build your dreams and plans and create a roadmap for getting there.”

I feel inspired myself having spoken with Shawna; I have no doubts that many young girls will see her as a role model. I look forward to keeping up-to-date with Shawna’s journey. You can too by following her on Twitter: @shawnapandya.

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