Episode 10 - The Intersection of Space and Medicine with Dr. Shawna PandyaDec 31, 2022
Dr. Kevin Mailo welcomes Dr. Shawna Pandya - Physician, Aquanaut, Explorer, Director of IIAS Space Medicine Group, Space Medicine and Austere Environment Researcher - to the show to talk about her amazing career. But more than that, Shawna speaks about dreams and how to make them a reality.
Shawna Pandya is an explorer, and an aquanaut, she’s lived in a Mars simulation in the Utah desert, and she’s lived in an underwater habitat for five days. She works for a company focused on immersive technologies and a company trying to put the world’s first rotating partial gravity artificial gravity space station into orbit. She’s also a martial artist, skydiver, and pilot-in-training. She has an amazing career. And she knows more than a little bit about having lofty dreams and not sacrificing them to reality but pursuing them with determination.
In this episode, Kevin Mailo and guest Dr. Shawna Pandya talk about the varied paths of Shawna’s career. And they dive deeply into how Shawna’s childhood dreams propelled her into the journey she’s on today. She addresses self-acceptance, having a plan of action, positive visualization, preparing for setbacks, and the mentors who invested in her along the way. Her story and advice on dreams are deeply inspiring.
About Dr. Shawna Pandya:
Dr. Shawna Pandya is a scientist-astronaut candidate with Project PoSSUM, physician, aquanaut, speaker, martial artist, advanced diver, skydiver, pilot-in-training, VP of Immersive Medicine with Luxsonic Technologies and Fellow of the Explorers' Club. She is also the Director of the PosSUM Space Medicine Group and Chief Instructor of the PoSSUM Operational Space Medicine Group.
She holds degrees in neuroscience (BSc Hons. Neuroscience, University of Alberta), space (MSc Space Studies, International Space University), entrepreneurship (Graduate Studies Program, Singularity University) and medicine (MD, University of Alberta), and is currently completing a fellowship in Wilderness Medicine (Academy of Wilderness Medicine).
Resources Discussed in this Episode:
- International Space University
- Nasa Johnson Space Center
- Chris Hadfield
- “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Dr. Kevin Mailo and you're listening to the Physician Empowerment Podcast. At Physician Empowerment, we're focused on transforming the lives of Canadian physicians through education in finance, practice transformation, wellness and leadership. After you've listened to today's episode, I encourage you to visit us at PhysEmpowerment.ca - that's P H Y S empowerment.ca - to learn more about the many resources we have to help you make that change in your own life, practice, and personal finances. Now on to today's episode.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:00:35] Hi, I'm Dr. Kevin Mailo, one of the hosts of the Physician Empowerment Podcast. And today I'm very, very excited to be joined by Dr. Shawna Pandya. And before we get started in the interview, let me say a little bit about Shawna, and she is a primary care physician who practices mostly emergency medicine. And for years now, even before her career in medicine, Shawna has been pursuing space medicine with a focus as well in extreme medicine and hostile environments. And so I would love to hear from you, Shawna, and that probably isn't the full introduction. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:01:15] Yeah, sure. So first of all, thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I think this will be really fun. So for those who don't know me, here's a little bit about my background. I'm an explorer, I'm an aquanaut, I've been on expeditions in what we call analog environments. So that is environments that are analogous in some way to the spaceflight environments. I've been to the Mars Desert, or I've been to the Utah desert on a Mars simulation. I've lived underwater for five days, yeah, in a water underwater habitat. There's lots to talk about. I work with a lot of space companies with applications for Earth. I work with Luxsonic Technologies, which focuses on immersive technologies. So virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 video for medical education, for health care workers, physicians, paramedics and more. And I also advise a company trying to put the world's first rotating partial gravity artificial gravity space station in orbit by the end of the decade, as well as a space food company. So that's Orbital Assembly Corporation and IIAS, respectively. There's a lot we could talk about. So I think this is going to be fun.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:02:23] Yeah. So there is a lot we could talk about. And it's funny because at first I was tempted to interview you about space medicine specifically, right? Because I think that's extremely exciting. I myself am a big fan or I don't want to say fan, but I constantly follow space exploration and all the remarkable progress we've been making throughout the world in terms of space technologies. But I really want to hear about your dreams and the meaning of dreams in our lives, because what struck me, following you on social media, Shawna, is the fact that what appears to be your dreams are very much a part of your daily reality. And that your dreams have been integrated into your career. In fact, your career is your dream. You live and work your dream, and that is so incredibly rare. And in Physician Empowerment, actually, in December 2021, we were actually in Mexico talking about wellness practice transformation. But one of the topics that we covered is dreams and how dreams provide not only goals in our lives, it's bigger than that. Dreams provide focus and meaning in our lives. They give us a sense of the arc of our life, and it can be a source of immense personal comfort and wellness as we pursue them. So talk to us about what dreams mean in your life. Tell us about your dream journey. Like, how old were you when you decided you wanted to go on this path?
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:03:47] Yeah. So my childhood journey is actually, I think, where this all starts. And I think that's where this idea of, Hey, I want to go to space comes from. Before that, it came with actually even bigger ambitions. So this is me as a nine or ten year old settling down, quote/unquote, decide to pursue astronautics. And so I think this is really a good example of what it means to be limitless and not--
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:04:13] -- I love that--
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:04:14] -- bound by what is possible in reality. And so to make that more concrete, so when I was four, I was like, I want to save the world. I want to do good. And I'm going to do that by being a Transformer, like I was going to be Optimus Prime crime fighter. We do good. And then I matured a little bit. I became seven and I realized, Oh, you can't actually be a Transformer. That's just ridiculous. So I thought, okay, well, I will be a billionaire superhero like in this Batman, Bruce Wayne kind of context.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:04:46] Also very reasonable.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:04:48] Very reasonable. You know, I matured. I'd put on some years since the age four. And I thought, okay, well, clearly I need to do good in the world. I need to pursue this Batman persona, you know, get lots of money and also fight crime. And then I realized that's not something you go to school for. You don't get your degree in billionaire-ology. So then by the time I was nine, this is also during the nineties when Canada had sent its first ever female astronaut to space - and that was, of course, Dr. Roberta Bonder - and I looked at her and I said, okay, she's Canadian, I'm Canadian, she's female, I'm female. So now all I need to do is be a neuroscientist, physician, astronaut, boom, done. That's my path towards astronautics. And so if you look at all of my homework from junior high, it was all about astronautics and how to get to space and just everything obsessed with human spaceflight and exploration. And then in high school, again, focusing down more, I said, okay, I'm going to go be a neurosurgeon. I'm going to medical school. That's what I'm focusing on. So my first degree was neuroscience. And then somewhere along the way, that space dream kind of crept back in. And so by the time I was applying for medical school, I realized how insanely competitive it was. And I said, okay, I'm not guaranteed to even get an interview. I need to pick a backup plan, a contingency that even if I don't get into med school, will make me happy that I could spend the entire year, you know, saying, this is amazing, like not wishing I was somewhere else, like medical school. And I'd heard of someplace called the International Space University, which is in Strasbourg, France, offers a master's program, and in reality is like Starfleet Academy, where you meet amazing students from all across the world. It's very, they abide by this international, interdisciplinary, intercultural perspective. We had 50 students, 31 countries represented. We had lawyers, engineers, future physicians and myself. Everything we did was collaborative. And that's when I realized maybe I didn't have to choose between space or medicine. Maybe there was an intersection. That's where I really learned about what space medicine was. And so kind of tying back to your initial question, this is kind of where realizing that, hey, having these big dreams as a kid, you can actually forge a path towards them. And that's really kind of taking what seems pie in the sky limitless, but also maybe not necessarily attainable, becomes attainable.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:07:14] So talk to us about self acceptance of dreams and living them boldly. Because I'll be honest, I'm a big dreamer. I have lots of my own dreams about what I want to do with my life, where I want to go, where I want to see Physician Empowerment go. And, you know, it took me years to live that boldly. It took me years to even speak about my dreams. And for those of you that come to our conferences, you'll hear all about it. But tell me about like learning to live that boldly, learning to speak it, share it, and overcome the people that might have something negative to say or who who aren't necessarily there to support you. Because that's hard when we work in highly collaborative environments or even just with friends and family. So talk to us about overcoming doubt.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:08:05] Yeah. So I mean, I'm a big believer in having a plan of action, having multiple contingency plans, and also taking concrete steps to put yourself on the way. And I think Chris Hadfield actually captures this in his book perfectly when he says when he was a kid and decided to be an astronaut, he didn't just go into his kitchen and declare it to his family because he would have been laughed out of the kitchen. He said, okay, I'm just going to be the best student possible. I'm going to do this. I'm going to pursue a career as a fighter pilot. And so it comes down to creating an action plan of how is this going to move me forward towards my goals and my ambitions, and then also realizing that you can prepare yourself and that also just because you're not eligible for something today doesn't mean you shouldn't keep it on your radar. And so to give you a concrete example, I knew about the Canadian Space Agency sponsored Aerospace Medicine elective to go down to NASA for a month and perform research related to space medicine. I knew about that since I was in Grade 11 and I would, like, compulsively check the CSA website, but you weren't eligible to even apply for it until you were final year medical school or until you were a first year resident. So, I mean, that was at least a decade off. But the nice thing about keeping an eye for these opportunities is it gives you something to reach for. Then you start putting together that ladder that gets you there. You start making yourself a competitive candidate. And so that was always in the back of my mind. And by the time it came to apply, you know, I had publications under my name, I had a book chapter under my name. I was very involved in Canadian space activities. And so I became one of two Canadians sponsored for that term to go down to NASA. So part of it is being aware of the opportunities and then working towards them as a matter of attaining your goals. And then the other part of it is rehearsal and for the hard things. And so to give you an example of, like, how rehearsed I've been for what I've deemed the most important things in my life, I will practice it before the real thing ever comes. And so when I was writing my MCAT, my medical college admissions test, which I'm sure the entire audience is familiar with us, they've all we've all had to write it. My family was out of town. It was to a new part of the city I'd never been to. So as a dress rehearsal, I drove all the way to the test site, found my parking spot, figured out how long it would take me to get to the test hall, make sure I knew where it was. I did all of that the day before, just to make sure I knew that part of the the concrete part. I applied to medical school a year before I was qualified to even apply, just so I could go through the essays, know what they asked for, have them all written. So when it came time to actually apply, I had something to draw off of. Same thing for Canadian Space Agency astronaut selection. Even the years I wasn't eligible, I went through their 50 page, literally, 50 page submission process, so I knew what they were asking for, so I knew what they were looking for. So the qualifications I didn't have, I would just go out and get them. And so there's an element of preparation and planning and action that really comes along with realizing our dreams.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:11:15] I love that. Tell us about positive visualization. Right? Because it's one thing to say, oh, I have this dream on the horizon, but like positive visualization goes further in that we start to have specific stepping stones imagined or seen or written down. Talk to us about the role of positive visualization in your mind, as well as negative visualization of setbacks.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:11:43] Yeah. So I think we need to talk about, we can't talk about positive visualization without negative visualization. And I call it the what if game. Anyone who practices emergency medicine will be doing this at all times because we're constantly asking, What is the most likely diagnosis? What is the worst case scenario? Best case scenario? What else could this be? And in everything we do in life, we should be asking the same, like, what is most likely to happen? How would this work? What would this look like if this is was a best case scenario versus what could go wrong and the reason that we do this, so when we talk specifically about positive visualization and we go through, for example, the exact steps to do a procedure in medicine, we're building that muscle memory by activating our supplementary motor areas. So we're kind of priming our brains to say, I'm ready to perform. But the value of going through the worst case scenarios, playing that what if game is also saying, how am I going to react, I don't want to be caught unawares if something bad happens because I didn't plan for it. So I call it the What if game. Chris Hadfield calls it the power of negative thinking, but it's also preparing ourselves for the reality of what life is and saying that I have a plan for that as well.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:12:56] I love that. I love that. Talk to us about failure or setbacks. Because I think that is inevitable. Any time we are pursuing a higher goal or a dream, trying to get somewhere, we encounter failure. And again, that's another thing it took me years to embrace was failure as a stepping stone to success. Talk to us about failure. You don't have to share any specific stories, but how you overcome failure, how you approach it, how you learn from it, and then how you move ahead and try again.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:13:33] Yeah. One of my friends, she's amazing. She's Canada's seventh female fighter pilot and she said, If you've never failed, you're either lucky, lying, or Jesus himself. So I love that. And I, for me, I say, if you're always winning, you're probably in the wrong league. So you have to fail because you're not really pushing your own limits if you haven't failed. And the other part of it is to realize that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. And what I mean by that is even when we succeed, our successes aren't always pretty and perfect, that there's something that can always be improved upon. And when things, when we fail, it's not final. There's a quote that says Success is not final. Success, or failure is not final, failure's not fatal. It's the courage to go on that counts. And that's basically saying, well, if you fail, you've only failed if you refuse to do something about it. Why not take that situation, analyze what went wrong, figure out what went right so you can reinforce that part, and then come up with a plan to address the part that didn't go so well. And in the operational world, in aviation and space, we call that the art of the debrief. Any time we fly a zero gravity campaign, we are debriefing after every flight because we want to know what went well so we can reinforce that pattern of performance. What didn't go so well, so we can share those lessons learned with the rest of the team, and also so we can change our own actions and performance patterns in what didn't go so well. And so that's why I say success and failure are two sides of the same coin, because there's always actions to be optimized.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:15:02] Absolutely love that. What else do you want to share with us about your journey or about what you've learned along the way in terms of pursuing your dreams?
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:15:11] Yeah, I definitely feel like I'm just getting started. I think there's so much else I want to do. So many other places I want to go.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:15:20] I love that because you've been at it, like, dreaming for over 20 years, right?
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:15:24] Yeah I've been doing it my whole life.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:15:25] But it still feels fresh. It still feels new. I really love that.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:15:28] Absolutely. Every single day is like, Wow, I can't believe that someone would think of me for this. That's amazing. And part of it is you can't acknowledge success without acknowledging the imposter syndrome. We all feel it.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:15:41] Right. Right.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:15:42] And what I've learned is it's an opportunity. It's a growth opportunity. Right? Because someone even if I don't feel ready to be in, whatever, in medical school or to be in this position within a company or an organization, someone somewhere saw something in me that they believed I could do this. And so it's an opportunity to become better, smarter, more educated, and then also execute. So that's how I deal with the imposter syndrome. And then just realizing that you have to love every bit of the journey. And there's people who say, I want to be an astronaut, I'm going to study engineering, even though I hate it. I'm to go get my operational certifications in skydiving, whatever, even though I hate it. And when they're hating every step of it and then maybe ultimately they are medically disqualified forever from astronaut candidacy and they feel like they've wasted their life. And for me, it's the exact opposite. I love every aspect of what I do and every part of the journey. That's how I work seven days a week. That's how I live out of a suitcase. And I'm home for maybe three days a month because everything I do is absolutely fun to me. And I think that's key when realizing, you know, if this is the path I want to pursue, is it actually the path I want to pursue, get those data points, live it, and then figure out, is this how I envisioned it to be?
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:17:02] Amazing. Talk to us about the importance of mentors and surrounding yourself with people that build you up, because I know I've certainly, over the years, become much more mindful of who I spend my time with in terms of sharing my dreams, working towards my dreams. Because there are people that build us up in life. There are people who bring us down. Talk to us about how you seek out mentors. I would love to hear that because I bet you, well already, from what you've mentioned, it sounds like you met some incredible people on the journey.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:17:28] Yeah. So for mentors, I think mentorship, I have this view of it doesn't have to be this very formal relationship. It doesn't have to be, hey, will you be my mentor? Because I think there's this unrealistic expectation that this person is going to transform you into the person you want to be. And that comes from within. And I think we don't do a good job with with any type of mentorship relationship setting those expectations that, no, it's you. You're the one who has to set your goals and pursue them and come armed with questions. And that's the approach I've always taken. And then the other part of it is just feeling, realizing the social contract to pay it forward, because I wouldn't be where I am if incredibly busy people hadn't taken time during their careers to invest in me, even though they didn't have to. And the best example I can give of that is someone I've mentioned a lot through this podcast because the first day I ever interned at NASA's Johnson Space Center, the phone rang in my office. It was off campus. I'd lost my passport, I was frazzled. So I picked up the phone and I said, I'm sorry I have to put you on hold. And then I realized that the person on the other end of the line said that was Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hadfield, who is training to be commander of the International Space Station. And I just put him on hold. And so the man was busy. This was 2012. He was training to command an entire space station, but he still found time to take myself and the other Canadian medical student out for coffee, answer questions about space. Why? He has no impetus to do that. All of this, all of the Canadian astronauts, Jeremy Hansen, David Saint-Jacques, they took time to invest in us. That's amazing.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:19:10] That's incredible. That's so inspiring.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:19:13] Right?
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:19:13] Yeah, like, what a Canadian hero.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:19:16] He was amazing. I can't say enough good things about him. And so, to me, that really is a lesson in pay it forward. Like, you know, as busy as I get, I also feel a duty to help others, to help answer the questions. I'm involved with Space Prize Fellowships, Zenith Pathways, Women in Aerospace Medicine. Like there is a very long list that I'm sure I'm forgetting more because once upon a time I was at that stage and I definitely wouldn't be where I am if folks hadn't taken the time from their schedules to invest in me.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:19:52] Wow, wow, wow. What a great story. And so beautiful to talk about paying it forward. Right? Because I think that enriches us immensely when we can take the time and help somebody who's on a similar journey or somewhere further down the path or coming up the path like we are. So powerful. I think that also helps renew our interest in our dreams and energize us and focus us. Wow. Shawna, I'm not going to, I'm not going to keep you longer because I know you're busy. Do you want to share like a book that you love that might be related to this? But that's always hard because I'm putting you on the spot. I didn't give you any prep about that ahead of time.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:20:30] It's very on brand. It's the same book I've been quoting this whole.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:20:33] Go for it.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:20:34] Chris Hadfield's 'An Astronaut's Guide to Earth'. It's very resonated very much with me. A lot of the lessons I've shared this hour have been from that book and also through my own lessons, so totally recommend it.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:20:46] Was that the guy that you put on hold when you... Oh, that guy okay. Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. Amazing. That's truly incredible. Love it. Okay, Shawna, thank you so much for coming on and just sharing your story, sharing your journey. It is so inspiring. As I said earlier, it is rare to meet people that live their dreams so boldly and so fully. And yet dreams are maybe one of the most important things in our lives because they give us so much meaning and joy. And like you said, it's the journey that has to be savored, not just the destination.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:21:20] Absolutely.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:21:21] I love that. Thank you so much, Shawna.
Dr. Shawna Pandya: [00:21:24] Yeah, my pleasure.
Dr. Kevin Mailo: [00:21:25] Thank you so much for listening to your Physician Empowerment podcast. If you're ready to take those next steps in transforming your practice, finances or personal well-being, then come and join us at PhysEmpowerment.ca - P H Y S Empowerment.ca - to learn more about how we can help. If today's episode resonated with you, I'd really appreciate it if you would share our podcast with a colleague or friend and head over to Apple Podcasts to give us a five star rating and review. If you've got feedback, questions, or suggestions for future episode topics, we'd love to hear from you. If you want to join us and be interviewed and share some of your story, we'd absolutely love that as well. Please send me an email at [email protected]. Thank you again for listening. Bye.