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Med Student Learns About Surgery in Space

College of Medicine student Shea Harrison is exploring the exciting world of aerospace medicine.

Shea Harrison, a fourth-year College of Medicine student at UT Health Science Center, can offer an interesting perspective on her chosen field.

Through a research effort spearheaded by George Pantalos, PhD, a professor of surgery and bioengineering at the University of Louisville, Harrison is learning about surgery during space missions. She is participating in the Astro-Surgery project, which is about creating surgical capabilities in microgravity for long-duration expeditionary human spaceflight. Harrison and other researchers are investigating fluid mechanics at microgravity and studying how fluids, including blood, behave in the absence of gravity.

Harrison’s interest in the project is no coincidence. “I’ve thought space travel was really cool since nagging my sister to watch ‘Apollo 13’ with me constantly,” said Harrison. “I guess the interest never really went away. I kept up with NASA throughout college and started reading about aerospace medicine opportunities when I came to med school. The flight surgeons in Houston are all aerospace medicine doctors and have really cool roles in supporting astronauts. However, they don’t operate.”

Harrison first heard about Dr. Pantalos and his team when she read an article on the internet about his research. “I emailed Dr. Pantalos fully expecting to never hear back from him. I was actually pretty surprised when I got an email back that same night. We emailed back and forth for a couple weeks, and the following month, I was in Louisville to meet everyone in the lab and see if I could be a good fit.”

She then went to Houston where she spent several days at an international symposium on surgical capabilities for spaceflight. “We got to talk with several physician-astronauts about their experience with medical devices on the space station and hear what surgical capabilities they think are necessary for long-duration flight,” Harrison explained. “After the symposium, I worked at Ellington Field (the NASA hangar in Houston) for several days getting our experiment ready to fly the next week. I got to spend some time at Johnson Space Center and make a visit to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where astronauts train on a full-size international space station (ISS) mock-up under water before they go up.”

The question people usually ask is: “Why would we ever want to do surgery in space?” Harrison said. “The answer is that we wouldn’t ever want to do that, and hopefully won’t. NASA wants their personnel to be prepared if it comes to that in an emergency situation.”

NASA (800x533)
Harrison is a part of the Astro-Surgery project, which is about creating surgical capabilities in microgravity for long-duration expeditionary human spaceflight.

In 1972, Apollo 17 marked he last time man traveled into space beyond low earth orbit. For the past 15 years, men and women have been on the International Space Station, which orbits 250 miles above earth. NASA is currently working on plans for a couple of manned missions that would take men much farther from earth, to an asteroid or Mars.

“The work we’re doing is actually really simple,” Harrison said. “We’re taking surgeries that are pretty easy to do here on earth and figuring out how to practically do them without the help of gravity. It turns out there are a lot of problems you might not anticipate that need to be figured out.”

In October, Harrison will move to Louisville for a couple of months so she can work full time on the project.

Even with all of the excitement that aerospace medicine brings, Harrison’s heart is still set on being a surgeon. “I’m applying to general surgery, where I’ll train for the next five years,” she said. “I like trauma a lot right now, so maybe a fellowship in trauma. Several of the physician-astronauts I met in Houston were trauma surgeons before they applied for astronaut candidacy. So I’m not sure what I’ll want to do down the road. Hopefully, I’ll find something I’m still excited to be doing 20 or 30 years down the road.”