Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor graduated from McGovern Medical School in 2001 and completed her internal medicine residency and aerospace medicine residency at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB). She also earned a master’s degree in public health from UTMB. She joined NASA as a flight surgeon in 2006 and was selected as an astronaut in 2009. She launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2018 with the Expedition 56/57 crew. Here she answers questions for the McGovern Annual Report.
What has inspired your career?
My career has taken a lot of twists and turns. I graduated as an engineer and became pre-med late. I had a lot of encouragement from friends who were going pre-med who said I’d be good as a doctor. Making that change was absolutely the right decision because I love being a physician. I wanted to be an astronaut from age 8 or 9 and watched NASA landings as a child, which were inspirational. Friends and family were very supportive of my decisions.
Who were your role models?
Tons of people I met long the way, but I can’t say one specific person. You take the best part and emulate those—little pieces of one instructor here, or one professor there. Certainly my family and my parents were very influential, and they had a particularly high level of expectation of me and my three sisters. My parents worked very hard; my mother is a novelist and my dad came to this country in 1960 as a Cuban immigrant with little money but worked his way up and became the dean of the college of engineering at several universities. My sisters are also my role models.
How did you choose McGovern Medical School?
I always say McGovern chose me. When I applied to medical school, I got few interviews, just two total – McGovern and UTMB. During my interview at McGovern, I remember being asked, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5–10 years?’ I said, ‘I see myself at NASA.’ The folks at McGovern took a chance on me. Back then, there weren’t many pre-med engineers, and they saw my path forward was a little different; they chose to support me on that. It’s all worked out very well, and I’m grateful to McGovern. It’s inspired me, and it’s taught me to look at every aspect of someone I meet. I work with medical students today, and you never know where they will end up. Having gone to McGovern helped me achieve tremendous things in my career.
What do you remember most about McGovern Medical School?
I remember the faculty—they made such an impact, and I don’t know if they know that. They took a lot of time teaching you. Your learning curve is exponential as a medical student. The patient-centered approach was paramount at McGovern. I realized how good McGovern was at approaching the patients, and I really appreciate that and try to use that same method. Being a physician is one of the most human professions, and it requires finding a way to approach every patient from where they are.
What advice would you give current medical students?
Spend as much time as you can watching and emulating your instructors, take the good and toss away the bad, learn as much as you can. Medical school years are stressful, but learn as much as you can before going into residency. Enjoy your medical school career—these are friends you will keep for a lifetime. Take advantage of working in clinics that serve the uninsured, try new things, go on medical mission trips, and take electives at other institutions. Your specialty will find you. Focus on what you want, and it will happen.
How have you been able to continue being an active clinician and how does continuing to be a clinician add value to your role as an astronaut?
It’s difficult because my astronaut job is a full-time job, so working as a physician has to be on weekends, or after hours. I love being a physician and do so in UTMB settings in urgent care or hospital wards and in student-run free clinics. When you stop seeing patients, you go into withdrawal. The astronaut office understands and lets me recertify in my specialties (internal medicine and aerospace medicine). Being a physician astronaut absolutely adds value as medical challenges of space flight come up and expertise is needed. Astronaut physicians have a highly valued role and cover a wide range of areas.
What will your role be on the Expedition 56/57 crew?
Roles are the same for all astronauts on the mission. We are all trained equally on space walks, robotics, space systems, and science experiments, and we are assigned equally on these tasks throughout our six-month stay on the ISS. If there were a medical issue, they would come to me; each crew has two medical officers, although not necessarily a physician.
What are you most looking forward to about this mission?
The human research that will be performed. Some of our international partners are looking at cool experiments with chronic disease, microgravity, cell structure, and protein structure.
What kind of medical differences and challenges do astronauts face compared to our Earthbound population?
The biggest challenges astronauts face once we are in microgravity is that we are unloaded—we experience bone loss, muscle mass loss, and fight to maintain this with exercise throughout the mission. We see changes in the eyeball—its shape, retina, changes in vision—we’re not sure why and are doing research and are trained to do ultrasounds of our own eyes. We also have exposure to radiation. In low-Earth orbit it’s not as big of a deal, but it will be when we set out to Mars. Humans adapt pretty well—we don’t give the body enough credit. We are trying to fly people for longer and longer to see if there is change in the genetic structure to see how well we can maintain bone and muscle mass.