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Internal Medicine Heads to Outer Space

(from the June 2018 ACP Internist)

An ACP Fellow is headed to outer space to spend six months aboard the International Space Station.

By Ryan DuBosar

Astronaut. Aquanaut. Arctic explorer. Internist. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, MD, FACP, has done it all.

“Since I was a small child, five or six, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. Her parents advised her that if she wanted to work for NASA, engineering would be a good route to take, so that became her major at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Between her sophomore and junior years, her friends in the university's pre-med engineering program encouraged her to consider that curriculum.

Dr. Auñón-Chancellor graduated from George Washington in 1997 with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to medical school at the University of Texas at Houston, where she took an elective at the Johnson Space Center and learned about a residency that combined internal medicine and aerospace medicine.

“I decided that was the path for me,” she said. “I'd already decided to go into internal medicine, so it seemed perfect to combine those two loves.”

After a three-year residency in internal medicine at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and an additional year as chief resident, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor completed two more years in her aerospace medicine curriculum. (She also holds a master's degree in public health and is board-certified in internal medicine and aerospace medicine.)

When Dr. Auñón-Chancellor began working with NASA, she was a flight surgeon, which is an old-fashioned military term for physicians who neither fly nor perform surgery. They are the physicians trained in internal medicine, family practice, or emergency medicine who care for astronauts in training and their families.

NASA needs to learn more about the long-term ramifications of space travel for astronauts' health, and Dr. Auñón-Chancellor has researched this topic in her role as a flight surgeon. Still under consideration are questions such as whether surgery can be done in micro- or low-gravity environments and whether each mission should include a physician as part of the team.

“As we push toward a two- to three-year mission to Mars, should we have a physician? And if you have a physician, what sort of physician should that be?” Dr. Auñón-Chancellor said. “I think we should have a physician on every mission.”

During her stint as a flight surgeon, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor spent nine months in Russia supporting medical operations for International Space Station crew members in Star City. “Then, when the next astronaut selection came up in 2009, I threw my hat in the ring and was honored enough to be chosen,” she said.

Read the full article in ACP Internist.

ACP Internist provides news and information for internists about the practice of medicine and reports on the policies, products, and activities of ACP.

Back to the July 2018 issue of ACP IMpact