If you need a dose (more like a triple shot) of inspiration, maybe even motivation, I got one for you with my feature of Shawna Pandya, MD. I can tell you that when I grow up (I’m older than Shawna) I want to be just like her!
Joking aside, what is so inspiring about Shawna, is not specifically what she does, or where she works, but the diversity and combination of all that’s she’s taken on, (which seems to all fit together perfectly, as if she strategically planned it), and also, her fearlessness and almost daredevil side.
In other words, she’s extremely ambitious in her career AND adventurous (she’s been to all kinds of extreme environments – more on that in a bit).
But the reality is that it did not go according to her initial plans in terms of her educational and professional paths. In fact, like for most of us, there were internal struggles, lessons to be learned, and a redirection of the course to be taken. But ultimately, it all worked out for Shawna.
Let me start with her educational background:
Dr. Shawna Pandya holds a BSc. Hons, in Neuroscience (U. of Alberta), a Masters in ‘Space Studies’ from the International Space University; then prior to completing her medical degree and becoming a general practitioner, she attended a program at Singularity University.
At Singularity University the mission and challenge for its attendees, is to: “positively impact one billion people in 10 years using accelerating technologies” – and so when there, Shawna co-founded CiviGuard, a successful start-up, which allowed her to acquire hands-on experience in innovation, technology and business.
So what exactly does she do now? What is her “job”?
Shawna likes to often joke that she leads a life kind of like Batman/Bruce Wayne; a dual life. She’s a physician during the day and a Citizen-Scientist, Astronaut Candidate (and has many side activities, including a black belt in Taekwondo! - she previously competed in international and world levels competition) Her full bio can be read here - and a the 2-min. video of her dreams and goals (in collaboration with Land Rover and featured on CNN when Apollo 11 movie was aired).
What is interesting about Shawna is that she’s not “only” interested in Space Medicine; as in, she doesn’t “just” want to help astronauts when they come back to Earth from the International Space Station, or in the future, from a farther, longer destination, but she is training to be an astronaut herself!
She wants to go to space when the opportunity arises, and be part of the experience while working in her field. The future in Space Exploration will demand more of such experts: doctors in space, medicine in space.
She says the following about the world outside of the Earth:
“At the end of the day, space is unforgiving, and basically the Universe is conspiring to kill you in space. It’s kind of a game of survival. And that’s where training and risk mitigation come into play.”
And so, Shawna is actually training as a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut!
She’s doing this training with:
Project PoSSUM (an acronym for: Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere); scientist-astronaut candidates undergo spacesuit, suborbital flight & mission simulation, aerobatic flight and hypoxia chamber.
(Remember I mentioned extreme environments earlier…?!)
(Please note, I will mention various programs and names of organizations. I can’t go on in depth about them all, so to learn more, with every highlighted name, you can click and be led directly to their website.)
With Project PoSSUM Shawna is also an instructor for a course with title: EVA 102: Operational Space Medicine.
Also, with the same organization, she is part of an Outreach Program called The PoSSUM 13 (in honor of Mercury 13). From the website, the description says: “A talented group of thirteen female PoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Candidates who serve as global ambassadors in increasing opportunity and representation for students.”
To add a few more examples of “extreme environments”, Shawna just recently received a certificate in Diving Medical Technician Training and a certificate as an Honorary Aquanaut by the World Extreme Medicine and Florida International University.
In my conversation with Shawna, I asked her if she ever felt intimidated or treated unfairly as a woman. Many of the settings she’s in, from the various courses she takes, to her practice in Martial Arts are mostly with men. And as silly a question that may be, because, well, we’re not in the ‘60s, things are still far from equal, or perfect. But also, intimidation (and “Imposter Syndrom”), can affect us all, even if we belong.
And that’s exactly Shawna’s answer: “Act like you belong there, because YOU DO!” (I’d like to add here that I’ve seen a few videos of Shawna in training, and not only does she “practice what she preaches”, but she is clearly treated with so much respect by her teammates and instructors.)
About the future in Space Exploration and innovation pertaining to it, she says she hopes for it to become more democratized, and of course, to see the innovation being built so we can explore as far as we can, as humanity.
She also mentioned how when she was in the Space program for her Masters, there were 32% women in the program, and she hopes that the trends will change on that front and become more equal.
Equality, however, even though meant to promote fairness, can only be fair if everyone has the same opportunity; hence equity is crucial to be included in the system – something that Shawna emphasized on.
Throughout her childhood, Shawna kept looking up at the sky, and wanting to be part of it. She was also inspired by Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, with whom she saw she had a few things in common, hence Roberta became her role model.
To give you one of the most inspiring developments on someone who followed their dreams and with a specific role model in mind, there is currently an exhibition at the Ontario Space Center, on Women In Space, and guess who are featured? Yes, Shawna, along with her hero, Roberta Bondar, as well as Natalie Panek, an Aerospace Engineer at MDA.
Shawna’s parents, immigrants from India, never really told their daughter that she was crazy to dream of going to space. Shawna had her visions and goals, her inspiration, and she worked really hard to be where she is today.
It is said that girls lose interest in STEM fields by age 15 due mostly to a lack of representation. Shawna now is not only an inspiring role model – and she actually advocates for Women/Girls in STEM – but her story is a bit like the “secret sauce” to following your dream: find your passion, have a vision, goals, and follow your own role models for inspiration.
Shawna is also a public speaker, and has had two TED Talks.
You can follow Shawna on Social Media with the following links: