Medical students at Baylor have the opportunity to join one of seven pathways that allow them to explore their interests and customize their education to match their career goals. Vignesh Ramachandran discusses his experience in the Space Medicine Pathway in this Q&A.
Ramachandran is currently in a research-focused gap year between his third and fourth years of medical school. He intends to pursue a residency in dermatology, blending that specialty with his interest in space medicine – for example by studying dermatologic conditions that could occur during extended-duration space exploration, such as radiation-induced skin cancers.
Q: When did you first become interested in space medicine?
A: When I came to BCM, I met two upperclassmen who were completing the Space Medicine Pathway and introduced me to the monthly journal clubs. I immediately became fascinated. Space medicine was unlike anything else I had studied before. It challenged me to think in creative ways and was the most unique application of medicine and physiology in my mind.
I decided I would work toward completing the Space Medicine Pathway, a unique opportunity that is only possible given BCM’s location in Houston and its world-renowned faculty in the Center for Space Medicine and their ties to NASA.
I was then connected to Dr. Jeffrey A. Jones, a former NASA flight surgeon, professor and chief of urology at the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center, active U.S. Navy Reserve and prolific space medicine researcher. I began conducting research under his mentorship. Over time, one project turned into two, which turned into three and so forth. It was all entirely stimulating and exciting. I knew I wanted to make space medicine an integral part of my training in medical school in the future and in my career.
Q: How has being in the Space Medicine Pathway contributed to your medical education?
A: Research has been a passion of mine since my undergraduate days when I toiled endlessly in a basic science lab conducting experiments with yeast. In fact, a main driver in my desire to pursue medical school was the opportunity to deliver patient care while producing advancements with my research.
Space medicine has provided me with incredible opportunities toward this goal. I have coordinated a study funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, been first-author on a review paper chronicling musculoskeletal injury in astronauts and on another study evaluating changes in eye pressures in space voyagers, and published other articles related to physiologic changes in spaceflight. An equally important skill in scientific investigation is disseminating findings orally. Under Dr. Jones’ mentorship, I have delivered oral podium presentations and poster presentations at prominent international and national conferences within aerospace medicine. I feel really lucky for the opportunities I have had.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of mentorship in the pathway?
A: The Space Medicine Pathway is excellent because of the faculty. We have faculty who have worked as clinical and basic science researchers at NASA, flight surgeons at NASA, space-travelled astronauts, military pilots and physicians and much more. Yet, they are all humble, supportive, kind and value BCM students immensely. I would like to recognize a few of these individuals who I have worked with.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, adjunct CSM faculty, gave me my first chance to present at journal club and sang my praises to Dr. Jones, my mentor. Having the vote of confidence from a prolific, world-famous space medicine researcher like Dr. Clark as a mere first-year medical student was a huge boost of confidence. Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, director and professor of the Center for Space Medicine, is an incredible proponent of the pathway, speaking at Space Medicine Interest Group meetings and inspiring students. He was also present for my final presentation at the end of the pathway. Ms. Nancy Gibbins, director of business operations of CSM, is the backbone of the track. She is always there for students, connecting them with faculty, inviting them to journal clubs, and has an uncanny ability to do best by her students.
Finally, and most importantly to me, Dr. Jeffrey Jones, who was the best mentor I could ever ask for. Dr. Jones had the confidence and willingness to allow me to lead massive-scale research endeavors of increasing complexity and volume. However, most importantly, Dr. Jones was someone I could turn to for any major life decision and career advice. Despite how busy he is in his innumerable roles, he is always a text or email away.
Overall, the faculty truly encompass what I value most in the Space Medicine Pathway. It takes special people willing to put aside their own work and interests to support a young student looking to make his or her mark.
Q: What would you tell other medical students about being involved in this pathway?
A: The Space Medicine Pathway is phenomenal and a unique way to complement our excellent BCM medical education. While it may be possible to complete the requirements meeting minimal threshold, it is in the students’ best interest to fully invest in this rare opportunity. Students should consider expending the time and energy to squeeze every drop out of the pathway, from networking with faculty to working on multiple projects to attending and presenting at major conferences to working toward publications. By doing so, one just may launch his or her career into orbit!
Learn more about the Space Medicine Pathway.