Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 3

Submission from Gihan Ganeshanantham


  1.  During my five years of medical education at Imperial College London I have enjoyed and been inspired by the space medicine opportunities that have been available to me. I undertook an intercalated BSc degree at King's College London in Aerospace Physiology, participated in a European Space Agency student parabolic flight campaign competition, worked as a visiting researcher at a microgravity laboratory in Brazil and now hope to go on to undertake an elective with NASA in the final year of my medical degree. These have all fuelled a childhood desire to be involved with space medicine and I intend to incorporate these interests with a prospective medical career in ophthalmology. However, being born and living in the UK may prove to be a distinct disadvantage due to the lack of the UK's involvement in human space flight and I fear these opportunities will soon begin to disappear once I qualify as a doctor.

  2.  Determined to involve myself with the aerospace world I desperately sought a means to do so. Throughout my early medical school years I kept my eyes open and ears pealed for any prospects, and eventually an opportunity arose. Intercalated with our medical degree we had to undertake a Bachelor of Science degree of our choosing and discovering the Aerospace Physiology BSc degree programme was a dream come true. The course was run at King's College London by a prolific and world-renowned Prof J Ernsting OBE and involved the study of human body function and its adaptations to the evolutionary, very recent exposure to extreme altitudes, high accelerative forces and to weightless environments. It was a fascinating course allowing me to gain an in-depth knowledge of cardiovascular and respiratory physiology and its application to the aerospace environment but this knowledge is equally usefully in a clinical setting. It turned out to be a very challenging course but at the same time highly interesting and enjoyable.

  3.  While at King's College, I decided to participate in a European Space Agency (ESA) competition. It had been an ambition of mine for a number of years and with the help of the some of the academics and a student team I put together an experiment proposal for a parabolic flight campaign. These are two-week campaigns that allow undergraduate students from all around Europe to design experiments, which compete for places to be performed on the flights. The flights run by ESA and Novespace utilise a modified Airbus 320 to fly parabolas and create short periods of weightlessness. Our experiment involved helping develop techniques for basic life support in microgravity, which is essential for the planned longer Lunar and Martian missions. Although we were not successful in our application, the ESA have suggested that using it for an application for a professional flight campaign would be more appropriate! That application is currently being formulated and will be submitted in the near future.

  4.  This work regarding basic life support in space provided the foundation for an invitation from the Laboratiore de Microgravidade, PUCRS University, Brazil. I worked there under the head of the laboratory Prof. T. Russomano further investigating basic life support in space using their body suspension device to simulate micro and hypo gravity. I enjoyed my time there tremendously and the studies went very well. Some of the work I performed I will be presenting at the forthcoming UK Space Medicine Day alongside numerous national and international clinicians and scientist at the National Space Centre, Leicester.

  5.  These opportunities have arisen through a combination of hard work, determination and good fortune and of course, availability. They have allowed me to fuel my desire to be involved with space medicine and having being highly interesting and enjoyable have whet my appetite for more. Next year I plan to take undertake my medical elective with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States and that will be allowed through a competition for medical undergraduates organised by the CASE research group at University College London. I feel that this will be a wonderful experience and allow me to be further involved with aerospace research, hopefully in the visual science area, and will stand me in good steed to further my aerospace career. I am set to qualify in Medicine in June 2008 and I aim to incorporate the aerospace field in my prospective career. I am very interested in pursuing Ophthalmology in clinical medicine and the scope to link this with aerospace medicine to further develop my expertise in this field should be abundant. However, I can foresee this not being particularly easy and the experiences that I have enjoyed and been academically stimulating will suddenly no longer exist at a postgraduate level. There will be no more formal exchange programmes, no space medicine or physiology research posts, no scope for linking clinical work with space medicine and thus I obviously see my prospects for space medicine in the UK as bleak. This is very much unlike other countries that lead the scientific community and simply results from the UK's under subscription to international human space flight programmes.

  6.  As the fourth richest country in the world and the country which has historically been at the forefront of scientific endeavor, it is surprising to see a void in aerospace research opportunities throughout the rest of the world and the UK. If I wanted to pursue my career at NASA I would have to change my nationality and since the UK does not currently subscribe to the European Space Agency's human space flight programme I will be unable to participate in their programmes also. Lunar landings are planned for 2020 and it would be a momentous occasion for a Briton to stand on the lunar surface that would surely lead to a scientific interest epidemic throughout British schools in an unprecedented manner.

  7.  As for now, Britain can significantly contribute to international space exploration through advances in aerospace medicine. There is a great source of highly talented, intelligent and motivated individuals in the UK who if they had sufficient resources could lead and focus aerospace scientific work to best effect. The appeal of aerospace medicine in the UK spans from internationally renowned professors all the way to students who have not even applied to medical school yet—and thus the foundations for a long lasting and continuous research effort are already established. It is also important to note that although the research will be primarily geared towards medicine for use in space exploration, the challenges which it imposes would no doubt produce creative and innovative research that would be equally applicable to a terrestrial clinical setting and benefits to patients will result.

  8.  I hope that the UK can further our contribution to the international research effort in space medicine. It would be a shame and almost an embarrassment to be left behind. Having had many opportunities available to me at an undergraduate level, such as BSc degrees, ESA competitions, and exchange programmes, my desire to be involved with space medicine has been fuelled further. This determination and enthusiasm, however, will be worthless if the opportunities that once existed disappear at a postgraduate level. Personally, I will focus all my efforts to succeed in both ophthalmology and aerospace medicine and sincerely hope that I will not be frustrated and limited by the opportunities available in the UK and by the closure of international opportunities due to the under subscription to human space flight programmes.

October 2006

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