Physician Astronaut

By Marcia Travelstead | Career Move | Spring 2017

 

David Wolf, M.D

David Wolf, M.D., has been a pioneer in three-dimensional tissue engineering and in using digital ultrasound for medical purposes. He is co-founder of a pharmaceutical company—and an astronaut who has spent 168 days in space. · Photo by Pixel Studio Productions

Name: David Wolf, M.D.

Work: Astronaut, cosmonaut

  • Co-founder, president and chief medical officer of Spektron Systems
  • Consultant in biotechnology, aerospace, medical delivery and bioinstrumentation

Undergraduate: B.S. in electrical engineering, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana

Medical School: Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis

Internship: Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis

David Wolf, M.D., co-founder, president and chief medical officer of Spektron Systems, is passionate when he says he wants to make having been an astronaut a footnote in his file. Spektron is a pharmaceutical company disruptively improving the methods for medicinal molecule design. It combines the methods of aerospace, physics and biology in a way never before conceived. Through it, Wolf is striving to make medicines that are developed more quickly with less expense and fewer side effects.

With 17 patents in the area, Wolf is considered by many to be the father of three-dimensional tissue engineering. There are now more than 3,000 publications worldwide on the methods for growing human tissue, both cancerous and normal, outside the body for regenerative medicine and cancer management. Wolf is also one of the pioneers of using digital ultrasound for medical imaging, bringing it into the modern era. He is an expert in medical ultrasonics and greatly improved the ultrasonic wave. Wolf was brought to the medical science division of NASA to design a custom ultrasonic machine for the space shuttle.

What did you like best about being a physician in space? All of the astronauts [and] space flight crews have a mix of talents that, when combined, produce a crew that is far more than any one of us. For me, it was very satisfying [to bring] the combination of engineering and medicine, which cut across a large amount of activities that astronauts do, whether it be managing the spaceship systems or taking care of crews as they get injured or sick in space, which happens fairly frequently.

I came into NASA as a contractor to build the American Flight Echocardiograph. It was custom built for the space shuttle so we could investigate cardiovascular physiology in zero gravity. Ten years later, I ended up flying that same machine on my first space shuttle mission. What’s important here is that this laid the foundation for today’s modern telemedicine. This is what I’m doing now in Spektron Systems.

What are the challenges? There are lots of things about being an astronaut that all astronauts don’t like. It’s like any other job, which leads me to a concept: Astronauts are not exceptional people. They are reasonably good people placed in extremely exceptional circumstances.

I have 168 days in space in four missions. As I became a more senior astronaut, I became a spacewalk specialist. … I became the coach of the astronauts’ spacewalk team that built the space station. NASA performed over 80 space shuttle missions and 135 spacewalks to build the International Space Station. This was an exceptionally exciting period because spacewalks are extremely demanding on the human physiology. For example, the spacesuit operates at a total pressure of 4.3 pounds per square inch. At that low pressure, a person would immediately get life-threatening bends. So we spend days preparing our bodies by desaturating them from nitrogen before we can go. My background allowed me to walk all those boundaries from medicine to engineering, which was very satisfying.

When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut? Our housekeeper [from when I was a child] still tells the story about when I got mad at her and told her I wasn’t going to take her to space with me. My earliest memory [is of] sitting on my uncle’s lap in an open cockpit biplane doing aerobatics. My family’s tradition was to fly competition aerobatics on the national circuit. My father’s interest was in electronics. He became a doctor while I was in high school. When I was in high school, I got interested in medicine, and I liked electronics from building stereos with my dad. My mom was athletic, and that’s how I got interested in sports, so everything fell together. Luckily, I could use all of that as an astronaut. However, my real interests were in biomedical engineering, which was a field that hadn’t been defined yet.

What was most surprising about working in space? Living and working in space is so completely unfamiliar to us on earth that it seems like Alice in Wonderland. All of the rules are broken that we have come accustomed to on earth. For example, in space, you feel like a superhuman. You can fly or lift a refrigerator with your baby finger. All the while, your body is literally melting. I lost 40 pounds and 15 percent of bone mineral in typically gravity loaded bones. The balance system readapts to space with both afferent and efferent neural reconnections. Your actual nerve connections change. You adapt to space in your balance system. When you return to earth, there’s a whole area at NASA that’s essentially a rehabilitation program for astronauts returning.

What advice would you give a physician who wants to become an astronaut? An early astronaut brochure … had declared that the most important characteristic they were looking for is perspicacity. It means, in this context—and is applicable to medicine as well—[that] when faced with an overwhelming amount of information, some people have a natural capacity to select the correct bits of information and act on them correctly. Doctors have this capacity. It’s just that getting things wrong unravels a lot quicker and more dramatically in a public way in space.

Being persistent and being a self-starter are obviously important. I knocked on NASA’s door, and they didn’t hire me, so I went to medical school. I went back, and they did not hire me. Then I did my internship at Methodist Hospital. It took me several years before I was hired as a contractor. I was rejected from four astronaut selections while working at NASA.

All astronauts became something else first, which they did very well. Follow your passion, and if that’s compatible with NASA’s needs, apply to be an astronaut. …Keep an eye on the astronaut business, and if you are really interested, you’ll naturally do the thing that will make you an astronaut.

For more information on Wolf, visit earthtomorrow.net or check out #WeBelieveInAstronauts.

 

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