One subject of increasing relevance is space medicine. How do human bodies react to the pressures posed by environments beyond Earth? In an era with plans for more space stations and space tourism services, it is important to know the answer to this question. We spoke to Dominic Tanzillo, who as an undergrad developed a space medicine course on Coursera. He explains why he developed the course and why he’s interested in space medicine.
Where did the idea come from to create the space medicine course on Coursera?
Nick and I began teaching the first version of the course at Duke as an undergraduate seminar, known as a House Course, with 18 students. In spring 2020, I was an engineering intern at NASA and as I met with aerospace physicians and researchers, I began taking notes that eventually become that course’s syllabus. Just before the lessons were to begin, I spoke with the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine. They had a platform, and we agreed to upload the recordings of some lectures.
The course was a big success, in part because Nick and I worked with Duke’s administration to make sure the course happened in person. If you recall, in fall 2020, few schools had the right capacity to teach in person. Luckily, Duke had a comprehensive testing program that enabled us to do live physics experiments and other socially distanced activities that helped our students stay engaged.
We weren’t planning on doing anything more. Nick and I just really wanted our students to get as much out of the course as possible. In a conversation with one of my advisors, Dr. Len White (who created the hugely popular Medical Neuroscience course on Coursera), I mentioned the course’s success and that we had a waitlist and would be teaching it again in the spring. He reached out to Duke Learning Innovation, a department designed to help instructors learn. Duke Learning Innovation then agreed to have a small cohort of alumni and Duke students take a digital version of the course in summer 2021.
After over 300 students enrolled in what was supposed to be a private and small digital launch, Duke and Coursera began talks about publishing the first-ever course designed and recorded by undergraduates, available here.
Long story short, we started teaching a small course on space medicine, and then overwhelming interest from students and support from mentors allowed us to go further than we ever expected!
What do you want people to get out of the course?
Nick and I want more students to consider the fields of astrobiology and bioastronautics, respectively. Nick loves to answer the questions of where life may originate and how it survives in extremes. I am fascinated with studying how humans survive in the most extreme environment – space. Many people do not consider these subjects because they are never exposed to them in the first place. That’s why we came together.
Our underlying hope is to introduce as many students to the subject as possible. After I hosted a recent panel on space medicine, an undergraduate audience member approached me and told me, “Before this, I had no idea there was a field for space medicine. Now, I think I have to change my major.” This is basically what I love to hear.
The second reason many people do not explore the field of aerospace medicine (and associated disciplines) is that they consider them impractical or irrelevant. We hope to turn that notion on its head as well. The course takes many lessons I learned from emergency medicine (as an EMT and studying for the MCAT). We include engineering, policy, and environmental considerations in the course so it has plenty of overlap. Plus, solving the problems of aerospace is very relevant for solving problems here on Earth.
If nothing more, understanding how the human body works (or doesn’t work) under extreme pressures helps you apply your understanding and develop your fundamentals.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn more about space medicine?
First, look to the course for an introduction to the problems faced in aerospace travel. Afterward, Nick and I have a few more opportunities for interested students. First, we’ve made a Discord channel to form a community and have students discuss lessons, meet peers, and work on projects. People can join here.
Nick and I are also starting a podcast with the first season to be released later in January. Join the Discord to learn more about that as well, but briefly, we’ve interviewed many aerospace physicians and have an episode with an Astronaut MD coming soon!
Finally, my general advice is to identify one of the problems we discuss in the course and then plot a course to solve it. If you want to work with military pilots or astronauts, you will need to become a flight surgeon, so medical school is the path for you. If you want to become an engineer inventing medical devices for space, then start looking for opportunities to develop relevant experience at NASA, other government agencies, or private companies. If you’re hoping to solve the problems of deep space radiation, you might want to look into medical physics and other PhD programs.
I love mentorship, and if you want to chat about getting involved in space medicine, consider reaching out. You can use my website to send me a message, message me on Twitter, or join the Space Medicine Discord.