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Precision Health Club

Interview – Dr. Shawna Pandya from Ontario Science Center

Pandya: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. 

Rachel: Definitely. Well, we are excited for you to be here. For everyone who is listening in Dr. Shawna Pandya. Did I pronounce her last name correctly? 

Pandya: Yes, you did. 

Rachel: Perfect. She is a physician scientist, astronaut, candidate program graduate, aquanaut speaker, martial artists, advanced divers, skydiver, pilot in training, VP, immersive medicine, as well as the Director of Medical Research, and medical advisors for several space, medical and technology companies. Her career and trajectory have been captured at Ontario Science Center’s Canadian Women in Space exhibit as well. That is a super impressive resume. 

Pandya: Thank you so much. It’s been a [inaudible 0:49] ride so far, but I feel like I’m just getting started. 

Rachel: We’d love to hear what got you interested in space and kind of how you’ve gotten to the point you are in your career today. 

Pandya: Yeah, I can definitely answer that. So unlike a lot of kids, I wanted to be an astronaut growing up, I just never grew out of that dream. And that was inspired by a couple of things. So we did a lot of camping as a family. When I was a kid, we would go and see these beautiful night skies away from the city lights, where the gleaming arm of the Milky Way just leaps out at you. And I remember thinking that, hey, I want to be among those stars. I want to be out there, I want to see what’s out there. And then the other part of it was growing up during the 90s when Canada’s first ever female astronaut flew, Dr. Roberta Bhandar. And so that’s kind of when I started thinking, okay, she’s female, I’m female. She’s Canadian, I’m Canadian. So now all I need to do is go be a neuroscientist, physician, astronaut, boom, that’s how it goes. So that was really the start of the inspiration. That’s literally what inspired me to go study neuroscience as an undergraduate degree. That’s what inspired me to pursue medicine and initially neurosurgery and really put me on that space path. And really, that was kind of the start of it. I did put away those dreams for a while as I focused on medicine and getting into medical school. And then the second part of the story is, you know, I applied to medical school and a master’s program at the International Space University in the same year and got accepted to both. And then that’s kind of when I returned to that childhood dream and said, “Hey, I really want to see what it’s all about making space a part of my career”, and deferred admission to medical school to go pursue that year at the International Space University, which turned out to be like a year at Starfleet Academy. And that was really, when I realized, hey, I can do this for a living. I got into the internet, the European Astronauts Center and the Crew Medical Support Office. That’s one of the divisions of the European Space Agency. Later, I completed a rotation in aerospace medical, medicine, as a medical student at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. So that was really what kicked it off starting with that, you know, spark of inspiration when I was just in grade school. 

Rachel: That’s such a great story and so inspirational for so many kind of females, or just people in general who have a dream early on to truly go see people actively pursuing it and succeeding. So, it’s such a great message. I’d love to hear if you kind of faced any adversity or if there’s any specific challenges, either being a female or just in general, as you were pursuing this big dream. 

Pandya: Yeah, that’s a great question. So one of my friends, she’s Canada’s seventh female fighter pilot, and she once phrased it in this beautiful way. She said, “If you’ve never failed, you’re either lucky lying or Jesus himself”. And that’s true for anyone, you know, whether you’re, you know, in the astronautics world, whether you’re going through everyday life. And so definitely, I faced struggles. So I mentioned a couple minutes ago, that I started off in neurosurgery. You know, I pursued that for two and a half, three years. And ultimately, I left because it wasn’t really the path that I was meant to pursue. It was all encompassing, you’re in the hospital from 5am to 8pm, on an average day, sometimes for 40 hours straight. And so leaving that, when quitting isn’t something that really comes easily to me, and, you know, leaving this path that I set for myself a decade prior was really hard. And, you know, relearning, for me that felt like hitting rock bottom, you know, not completing something I’d set out to do. And that started me on a whole other journey as I transitioned into my current career in general practice and emergency medicine, and women’s health, realizing what it meant to bounce back from what felt like the ultimate failure, building resilience, cultivating resilience, applying it, and realizing how critical it is to continue to build those skills for times of success, for times of failure, for life in a pandemic, that was really the start of it. So I think that was my biggest lesson. And it’s something I still apply every single day. Because what we know about resilience, so for those who aren’t familiar, that’s what we know as mental fortitude, mental toughness, grit, stick-to-itiveness. It’s not that, you know, you’re just born more resilient than I am, and that’s it. It’s something that can be cultivated. And there’s many different models for looking at it. One of my favorite models, backed by research looks at it as five key traits. And that’s breaking things down, impulse control, positive self-talk, positive social supports, and mental rehearsal. And so what we mean by that is preparing for the best and worst case scenarios. Act of [inaudible 6:01], how yourself you would have, how you would approach it, either of those scenarios happened. You know, telling yourself that you’ve got this, having people in your life telling you, yourself, that you’ve got this, resisting that urge to give up. And then you know, even if something is a journey of 1000 miles, focusing on that next step in front of you. And that’s been a critical lesson that I learned from that phase in my life that I still apply today. 

Rachel: And kind of all of those key areas, what would you say is the biggest kind of piece of advice or a place to focus on for people that are kind of starting in that resilience, muscle building journey? 

Pandya: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think everyone’s context is going to be different. And I think knowing that you can build resilience and just picking one thing that particular day to cultivate on. You know, if you’re constantly telling yourself, “Oh, you’ll never be good at this, you know, I’m a failure”. You know, shifting that narrative, you know, even asking a simple question, “What if I viewed this as an opportunity to make myself better? What if I use this as a learning lesson?” You know, one of my favorite things to say is that you can be hard on yourself in a way that’s productive, or you can be hard on yourself in a way that’s destructive. And you know, every failure is in [unsure word 7:18] to debrief with yourself and to say, “Okay, how do I reinforce the patterns that made things go, well? How do I deconstruct what didn’t go so well, so that the next time I’m faced with this scenario, I can build myself up in a more productive and successful fashion?” 

Rachel: And it’s clear that you’ve really done a great job throughout your career it sounds like, in being resilient and really being successful and achieving a lot of your goals. I’d love to hear what is of all everything that you’ve accomplished, what would you say is your top accomplishment today? 

Pandya: Gosh, that’s a hard question. Because there are so many, you know, things that I love doing. One thing that I’m particularly proud of is the Neptune Aquanaut Mission that we accomplished in 2019. So, in space and exploration, we like to

Pandya: That we worked together and built together as a team for the better part of a year, it wasn’t just the execution of the mission, it was the logistics, it was forming, storming, norming performing. It was living the mission itself, which was amazing. And then it was the family that we built. You know, I still talk to these guys every single day. And, you know, I think that’s the bigger theme of everything I do, whether it’s in spacesuit testing, astronautics, aquanautics, any operational environment is that these bonds that we build with, you know, people who function at a very, very high level who constantly we build each other out. We inspire each other, you know, we pick each other up when we’re down. I think that’s been the icing on the cake that, you know, I’m really grateful and really proud to be a part of. 

Rachel: And how does your mental, physical health and your nutrition plays a role in prepping for these types of missions and performing at that high level that you just mentioned? 

Pandya: That’s a great question. Yeah, so sometimes, maybe it’s a bit reductive, but sometimes I like to, you know, think of humans as cell phones. And the reason I do is because, you know, if you’re down to 12% on your battery, and you don’t take time to recharge, then you have very little reserve, and you’re not going to be performing at your best, you’re going to be burned out very quickly. Whereas if you charge your phone to 100% every single day, well, then you have a lot of reserve and you can go for longer. Same thing with performance as a human. If you optimize sleep, hydration, nutrition, physical exercise, focus, you know, you’re setting yourself up to perform. So what does that mean? It means I used to be one of those no sleep till Brooklyn, can’t stop, won’t stop, I can sleep when I’m dead kind of people. And it’s sort of like, well, you can but what’s the ultimate goal here? It’s to perform, and it’s to do things well. And so really paying attention to sleep patterns, sleep consistency, sleep hygiene, you know, knowing what nutrition works for me, if, for example, I’m a vegetarian, I go high protein, I hydrate lots, maybe up to one to two liters, closer to two liters of water a day. Caffeine powered, for sure, starting each day with a little bit of coffee. So everyone’s going to be different, everyone’s context is going to be different. But ultimately looking at the end goal is to be able to perform and to perform well and make sure you have enough reserve left at the end of the day to power up, recharge, and keep going for the long run, I think is the takeaway there. 

Rachel: Could not agree more on that approach. On your sleep hygiene, what have you tested and found that’s worked really well for you? 

Pandya: That’s a great question. I think it’s an evolving. It’s a constant evolution. So there are a couple of things. So I think the consistency as well as the pre-sleep routine, the wind down routine, as well as the wakeup routine, keeping those consistent. And what I mean by sleep consistency, so when I was in neurosurgery, you know, you don’t sleep a lot, you’re up at 4:15 every day. But you’re getting up at that same time, every day, ideally, you’re going to sleep at the same time, every day, I think in residency, I was down to 5 hours, 40 minutes, most nights. But because my brain was so trained to “Hey, wake up at that same time”, you’d be up before the alarm. So I’m sleeping more these days, but the same time aiming to keep that same sleep consistency. So your brain is you know, not going from five hours to nine hours to three hours. That’s the thing I find that messes me up the most is you know, and you know, puts me in that brain fog. So that’s part of it. And then when I talk about the routine, you know, doing the things that train my brain to say okay, now I know we’re going to bed whether it’s having a warm shower, you know, brushing your teeth, all of that fun stuff. That’s just mundane, but your brain recognizes okay, we’re in the wind down sequence, we’re in the power down sequence. Same thing with waking up same routine every morning. And then the bigger part of that is setting yourself up for the next day. So just taking a quick look at the schedule saying okay, what’s the first thing I’m doing tomorrow? What do I need to prepare for? Am I going to be in meetings at home, I’m not going to be out of the house, and all of that stuff. So that would be the biggest thing is the sleep consistency as well as the routine in the preparation. 

Rachel: What is your morning routine look like? 

Pandya: Yeah, every day is pretty much the same. You know, and this is true whether I’m traveling whether I’m testing spacesuits and water, whether I’m on call for emergency unless you know I’m emergently called to, you know, the emergency room, every day is wake up, you know, brush my teeth, take a shower, feed the bird and then coffee, making sure take the morning coffee. And then if I’m, you know, on the road, I’ll drink my coffee, have my protein bar on route to work. And if I’m at home, just, you know, take that moment with the coffee, and then figure out what my next, you know, seven meetings, what my deadlines for the day look like? 

Rachel: And is there anything you do on the nutrition side? I know you mentioned that you were a vegetarian, and you’re high protein. But is there any other kind of macro tracking that you’re doing or focus on micronutrient status or other types of like specialty compounds that you’re supplementing with on a day to day basis? 

Pandya: Not so much. Definitely any vitamin D, I think is in the winters, I tried to remember to take for anyone who’s in Canada, you’re not going to be getting enough vitamin D. It was really interesting. I was comparing notes with a colleague who said the US guidelines are 800 units of vitamin D a day, which shocked me, because in Canada, it’s 1 to 2000 units as an adult, you’re just not going to get enough vitamin D from sunlight and will alone particularly in the winter. I’ve started looking more into the research around nutrients and nootropics. You know, it was funny, because I’ve been very back and forth on this. You know, I tried to keep an open mind in medical training, and then eventually, every single time, you know, I would have an interaction with a patient who would say, “Well, I found this new research”. And then so I say, “Okay, well, let’s look into this”, as opposed to the multicenter, double-blinded, randomized, controlled trial, FDA approved drugs, and I would constantly be disappointed about well, there’s no real evidence to this. So for a while, you know, I just wasn’t sold on supplements because they’re not regulated, we don’t know what’s in them. And then I’ve recently come back to let you know, everything. To be a scientist, you need to keep an open mind and evaluate everything differently. And that there’s going to be different evidence for different supplements, different quality, and even, you know, Vitamin D is going to depend based on who the supplement manufacturer. And so the reason I got back into that is twofold. So I’m a medical adviser to a nutrition startup called Estrus, nutrition for space and high performance and elite folks, whether it’s athletes or you know, busy people on the go. And we invoke the use of nootropics, like, Lion’s Mane mushroom is one of them, Silkolene. And so looking at the evidence and saying, okay, if I’m going to put my name behind this, then I have to be confident of the evidence. And then just being a neuroscience nerd at heart, from my undergraduate degree and loving, you know, actually knowing how the different pathways, how our knowledge is evolving around this, what we know about brain chemistry has evolved tremendously. So getting back into that, and there’s a great podcast around this, it’s called Huberman Lab Podcast at Stanford professor of neuroscience and ophthalmology, really delves into the science behind the neural circuitry as well as quality of supplements. And now because there is that robust evidence, you know, willing to believe more into the quality of the science and the publications out there, as well as taking personal context into account. Whether you’re talking about caffeine optimization, it’s gonna be different for everyone, based on your sensitivity to caffeine, to some of the other supplements out there. I know krill oil, for example, is another example. So really just starting to embrace the evidence again. But it’s fascinating where we are at these days in the world of neuro chemistry, neural circuitry. 

Rachel: Thanks so much for going deeper into that. And yeah, Huberman is great. I’d love to hear from your medical background, how you think about this emerging conflict that we’re seeing around clinical studies and the amount or lack thereof of inclusion of kind of personalized biomarkers within those studies or within the results from those studies. And this new concept of N=1 testing or kind of your own clinical study on yourself to see if things like supplementation or intermittent fasting or other kind of lifestyle interventions make a difference for you versus simply relying on kind of the broader average studies? 

Pandya: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, it’s a bit of push pull, there’s value in both. So what I mean is, you know, there’s this psychology in, you know, in patient interaction where somehow we failed if we need to go on a FDA or Health Canada-approved blood pressure medication to control blood pressure, whereas if we do it on our own with a supplement, you know, somehow we’ve succeeded. And, you know, I think we need to tackle that stigma. Because at the end of the day, you know, as much emerging evidence for knowing what’s in our supplements for knowing the quality of them, it’s, you know, that’s still the exception rather than the rule. So that’s why, you know, at the end of the day, we want to be safe, we want to do no harm, and we want to do what’s best for our patients. So that’s why I tend to trust the published guidelines that have had, you know, long standing trials that we know, there’s published side effect profiles. That being said, you know, you’ve hit it on the nail is that every patient context is different. And there was this paper I read during residency on, you know, managing Alzheimer’s and using supportive therapies like music, for example. And one of the conclusions from that paper is music can be useful and relevant, but it has to be music that had context and relevance for that particular patient. So you know, if they grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, you may be able to evoke some sort of, you know, cognitive clarity by playing that. Whereas if you know, you play something like Righteous Brothers, that has no meaning for them, well, then it doesn’t really have context. And so, then you’re really getting into the importance of N of 1. You can’t run over twice, control trial on that, and everyone’s going to be different. And then coming to your point on the biomarkers, let’s look at caffeine, for example. You know, we know there are individuals out there who are more caffeine-sensitive or slow caffeine metabolizers, people like my dad who take, you know, a third of a glass of green tea at noon, and then they’re up until 1am. And then there’s fast caffeine metabolizers, there’s people for whom coffee doesn’t work, it’s mocha, green tea, that’s the you know, it’s a little bit of push and pull. And it’s such an exciting time to be alive. Because you know, every single day, every year, we’re seeing more insight about the genomics of it, the personal biomarkers, and the evolving neural circuitry. And so, you know, it’s going to be constantly re-evaluating the evidence, look, approaching it with a critical eye. And then saying, you know, is this valid, is this not? Do we need more studies? So, it’s the age old question, the age old is the last line in any published study is further studies are needed. 

Rachel: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And there’s obviously value in each and we are at such an exciting time, across medicine, across technology, and people’s interest in getting data about their bodies that things are moving at such a rapid pace as well. Because we do have the ability to test and get those data points, but continuing to evaluate what data matters, how it matters, and how it really applies to each kind of individually, but also population cohorts is something that’s going to be really important moving forward. I would love to switch gears a little bit and open up to the audience questions. So I have a question from Ty. He asked around spending time in a typical environments like underwater in space, is there anything that you do to combat the impact on your body, any products that you use beyond what we’ve spoken about today? 

Pandya: Yeah, that’s a great question. So luckily, when you know, all of everything I’ve done has been short duration. So when I’m flying zero G, it’s a parabolic flight. It’s an hour, it’s about, you know, 20 seconds for 12 to 20 parabolas at a time of weightlessness. So you’re not getting those long term changes. And so just explain what I mean by parabolic flight. Some of you may know this is the vomit comet where your brain is flying up and down in the shape of parabola and because you’re falling at the same rate as a plane, you’re weightless for those 20 seconds and time giving you time to test science and do some technology demonstrations. So what we know from spaceflight is when you’re up in space for longer periods of time, you know, there are physiological effects like losing muscle mass, losing bone density, reflecting an osteo-product state, having fluid shifts, having increased pressure on the brain, we don’t really see that in the parabolic flight. Your greatest risk is of motion sickness, and there’s a reason we call it the vomit comet. Let’s just say that. But that being said, you are performing and it’s a highly dynamic, highly operational environment. So the things that I’ve learned to do with just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, know the maneuvers inside out, make sure that you know I’m performing at 100%. That was true for the Aquanaut mission, you know, not taking any risks in the month leading up to that. You know, I was so paranoid, I would step off a curb bunny and break an ankle and not be able to do the mission. So just minimizing risk pre-mission, you know, optimizing your sleep. You know, when you’re in the environment, pre-briefing, performing the mission debriefing. And then the other part of that is bringing that little bit of routine with you wherever you end up being. So there was a time when I just accepted okay, well, I’m just gonna eat locally. And then, you know, in 2019, I was spending three to four days at home, and I was on the road the rest of the time. And then you know, which becomes your routine as it always been from home. So what I’ve learned is, well, I can bring the almond milk and the coffee with me and make my mocha whether I’m underwater or whether I’m you know, on a spacesuit course. I can bring the protein bars with me. So I’ve learned to just, you know, bring that little bit of routine and home life with me to maintain some sense of normalcy. 

Rachel: That makes sense and kind of as you think about the recommendations across the board, making sure that you have something that feels normal for your body, regardless of the kind of where you are, really helps across sleep and nutrition, etc. I’d love to move on to IG’s question. He asked, do you suppose humans will be interplanetary within the next 100 years? 

Pandya: Now, that’s a great question. So this is an incredibly exciting time for human spaceflight, both of the space agency level as well as the commercial sector. And so this year alone, we have seen commercial suborbital flights with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Bezos and Brunson have flown along with you know, people like Billy, William Shatner, Folly Funk, we saw the first all civilian crew to the International Space Station with inspiration for just in September. And, you know, it really is this inflection point. And then on the space agency side, we’re seeing the announcement of NASA’s Artemis missions, that’s to put the first woman and next man on the moon by as early as 2024, with a view to establishing permanent surface operations on the moon. So exploratory and scientific endeavors by the end of the decade, and then folks like Elon Musk are saying, “Hey, we’re going to send scores of people to Mars as early as the 2030s”. So this, you know, we’ve gained a lot of it used to be a lot of hype. You know, growing up in the 90s, it was always we’ll see humans on Mars in the next 30 years. But that was a constantly moving target. But this year alone has shown us that there’s been a lot of momentum as well as credibility within the commercial sector and emerging launch vehicles and international buying or space agency missions to the moon, for example. It’s not just NASA, it’s the European Space Agency. It’s the Canadian Space Agency. It’s all comers. So absolutely, definitely in 100 years, it may be as early as the next 20 years. So, to be continued. 

Rachel: So exciting to see. And it’s so interesting to see all the changes that are happening, even just within the last 10 years, and the last year alone and ending on a more kind of fun question, but what is your most recommended movie to watch? 

Pandya: Oh, gosh, wow, what a question. So many. Okay, so this is a classic. Independence Day was my favorite movie growing up. I’ve seen it 17+ times. I don’t know if it’s necessarily considered a good movie anymore, but I love it to pieces. The Martian, Hidden Figures, those would be the top three. And then if you’re looking for a non-space recommendation, American History Acts is another oldie but a goodie. It was you know, it’s just so dark but so thought provoking, particularly relevant today. So, there you go, four for the price of one. 

Rachel: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a fascinating conversation. Loved hearing your story and all of your recommendations, and really appreciate the time. 

Pandya: Thank you so much for having me. Wonderful questions. All the best to everyone listening today. 

Rachel: Thank you so much for everyone in the audience as well. Have a great day. Bye

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