McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Resident physician finds new frontier in space studies program

By Laura Thompson
Published: September 16, 2010
Gilles Clement, Tricia Larose, Farhan Asrar and Doug Hamilton
Dr. Farhan Asrar (second from right) with ISU Space Life Sciences Chair Canadian NASA flight surgeon Dr Doug Hamilton (right); Professor Gilles Clement, researcher, author and faculty member at ISU; and Tricia Larose, Teaching Assistant in Life Sciences and a research scientist from Sudbury, Ontario

As a teenager visiting a museum, Farhan Asrar held piece of the moon in his hand. The small stone, known as a "goodwill moon rock," had been gathered during the final Apollo mission — the last time humans walked on the moon.

Years later, that tiny rock fragment has left a lasting impression on Asrar.

"I think it’s always everyone’s dream to become an astronaut and explore space," said the Hamilton-based physician. "I’ve always had that interest."

This summer, Asrar, a medical resident in the community medicine program at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, got a little bit closer to realizing his dream.

The 30-year-old was the only practicing physician to be awarded a scholarship this year to the Space Studies Program (SSP) in Strasbourg, France. The intensive nine-week program, which ran from June until August, is dedicated to teaching the intercultural, international, interdisciplinary aspects of space exploration and development. The SSP is organized by the International Space University (ISU), and sponsored by several governments and organizations, including NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

"It’s quite a unique, interdisciplinary program," said Asrar, who enters the third year of residency in November. "It combines several different fields — space medicine and life sciences, engineering, physical sciences, law and policy and business. For me, it was quite a learning experience."

The program also emphasizes teamwork, cultural exchange and building strong professional and social ties between participants. In total, the program welcomed 121 students from nearly 30 countries.

As a student of the Space Life Sciences Department at ISU, Asrar studied under Doug Hamilton, a Canadian NASA flight surgeon and the department chair, and Gilles Clément, a renowned space and health sciences researcher. Other SSP faculty members included Canadian astronaut Bob Thrisk, Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai, and SoYeon Yi, South Korea’s first astronaut.

Throughout the program, Asrar attended workshops and lectures in a variety of fields, as well as participated in several prize-winning group projects in which he developed a test to screen astronauts for changes in cognitive function and built both a robot and a remote-sensing spectrometer.

In another team research project, he collaborated with nearly 40 students to explore the carbon cycle, develop educational tools and make recommendations on sustainability.

A final report from the project, entitled RE-FOCUS (Respect Earth: Future Opportunities for Carbon Understanding and Sustainability), was sent to space agencies around the world. It will be presented in late September at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress, the largest space-related conference in the world.

Now back in Canada, Asrar said the experience enriched his education and broadened his perspective on space and the health sciences.

"As a physician, it gave me a greater appreciation of space medicine and how the life sciences are an integral component of space exploration," he said. "It also helped me to appreciate how space technology has benefited our health and lives here on Earth, even from the public health perspective."

He now hopes to impart what he learned to others who share his interest in space and community medicine.

"I love public health and I really believe in the good that public health brings to our community and our health care system," he said. "But, at the same time, I’d like to bring another love of space and space medicine into the picture and try to see if I could work on projects that combine those interests."

As for his dreams of being of an astronaut, Asrar hasn’t ruled that out completely.

"It’s quite competitive and challenging, but never say never."

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