Shawna Pandya, Physician-Astronaut

FLARE #HowIMadeIt celebrates 100+ talented, ambitious and driven Canadian women with cool jobs. Want what Shawna has? Here’s how she did it

Shawna Pandaya poses in an astronaut uniform

Shawna Pandya; Edmonton; 


Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I live a Superman/Clark Kent type of life: physician by day, citizen-scientist astronaut/aquanaut, speaker and martial artist by night. There have literally been days when I have had to pull a ‘Superman,’ that is, ditch my white coat at the end of clinic, change into my flight suit and head to an event or speaking engagement. I don’t always make it. Once I had to head from clinic to a speaking engagement at a school while still in my scrubs. Luckily, the students loved it.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I did my BSc in Honours Neuroscience at the University of Alberta, my MSc in Space Studies at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France and then returned to the U of A for my MD and residency. I started off in a neurosurgery residency, then switched to general practice. I will be heading back for an extra year of surgical skills training this July, and I am also in the midst of completing a fellowship with the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. I also took some time off during medical school to attend Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program down in Silicon Valley, California.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

Ha ha—can I ever say I really left school, given that I keep going back? I would have to say ‘doctor,’ although when I was in Silicon Valley in between second- and third-year medical school, I co-founded a startup based on disaster response technologies.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

I don’t know that I consider myself as ever having had a really big break, but I have to say I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t follow the path less traveled. The story goes something like this: when I was applying to medical school during my final year of my undergrad, it struck me that I was not guaranteed to get in. So I needed a back-up plan, ideally something that I loved enough that I wouldn’t be moping about not having gotten into medicine. I had always loved space, and heard about something called the ‘International Space University,’ which offered a masters program. To my surprise, I was accepted to both medical school and the masters program! After a lot of agonizing, I requested and was granted deferred admission to med school, and that was the beginning of my life today. Everything that came afterwards—my internship at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Center, my internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, my chapters in space medicine—none of that would have come about if not for that life decision.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

I will tell you if I get there;) I definitely have a moving target for success, and so when I meet my goals, I make new ones. I am very leery of thinking, I’ve made it. To me, this is dangerous, because it is a potential first step towards complacency. It is better to always keep moving and setting new metrics for success. 

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

I definitely felt like a failure when I left my career in neurosurgery; in fact, I have an entire on it. It was something I had wanted since I was 15, but ultimately it didn’t work out, and I felt like I hit rock bottom when I left. I bounced back like any normal person would: I sat in on group therapy with convicted felons with antisocial personality disorder (as an observer, let’s be clear, but it definitely gave me a sense of perspective as to where my problems really stood in the grand scheme of things). I also learned about psychological resilience, first by reading all about the US Navy SEALS and the role resilience has to play in success in the special operations world, then by actually meeting a Navy SEAL and going to a fight camp in Thailand to train with him (it’s kind of a long story). Psychological resilience, mental toughness, grit—whatever you want to call it—are equally important in times of distress and times of success, and that is something I think about daily. 

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Work very, very, very hard. Develop a strong work ethic early on; it will serve you well.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

There’s been lots! I it can all be distilled down to a common theme of having someone else say, “You should do [x],” and [x] doesn’t resonate with me. This advice can come from anyone, even someone who has the best of intentions. I bring this idea of dissonance up in some of the keynotes I give to young girls and future leaders, because it is definitely going to come up if you are pursuing something ambitious or unconventional—but it is just as important to develop a sense of what you want and then go for it anyways.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

Space, martial arts, piloting and previously, neurosurgery, all tend to be male-dominated fields. When I compare horror stories with other women and what they have experienced, I think I have been pretty lucky for the most part. That is not to say that some of the harassment I have experienced wasn’t truly awful, but it has been mostly few and far between, which is not the case with most women as I am coming to understand. I try to chase my goals and focus on my role as a physician/speaker/martial artist/pilot/citizen-scientist astronaut-aquanaut and leave gender out of it, but invariably gender sometimes comes into play.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it

The nice thing about medicine is that you can work as hard or as little as you want, and you will be paid accordingly—and luckily billing claims don’t have to go through a gender modifier! I am also a speaker with the National Speakers Bureau. I guess that can be considered my ‘side hustle.’

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

Millennials take the blame for everything, it’s hard to pick just one! Probably that they have less of a work ethic than previous generations. I find that hard to believe. There are go-getters and ne’er do wells in every generation.

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