Amanda Wong, UNR Med Class of 2020 PA Studies Program graduate, completes aerospace medicine elective clerkship with SpaceX

After returning from SpaceX, PA Studies Program graduate honors her dedication to her home state by putting her skills and services to practice in rural Nevada

Amanda Wong, UNR Med Class of 2020 PA Studies Program graduate, poses outside of the SpaceX rocket development and launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, where she participated in an aerospace medicine elective clerkship with the SpaceX team of flight surgeons.

Amanda Wong, UNR Med Class of 2020 PA Studies Program graduate, poses outside of the SpaceX rocket development and launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, where she participated in an aerospace medicine elective clerkship with the SpaceX team of flight surgeons. Photo courtesy of Amanda Wong.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a three-week aerospace medicine elective clerkship with SpaceX and their team of flight surgeons at the space flight company's rocket development and launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. This incredibly unique opportunity was the result of months of networking, extracurricular training, and logistical maneuvering.

It is no secret that Physician Assistant school is difficult, and very little can prepare you for the rigorous course work and demanding schedule it requires. Overcoming the challenges encountered throughout the journey of becoming a PA develops the character, compassion, and well roundedness that the profession is built upon.

Near the conclusion of our formal academic and clinical training, we begin to realize the results of our hard work and sacrifices. Opportunities begin to reveal themselves and having the knowledge, practical skills, and awareness instilled in us through our training as PAs allows us to capitalize on those opportunities.  I have always had an interest in acquiring the skills necessary to practice medicine in wilderness and austere environments, leading me to achieve a certification in Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS) and Backpacking Medicine from the University of Utah School of Medicine during my clinical year of PA school. In addition, I have had a deep passion for space and human exploration since childhood, as many late nights were spent gazing up at the stars with my curiosity driven tremendously by, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, planetary scientist, author, science communicator and NASA advocate.

Having an intense interest in both wilderness medicine and space, I sought to identify a field of medical practice that incorporated both, leading me to explore aerospace medicine. After further familiarizing myself with the science of aerospace medicine through independent study, I made it a professional goal of mine to eventually find a way to gain experience in this intriguing field.

As fate would have it, the stars were appropriately aligned, and the experience found its way to me. I received a spontaneous email from an old colleague, who knew of my interest and is currently a SpaceX engineer, inquiring if I might be interested in working with their medical team. Ecstatic and delightfully surprised, I jumped on the opportunity.

I was put in touch with Anil Menon, M.D., SpaceX medical director and NASA flight surgeon. After speaking with Dr. Menon, the rotation appeared to be a good fit, as he was aware of the role PAs fulfill in this field and their contributions to delivering quality medical care. Dr. Menon expressed interest in having a student of my rural and wilderness medicine background working with his medical team to assist in establishing a health care infrastructure for the diverse SpaceX work force in the remote and resource-restricted town of Boca Chica. 
My clinical rotation in aerospace medicine with SpaceX was a profoundly informative and fascinating experience. When I arrived in Texas, I found myself working with an experienced medical and environmental health and safety team. Together, we created and implemented public health measures and other preventative health strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. We also served as occupational health providers and helped expand the medical presence and capabilities at the rocket development facility.

My other responsibilities included participating in daily meetings with the SpaceX medical team regarding the improvement of health care delivery and response at the facility, attending aerospace medicine didactic lectures given by the attending SpaceX flight surgeons, and personally presented on various aerospace/wilderness medicine topics and quality improvement projects. I continued to stay involved with the SpaceX medical team by participating in weekly meetings remotely.

As a result of this experience, I returned to Boca Chica as a volunteer medical provider with SpaceX for the month of November. I will also be supporting public and occupational health efforts at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California from December through the middle of January 2021, while continuing to gain valuable experience in aerospace medicine. Beyond that, I plan to keep in touch with the company, offering my assistance whenever possible.

My experience with SpaceX allowed me to learn a great deal about the medical challenges of space flight, including the physiologic considerations of altitude, zero/micro gravity, chemical and extreme environmental exposures, and the stress of intense accelerative forces. In addition, I was able to apply my knowledge of wilderness and rural medicine to serve the manufacturing population working in the relatively austere environment at the Boca Chica rocket development and launch site. It was fulfilling to actively support the fundamental objectives of SpaceX and their ultimate mission to make life multiplanetary.

I will officially be starting my career as a medical practitioner this upcoming January with Nevada Health Centers as a family medicine provider. I will be starting at the Carson City location, which I'm extremely excited about, as that's where I grew up for most of my life. I will eventually transfer to their Elko location, which I'm also looking forward to, due to the wonderful community there and the beautiful Ruby Mountains, nearby.

As for my future career goals, I plan to grow and maintain my breadth of knowledge of practicing medicine in wilderness/rural environments and I also plan to pursue graduate level certification in aerospace medicine through one of the several civilian academic programs available across the United States. An essential pillar of aerospace medicine is its emphasis on having a strong foundation in primary preventative medicine, which leads me to follow my passion into serving the community in a primary care role. 

PA school was a challenging and humbling experience, but it opened the doors to many unique opportunities to expand my knowledge and follow my passions, and it has allowed me to give back to the community that raised me. I consider myself very fortunate to be in an impactful position as a PA, and I would like to extend my gratitude to all PAs and the families, friends, and colleagues who support them. 

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Tuesday November 24, 2020 @ 6:00 AM