Listening to FMUL
FMUL students at the ESA's European Astronaut Centre
Last March, in Cologne, Ana Sofia Mota and Marta Viúla Ramos attended the Human Space Physiology Training Course. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that these 5th-year students will never forget.
The "European Space Agency Academy" held a programme aimed at training university students at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, in a collaboration between the ESA Education Office and the Space Medicine Team. Among the many applicants, 50 students from the 13 ESA countries, Canada and Slovenia were selected to, between March 19 and 22, find answers to questions such as "What is it really like living in space?" "What happens to the body in microgravity?"
Over four days, 15 experts from ESA and a number of research institutes from across Europe, including several European universities, shared their knowledge and provided experiences that, in a more general way, helped participants to learn more about life in space and the associated physiological adaptations. The programme covered a number of areas, from the history of human space flight to how the environment in space differs from the environment on Earth, including the challenges that this presents, how physiological systems respond to being in space and how research on human physiology in space is carried out both on and outside the Earth. This was the third edition of the course, whose programme is adjusted every year in response to new developments and feedback from students introducing, for example, healing in space and the adaptation of the immune system as new topics this year.
Marta is in the 5th year of the Integrated Master's Degree in Medicine and is currently developing her final thesis. She accepted the invitation made by Professor Óscar Dias to apply for the Course, which she regarded as a unique opportunity. Since her assignment is related to this area - changes occurring in bone and the musculoskeletal system in a microgravity environment - it would be the right time for her to embark on this experience. She would meet the best experts and be able to share experiences with other medical students and develop her study on "what happens to our body when we are in space, what are the changes in all systems?"
Marta: When I thought about my final master's thesis, I thought I should take the risk. Professor Óscar Dias always encourages to do it, "why don't you do something outside the box?" if we are interested in a subject that is rather uncommon, why not work on it? The Professor gave me the contact of Professor Mafalda Carvalho - from the Institute of Physiology - who talked to me about the various subjects I could explore. I chose the physiological changes that occur in bone and the musculoskeletal system in a micro environment. So, taking this ESA course would be very important for me and for my assignment.
Ana, also in the 5th year of the Integrated Master's Degree in Medicine, was also made aware of the course by Professor Óscar Dias, after her practical otolaryngology exam. He introduced this Course to his class and talked about the benefits of applying for it, mentioning that we had to make a decision rather quickly because there was only one week left to submit applications.
Ana: I hesitated at first, because the bureaucratic process would be long and time-consuming. I took part in the Erasmus programme and I know that these processes are always rather exhausting, but they offer a very rich and rewarding experience. I've been fascinated with astronomy and astrophysics since I was a kid. Since these areas are not very prominent in Portugal, I thought that this course would be an excellent opportunity to combine two of my passions - medicine and astrophysics.
She's still formulating her final master's thesis, in the area of preventive medicine. She came from Cologne with new ideas. She's now thinking about developing a study on stress-induced changes in migrants. The physiological and psychological changes that occur in astronauts when they go to space are studied and analysed, and migrants also undergo similar changes when they leave their environment.
Preparing the application was a painstaking process, as it included a motivation letter, a recommendation letter, an abstract on the subject and the submission of the curriculum with the corresponding grades. To make things even more difficult, the application period coincided with the exam period. For Marta and Ana, it was a decision that had to be made with the awareness that it would be all or nothing. They learned that they had been selected a month before the date of departure.
When we ask them about the benefits of this experience, their answer is unanimous.
Ana: We get to know many people, many realities and have many experiences. Although we are in contact with international aerospace experts, we also meet other students and colleagues in the field of medicine and biomedical engineering from whom we learn a great deal. Since we were from different countries, we had to discuss how we would prepare, for example, the bibliography of the final assignment we would have to present, because each of us did things differently. These experiences allow us to get to know other realities and the same applies to the area of medicine. We build important bonds! In Portugal we have good aerospace engineers, we have a fantastic Aerospace Engineering course at the Higher Technical Institute, but we are far from countries like Germany, the United Kingdom or Italy, which are strongly investing in this area of aerospace medicine. We are yet to make that leap in Portugal. This course gave us the opportunity to learn about realities other than ours and we had a unique opportunity!
Marta: The people we met were very dynamic, with great communication skills, and that was a definite plus.
The students had many questions about life in space and there was a Q&A session with an ESA astronaut. That was memorable for the two FMUL students.
During the course, the students were divided into teams of five and each group was assigned a subject related to manned or potential space flight to research. On the last day, they presented their assignments to the entire group and the team of specialists.
Ana's assignment was about 3D printing - The 3D printing technology for medical objects and substances that is being developed on Earth. What role can this type of 3D printing play in aerospace exploration missions?
Marta's assignment was about animals in space. Questions such as what is the reason for or against cohabitation of humans and animals in space? Should animals take part in exploration missions?
And what about other projects?
Marta: During the course there was a lecture with the presence of an ESA representative, who showed us all the Agency's projects to which we can apply. They have many projects which allow us to test master's or doctoral theses. When we complete a study, we can take the project to the Agency to have it tested there, under microgravity conditions. The projects are all in the Careers at ESA website.
In the next 2 years, it will be difficult for me to participate in another project because this year I am doing my final assignment and next year I will have to study for the final exam. But once I get my degree, who knows...
Ana: What Marta is saying is a criticism that applies to the medical course. Our course is quite long. It has nothing to do with the Professors. I think it has more to do with a more traditional education system, which is not an exclusively Portuguese characteristic but of the entire Mediterranean basin. I think that medical school doesn't easily give us the opportunity to invest in activities abroad. For example, taking 6 months during the course to do an internship abroad is extremely difficult at all levels: bureaucratic, for the Professors, for the University itself. It is a process that takes away some of our motivation because we think: "taking 6 months will force me to lag behind, then I'll lag behind in my speciality, I'll lag behind in everything." The medical course is very continuous, very much like a chain, so if we break it in half, everything ends up lagging behind. Maybe there isn't so much pressure in other study programmes.
My Erasmus process was relatively uneventful, but some of my colleagues had problems. They experienced many incompatibilities in foreign subjects. Some colleagues had to postpone Erasmus to the 5th year because they couldn't make it in the 4th year.
Even when you do 6th-year internships abroad, the bureaucratic process can be very exhausting because they ask for lots of documents, lots of authorisation and then there are the waiting times. If we happen to miss a deadline, we can't make it, we'll only make it in the following year. That's if we're talking about the European Union, where the exchange process is easier, but if I want to go to the United States the process is even more difficult. It's complicated, so sometimes people don't take that risk.
Where did you go on Erasmus?
Ana: To Milan. In the 4th year. And I'm halfway through the application process to do an internship abroad. I really feel that the process can be quite exhausting. But I also think that Marta and I are here to show that it is possible. You shouldn't be afraid...and then think "I'm going away from home, to be with people I don't know," but everyone feels like that. I'm an introvert, but I think that's how we grow up.
Marta: For me, one of the main reasons that made me apply was actually to have an experience abroad and meet other people. For the social experience and not only for the theoretical component. And we had colleagues from various countries: Greece, England, Estonia, Poland, Italy...
All from university?
Marta: Yes, that was one of the requirements.
Ana: There were also post-doctoral students.
Marta: Aged between 18 and 30. They had to be associated with a university and enrolled in a course associated with this area.
What experience impressed you the most?
Marta: We met Tim Peake (Timothy Nigel Peake - a British astronaut of the European Space Agency), who was available to answer all our questions. It was so funny! He spent 6 months at the International Space Station. He's very nice, very approachable. We had an hour to ask him all kinds of questions and he answered all our questions. In the end, we took a photo together.
Ana: One of the questions he was asked was "What was it like, psychologically speaking, to see the Earth; to be out there and see our home here?" I had the opportunity to ask him "What is the most irritating thing about living in the Space Station and what little things can be improved?"
And what did he tell you?
Ana: That words cannot describe it. It's kind of a shock. He told us that there was a complicated situation in which he and his team - usually four or five members - had to go outside the spacecraft, they had to leave the spacecraft to solve a problem on the outside and had to wait 40 minutes leaning against the wall of the Station. They couldn't move and were literally in space. They had to wait for instructions from Earth to go back inside the station. What he told us was that in the first 10 minutes everything was very quiet, but then time was going by, they looked down and they didn't see anything, they looked up and they also didn't see anything...
Marta: We also asked him how he prepared himself, in terms of the exercise programmes, if he thought that the preparation he got on Earth was enough. He said that there were no problems with that, because the preparation is really very intense. It's two years of preparation before embarking on a mission like that. He stressed that the relationship between teams is very good, between those in space and those on Earth, there is a lot of trust.
If you were given the chance, would you like to go on a trip like that one?
Ana: In my case, Tim Peake was not the first astronaut I met. When I was in Milan I often went to the planetarium and I met an Italian astronaut, the first Italian head of mission, who told me that the food is awful and that you can't take a shower. He told me, "We only use wet wipes and the coffee is awful." Tim was more positive about it. Each individual has their own personal experience.
I think it depends a lot on preparation. If I had that opportunity, yes, I guess I would, but I'm not aware of how much I really know about what it actually entails. I feel that I would need to learn more about it. I would like to experience being in a zero-gravity environment first. Because one thing is to know what it is, theoretically speaking, but feeling it is something quite different. I would need to go into a hyper- and microgravity machine and see what it feels like.
Marta: I think that the conditions are adverse and it's not for everyone. It's six months at the ISS (International Space Station)...every day...waking up at the same time, living in the same space, teams with five, six people and always the same routines. They're away from their families and from all the things we're used to. I don't know if I'd like to go. I probably wouldn't mind working here on Earth, assisting astronauts on their arrival. Because they have to be assisted right away, in the first 24 hours after landing. The reconditioning process starts immediately. I do find that interesting!
The team doesn't have medical support?
Marta: No, there are no doctors on board. Before leaving they are given some basics and the rest is all done by communication with the ground staff.
Ana: And one other thing: the International Space Station is not for space tourism. One thing is being a tourist. Those who go to the international space station will be working for 6 months. They have a mission to accomplish. That's why it has to be someone who likes it and really wants to do it, someone with the necessary physical and psychological conditions and who is aware that he's going there to work. I think that they often feel like giving up.
I'd like to share something with you. After the course, when I went home and was telling my family about the experience, my mother asked me "why do we want to go to Mars, there is nothing there!" and I answered her with a phrase that I heard in the course and that I really liked, "The Human Being is curious by nature and it is in our genes to be curious, because if we weren't, we wouldn't have evolved." For example, the Discoveries wouldn't have happened, and space exploration should be seen as something similar. We're not going there to exploit the soil, or the ores, we're going because we're curious and that's what allows us to evolve. This was one of the messages that touched me in this course.
How did your families react when they found out that you had been selected?
Marta: They were very excited, very happy, because they knew this would be a unique opportunity.
Ana: They were happy, because I only told them after being selected. My father is the one who supports me the most in these things, even when I went on Erasmus. My mum is more like a mother hen: "Oh no, now she's going to Germany...," but yes, they were really excited.
Marta: I would like to give a special thanks to Professor Óscar Dias. He's very dedicated and gives us a lot of support and encourages us a lot. First of all, because he was the one who told us about this project and then, throughout the process, he was very helpful and tireless. He wrote recommendation letters, asked the Director to excuse us from classes...he didn't have to do any of this, but he did it anyway. That's why we really owe him this opportunity.
Ana: Yes, in Marta's case, because of her thesis, she was more familiar with the process, but he didn't know me, so he got me in touch with Professor Mafalda so she could help me. Her help was invaluable. This wouldn't have happened without Professor Óscar
Marta: I would also like to thank Professor Mafalda Carvalho, because she reviewed our texts. She told us what we had to improve and she also helped us with the application process.
Ana: Last but not least, we also received a lot of support from the Faculty, namely from Professor Melo Cristino, the Chairman of the Scientific Board.
Ana's and Marta's testimonials serve to encourage those who sometimes have doubts about taking risks. Opportunities appear when we least expect them, and we should seize them because they are once-in-a-lifetime chances!