My work as a space medical anthropologist : on boosting acuity, resilience, group morale, and reaching purpose beyond self
Author: Enric Garcia Torrents, MSc, PhD candidate
Medical Anthropology Research Center, Universitat Rovira i Virgili
The main role of a medical anthropologist is to study human health, the whole range of actual and potential care systems, and the ways in which biocultural adaptations emerge, succeed or fail from a transdisciplinary, multidimensional and ecological perspective.
We contemplate the processes and situations from within and outside the limits of our own culture, and even our own civilisation, from a long-range evolutionary perspective to the minute details of small social networks analysis. We dive deep into the complexities and repeating patterns with a skill set and toolkit as sharp, in many cases, as that of a fully trained physician-scientist, being able to engage constructively in laboratory, fieldwork and clinical practice.
“It is possible that the greatest contribution that anthropology can make will be to keep men's imaginations open, as they tend to let the predictable hardware coerce the form of the software.”
Space medical anthropologists, on the other hand, are bound to take the whole field of medical anthropology one step further and even beyond, daring to question what it is to be a healthy human today, what it may mean to be so tomorrow, and indeed, what the near future might bring, depending on what we decide to do at this point in history. Most importantly, space medical anthropologists work on how to achieve this healthy state by skillfully setting the stage here and now, maximising humanity’s chance for a sustainable way onward to the stars.
As for myself, nowadays I'm a scholar working as a doctoral candidate at a Medical Anthropology Research Center while undertaking medical studies (MD-PhD student-researcher, second and third year within the dual degree). I have previous academic background in neuroscience and smart systems, and currently a contract from the Spanish Ministry of Universities to undertake research on mental health and clinical decision making for choosing the best possible treatments for each individual, funded from a future professor’s training programme. My work on space medical anthropology is rather narrow, focusing almost exclusively on figuring out the best ways for people to withstand extreme experiences without losing mental acuity, exploring optimal solutions to boosting cognitive performance, resilience and overall wellbeing in situations of acute and profound distress.
To achieve this, I work within highly motivated teams with a broad range of skills and expertise, including the whole range of cognitive sciences - from computer sciences to linguistics, psychology and sociology. The main example of this kind of collaboration is an ongoing project with fellow InnovaSpace colleagues Yi Yuan and Tomas Ducai, under the supervision of Prof. Thais Russomano herself, InnovaSpace's Founder and Scientific Director. Our group, comprising of several early-career medical doctors, a fellow Spanish doctoral candidate working as an engineer at the German Space Agency, among other colleagues, is currently reviewing the scientific literature for all factors that impact on inter-personal wellbeing in long-duration space exploration missions.
At an individual level, my main line of work at the Medical Anthropology Research Center (University Rovira i Virgili - Tarragona, Spain) is a six-year long action-research project focused on: assessing ways to eliminate coercion in mental health settings through patient and stakeholder engagement; creating an open source decision support system; and translating bleeding edge research into the best-practice protocols needed to apply personalised, evidence-based techniques to build up habits for optimal performance in high-demand environments. This includes exploration of effective strategies for mental health recovery after crisis, as well as the potential of implementing expert systems, machine learning, biometrics tracking solutions, and social and bioengineering interventions applied to preventive, palliative, regenerative and enhancement medicine.
My deliverables are initially targeted at elite sports, the military and, of course, space psychiatry and analog scenarios, as these fields have the direst need and most potential for introducing and testing the aforementioned improvements.
Other ongoing projects I am working on as a future physician-scientist include:
1) Being co-lead editor of a special issue for an African peer-reviewed journal on One Health and Open Technologies along with GNUHealth’s leader Dr. Luís Falcón, a project adopted by the United Nations University and included as a Digital Public Good by an alliance currently lead by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Government of Sierra Leone, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), iSPIRT, UNDP, and UNICEF. We intend to curate a repository of open access papers targeted at solving health issues both in deprived communities and globally via open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content adhering to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices.
A complete medical knowledge base and expert clinical decision support system will be necessary during long-term space exploration and settlement missions. My aim with this project is to enlist both practitioners engaged in severe resource deprived contexts and those working in taking humanity further to the next frontier.
2) Undertaking fieldwork at Trieste’s mental health department, a public, community-based mental healthcare service and a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Mental Health, via a Short-Term Scientific Mission funded by the European COST Action CA19133 - Fostering and Strengthening Approaches to Reducing Coercion in European Mental Health Services (FOSTREN). The city of Trieste is a critical landmark in the history of psychiatry due to it being the birthplace of the systemic reform initiated there by Drs. Franco and Franca Basaglia in the 1960s, which led to the deinstitutionalisation of mental health patients.
As for space psychiatry, Trieste is also an interesting site to visit as it is extremely close to the Škocjan caves system within Slovenia's karst region, used as part of the ESA CAVES and Pangaea analog training programme for scientists and astronauts.
3) Setting up the AMSRO (Aerospace Medical Association’s Students and Residents Organisation) Spanish chapter, aimed at helping fellow medical students and residents engage in the field and work together towards achieving our professional goals, and bettering the future for humanity.
Just as being an astronaut entails facing danger on a daily basis, undertaking action-research and fieldwork is far from being a career choice without risk. Some lines of work in which I'm also engaged can border on zones of controversy and danger, such as uncovering the political abuse of psychiatry against human rights activists, and ethnic and minority groups. Very careful planning, extensive training, and skillful craft are essential to avoid causing problems not only for oneself but, more importantly, those affected by the problems to be solved and daring to become informants and co-researchers.
Fellow colleagues from the projects listed above regularly expose their own safety working within communities in need, affected by human and non-human caused disasters, nearby war zones and catastrophe areas. Medical anthropology, and space medical anthropology, is thus far from being an armchair theorising exercise within the walls of academia. Instead, it offers a wide range of opportunities to have a real impact on society, working towards improving life for us all, but specially for those most deprived of chances to succeed, and in greater need of proper nurturing and support. Hopefully this will contribute not only to avoiding civilisation and climate collapse on Earth, but someday soon assisting humanity to become a multiplanetary species.
To end this post, there is one last important issue to consider: the viewpoint and sense of being of the anthropologist themself, linked to the knowledge of other cultures, the deep understanding of the whole range of human biocultural diversity and its expressions in the face of the mystery of existence, life and infinity that lays in front of us all. I highlight here the words of one of the most prominent social scientists of the twentieth century, the eminent Claude Lévi-Strauss, to bring attention to this topic, as his words are much more fitting than mine:
“My work gets thought in me unbeknown to me. I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I,” no “me.” Each of us is a kind of crossroads where things happen. The crossroads is purely passive; something happens there. A different thing, equally valid, happens elsewhere. There is no choice, it is just a matter of chance."
To this extreme, a space medical anthropologist can even be seen as a wetware intelligence gathering instrument, working through participant-observation in any given mission, especially when considering the growing importance of all external mind devices embedded in our own being and mode of work. For those lucky enough to reach the stage in the near future of doing fieldwork in space, as a bare minimum the person will be capable of not only reporting on, analysing and intervening in ongoing critical situations as they arise, but will also be fully able to interact with and help prevent issues from arising and improve all life-support systems. This is obviously in addition to ensuring the wellbeing of crew members through also being a fully trained medical practitioner.
Becoming a space medical anthropologist is by no means an easy task, nor is it meant to be. The path of a physician-scientist as detailed in this introduction requires much time and dedication. Developing into an anthropologist will take grit, determination, perseverance and experience to become part of this new frontier, where the limits of what is deemed possible are stretched. Years of hard, heart-felt, devoted work are a must. In my particular case, this task is yet to be completed, despite more than twenty years of academic and non-academic training, of study and experience, and practical know-how gained through long-term stays in several countries. It has been an extremely long and, at times, daunting endeavour.I say so with the deepest respect and admiration for those who came before and achieved so much, often in situations considered impossible; for those with even more experience and working harder still; and for all doing their best to achieve the dream of bringing humanity into the space age. We must also always keep in mind the need to embrace the knowledge, experience, and desires of those most affected and disadvantaged among us — the long forgotten, the voiceless, the incarcerated, the sedated and medicalised, lost in poverty and most severe deprivation, the cultures and peoples almost extinguished — all working together to find and reach meaningful and constructive solutions.
Per aspera ad astra!
to the InnovaSpace Knowledge Station