The Road to Aerospace Medicine
Author: Thaynara Vicente B Kurrle
Successful International Baccalaureate Diploma candidate; Ketedralskolan, Linköping, Sweden & now studying medicine
For as long as I can remember, I have always been flying around. My mother was a flight attendant, my father was an Air Force mechanic and we spent most of our lives living in an Air Force base. To board, deplane and wake up with the noise of helicopters and jets was part of the routine, which did not make it less special to me.
When I was 17 years-old, my family was transferred to Sweden and I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I was only sure about 2 things: I wanted to help and serve people, and I loved airplanes and the life in the air. How was I supposed to combine these two? I had no idea. Most people did not see a link between these two points, but I knew that I had to find a way, otherwise, I would never feel complete. If I would imagine myself permanently away from jets and airports or not in direct contact with people in need, a huge void would open in my chest; it just was not right, “either, or” was not an option to me.
In a Spring afternoon of 2018, I overheard some fighter pilots telling stories about accidents they had witnessed: a smashed jaw during the ejection after a period of temporal distortion, tunnelled vision, and a total blackout during the centrifuge training. Then, it hit me, those people were the link, they were the ones who connected those amazing machines to the human factor, they were the ones I wanted to help.
I started to research, and I still remember the first words that caught my eyes: “flight-surgeon”, “AsMA”, “Aerospace Medicine”. Upon reading the last mentioned, my heart dropped. I had found it. I had found an entire field and community of people as curious as me and that shared the same passions. And at the end of that year I was given the chance to get in touch with it more directly.
To graduate the International Baccalaureate (a different kind of high school), every student must carry out an independent research about a topic they would be interested in studying in university, our first research paper. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to understand the symptoms and episodes I had heard about countless times, I wanted to understand what that so feared G. was. I read all the books about aerospace medicine fundamentals and flight physiology I could find, I started to talk to every single crew member and engineer I could reach, but the understanding of the symptoms through medical lenses was still missing. Another important thing that was missing was a supervisor, who would be willing to help me to start the research. Basically, the Science Department of my school did not understand what I was going for, how I was going to do it and no teacher was exactly thrilled with the idea of supervising a student they had no idea of how to help. It was even hard to decide whether to classify it as a Biology or Physics project!
It was in the spring of 2019 that Maria, who was not even my teacher, heard about the project and was willing to supervise me, but I would have to find help from doctors outside; as she put it “You have chosen a very, very specific topic, so you need a very specific knowledge because I can’t tell you how to start”. And here we go again on another quest for a supervisor. And this quest is what made me fall completely in love with the scientific community.
Doctors who had never met me sent me PDFs and articles and two of them (thank you so much, Dr Suto and Dr Lia) sent me the contact of Dr Thais Russomano, who was the fairy godmother of my Extended Essay. She taught me how to structure and organise a research based on the study of the literature, how to select it, how to understand the state of the art of that field. It was more challenging than I was expecting but it made all the difference. Thanks to all her feedbacks and articles I was finally able to understand where I was and how far I would be able to go (unfortunately not as far as I wanted due to school limitations). But now I knew what I was doing. I wanted to understand the effects of the G-acceleration on the human cardiac system and how the Anti-G Straining Manoeuvre diminished its effects. All I needed for the school to approve it was: at least 7 volunteer pilots with enough availability to measure their blood pressure while doing loops 2 or 3 times for a random girl’s school project, piece of cake right?
To my heart-stopping surprise I got all of them, and they were all mostly glad to help me and to send me papers, videos, and pictures from their own centrifuge trainings (thank you so much Major Forneas and Colonel Leite). Nevertheless, to my despair the data collected contradicted my primary hypothesis! Great!
That is when my dear friend Jonas comes into scene. He worked at SAAB, the company which was developing the new Brazilian Grippen, state-of-the-art fighter jet, and offered to arrange me an interview with a test-pilot. It was by far, one of the greatest days of my life!
While we were waiting for Andreas to finish his debriefing, Jonas took me on a tour around the Flight Test Centre. I had always wanted to see the Grippen; only one was ready so far, it had flown only once and only authorised personal could see or get close to it, or at least I had been told. Jonas opened the hangar’s door and there it was! The mysterious Grippen and I was one of the few civils, who had nothing to do with the project whatsoever, who had been able not only to see it but to climb up to its cockpit! Right there, I knew I had made the right choice.
Andreas, the test-pilot, still wearing his anti-G suit, spent a long time answering my endless questions, and by the time I finished the interview I understood where I had gone wrong and the kind of data that I needed to prove my new hypothesis right! And again, I was mesmerised by how the scientific community mobilised itself to help an enthusiast like me, who was still not even part of it.
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