University of Texas-Pan American alumnus Carlos T. Ramos Jr. got a unique opportunity this summer to learn how studying the physical effects of spaceflight on NASA astronauts can improve their journey as well as human lives here on earth.
Ramos, a 2009 graduate with a bachelor's degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, just completed his first year of medical school at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston and is one of 19 students who were selected to participate in an internship program sponsored by NASA's National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI).
Working with scientists in the Cardiovascular Laboratory at the NASA Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Ramos, who participated in his internship from May 3-June 25, was able to study changes in the lower leg's circulatory system during spaceflight, which can cause astronauts to have problems standing after returning to Earth.
"Every kid at one point grows up wanting to be an astronaut for NASA and I'm no exception. Being able to combine my love for medicine with this type of dream is amazing," he said.
Ramos said he entered UTMB intending to become a general surgeon but when he learned that UTMB had one of only two civilian aerospace medicine programs in the country and about the opportunities for specialists known as "flight surgeons," he decided to pursue electives in that track and research in the field the NSBRI program provided to learn more about it.
Ramos said the role of a flight surgeon has changed since doctors were first tagged with this moniker in World War I when they treated wounded aviators and other soldiers during wartime.
"Now flight surgeons work for commercial aviation, government or aerospace companies like NASA. I'm pretty sure, within a few years, they will be working for private space companies as well. They are the ones in charge of certifying the flight candidates, making sure they are fit and safe to do their work. Most of the flight surgeon's job is preventive medicine," Ramos said.
During the 10 to 15 weeklong summer internship program, students have the chance to work on projects with scientists at JSC, NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio or NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.
During his internship, Ramos spent time on data mining a study conducted at UTMB for NASA on subjects with their head tilted down a certain degree to increase the blood flow to the brain, similar to the blood flow increase when going from gravity to no gravity in space flight. As part of the internship, he was required to do a poster presentation on the research findings, which resulted in an examination of cardiovascular system differences between people of different races when subjected to gravity changes.
"I've learned a lot about the physiology of the cardiovascular system and the effects of microgravity," he said. "If you are going to send astronauts on a long mission you want them to be able to do their work and that they have the right countermeasures to stay healthy on their mission."
"Carlos and his fellow interns received first-hand knowledge about research for long-duration spaceflight," said Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, NSBRI director. "The experience gained this summer will be beneficial to them as they become the next generation of scientists and physicians."
Ramos' interest in science and medicine was generated early by his family and taking advantage of every opportunity he could find to learn more about those fields. His father is an agricultural engineer and his mother an elementary school teacher. His uncle is a surgeon in Mexico, who allowed him to view some surgeries he performed.
"We used a lego kit to build a robot that navigated through a maze and stopped in front of a light bulb," recalled Ramos. "I really had a lot of fun at that time and it was one of the reasons I chose Pan Am."
Ramos also entered the Medical School Early Matriculation Program at UTPA with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), before later applying to and being accepted at UTMB. While at UTPA, he spent two summers at the UTHSCSA getting an opportunity to witness surgeries there in a number of medical fields. He also conducted three years of research in polymers and nanomaterials with Dr. Jose Gutierrez, UTPA assistant professor of chemistry, with whom he published one paper and has another accepted for publication.
"It gave me a good idea of what research was all about and I got to learn some leadership skills while helping to manage his lab," Ramos said. "I took the initiative to pursue opportunities to do those things. You have to consider a career, then pick out people in that field and ask them if you can shadow them. Otherwise, you will not get any exposure. Just reading about it or watching a documentary is not going to give you a full idea of whether or not it is the right field for you."
The paid NSBRI internship program is open to undergraduate students who have completed their sophomore year, and graduate and medical students. In addition to their work, NSBRI interns have the opportunity to attend educational and professional development seminars covering topics ranging from space-related medicine to the experiences of astronauts and scientists.
Funded by NASA, NSBRI is a consortium of institutions studying the health risks related to long-duration space flight. These space health concerns include not only cardiovascular changes but bone and muscle loss, radiation exposure, neurobehavioral and psychosocial factors, remote medical care and research and habitability and performance issues. The institute's science, technology and education projects take place at more than 60 institutions across the United States.
For more information about the internship program, visit http://www.nsbri.org/Education/SummerInternship.html.