PREPARING FOR LIFTOFFThe New Physician
It’s natural for children to dream, to use their boundless imagination to hit that big home run, to perform before thousands or to serve in the Oval Office. As a boy growing up in Montreal, Peter Lee was no different. In the innocence of youth, he easily envisioned himself as an astronaut, sitting in a rocket before it blasted off, floating weightlessly among the stars and scampering between the moon’s craters. Born in Germany to Korean parents, Lee showed an interest in outer space almost as quickly as he could walk.
However, as it is for most children who grow up to become adults, Lee eventually began to accept the realities of life. By the time he graduated high school, he had turned his attention from the cosmos to the doctor’s office, figuring the obstacles to becoming an astronaut were just too great. In 1990, Lee began attending Brown University to participate in its eight-year medical program, which provides undergraduates with automatic admission to the university’s medical school as long as they maintain their grades. Lee says he was attracted to the program because it allows him to focus on pursuits outside of medicine. “Being as you’re already in medical school, what [the program] encourages you to do is to explore your other interests,” he says.
So after dismissing his notion of becoming an astronaut as mere childhood daydreaming, Lee once again found his eyes wandering skyward. “It was when I was in college that I realized that this interest I have in space could really become more than an interest but an actual academic or career pursuit,” he says. “So it was at that point that I began taking it more seriously, started taking classes and getting involved in activities that would help me go down that path, especially with opportunities to explore different areas and find out what is out there.”
Lee discovered a field of space medicine and research far beyond his dreams. Through the Aerospace Medical Association and the American Society of Gravitational and Space Biology, Lee learned of numerous careers that combined his space aspirations with his interests in the life sciences.
As an early step toward becoming an astronaut, Lee began learning Russian. Already fluent in Korean, French and English, he figured the language could be useful in future collaborations with the Russian space program. As it turned out, the collaboration occurred sooner than he had anticipated. In 1997, he was accepted to Brown’s combined M.D./Ph.D. program but took a leave of absence to attend the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France. That year the ISU accepted only 33 students from 23 different nations to participate in its master of space studies program, which provides a year of instruction in various space-related fields and includes a 12-week professional placement. Lee was placed in Moscow at the Institute for Biomedical Problems, where he worked with Russia’s premier scientists in space biology. The opportunity allowed him to conduct preliminary studies of muscle atrophy in monkeys that had flown into space. This research would turn out to be an ongoing theme in his education.
Back at Brown, he began working in the laboratory of Herman Vandenburgh, Ph.D., a pathology and laboratory medicine professor who has been conducting research on muscle atrophy for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for more than a decade. With Vandenburgh’s guidance, Lee started his doctoral thesis, studying tissue-engineered muscles to pinpoint the cause of atrophy. One of his experiments even made it aboard the space shuttle Discovery’s October 1998 mission—the same mission that returned John Glenn to space.
So while Glenn made one more visit to the cosmos, Lee’s experiment was breaking new ground in testing genetically engineered cells’ ability to secrete growth hormones in zero gravity. “It was a really valuable experience in understanding how different it is to have a research project in space,” Lee says. “In the lab, you can dictate to a large degree pretty much anything that happens…. If you want to do a space shuttle experiment, obviously you are at the mercy of [NASA] management.”
Since then, Lee has been attempting to make sure his research project’s venture into space would not be a one-time occurrence. However, the cost of his experiment’s spot on the shuttle was donated by a commercial company in 1998, and free space will not be available next time. So he’s working to line up sponsors for a follow-up space shuttle experiment, which is planned for sometime this year.
In the meantime, Lee plans to finish his Ph.D. work after which he has two years of medical school remaining. He then hopes to do residencies in aerospace and emergency medicines. All the while, he will be reminding NASA officials of his ambition to join the space program. Even with his credentials though, Lee is well aware the odds of becoming a U.S. astronaut are still stacked against him—particularly because he’s Canadian. His nationality has already cost him opportunities to apply for U.S. grants, scholarships and NASA fellowships.
But as he awaits the approval of his green card, Lee remains committed. “I realize that…the chances for becoming an astronaut are pretty slim, but I am at least going to go ahead and pursue it.”
Scott T. Shepherd is an associate editor with The New Physician.