Student pursues a higher frontier in medicine

Miller School of Medicine student Shilpi Ganguly on Mount Elbrus.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Miller School of Medicine student Shilpi Ganguly on Mount Elbrus.

Student pursues a higher frontier in medicine

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Miller School of Medicine student Shilpi Ganguly, who graduates next year, wants to travel to the moon to help establish the first medical infrastructure for a new permanent base on the moon.

On the fourth day of a treacherous trek to the top of the world, Shilpi Ganguly’s lungs felt like they were on fire. The side effects of high-altitude oxygen deficiency, however, were not about to derail her attempt at ascending Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. She shrugged off the feeling, never stumbling or slipping as she continued to make her way to the summit of the highest single free-standing mountain in the world.

But just ahead of her, a fellow climber struggled, his breathing and every step becoming more labored. So, Ganguly intervened, persuading the man he needed to surrender to the mountain. 

“Initially, it wasn’t easy,” she recalled. “He took the attitude of ‘You’re a 20-something year-old-girl and I’m a 27-year-old male who has run a million marathons. I know better.’ But the mountain doesn’t care if you’ve run a million marathons. Altitude will take anybody. The physiology of it all is just so interesting.” 

Ganguly’s intervention on Mount Kilimanjaro is more than an example of her altruism. It underscores the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine student’s passion and desire to practice health care in the most extreme of environments: outer space, where prolonged exposure to microgravity can result in muscle atrophy, bone loss, and changes in visual acuity; where prescription drugs that normally work well on Earth become less effective; and where bacteria grow faster and become more virulent. 

“And that’s just to name a few,” Ganguly said. “Neuro-vestibular changes caused by the shifting of bodily fluids is another. Every bodily and organ system you can think of, they all change.” 

Shilpi Ganguly
Shilpi Ganguly completed a space medicine rotation offered by SpaceX.

The ironmen and ironwomen of space—U.S. and Russian astronauts who have lived aboard orbiting space stations for hundreds of days—have taught us some of what we need to know about the effects of prolonged microgravity on the body. But more information is needed about how to overcome those effects if humanity is ever to achieve the extraordinary task of reaching—and living—on Mars. 

Even more pressing: What to do in the event of a dire medical emergency in space that requires more than simply stitching a wound, giving an injection, or pulling a tooth—all of which are part of the basic medical training crewmembers receive before serving on the International Space Station (ISS).

“The current plan right now is to evacuate. If it were necessary, we could get an astronaut from the ISS back on the ground in anywhere from six to 24 hours, depending on weather and the location of the space station,” Ganguly said. 

“But that’s because we can. The ISS is in low-Earth orbit; it’s not that far away. But now, we’re talking about venturing further and further into space, building a permanent base on the moon and going to Mars, which is months away from Earth,” Ganguly continued. “And this is where the hot topic of autonomous medical care in space comes in, having physicians and surgeons along on extended missions in space.” 

Think of Leonard “Bones” McCoy of the original “Star Trek” series. He did everything from performing heart surgery while aboard the Starship Enterprise to developing an antidote to a contagion that infected crewmembers. 

While such an example is the stuff of Hollywood, fantasy still has a way of inspiring real-life innovation, Ganguly notes. 

“Historically, our astronauts have always been the best of the best, the fittest of the fittest,” she said. “But as we now enter this new era of space commercialization and space tourism, we’re seeing private citizens going into the space who may have a host of health conditions—heart problems, diabetes, knee replacements, you name it. And even trained astronauts get sick. They’re human. The best tools we can have in our pocket are physicians who have spent basically their whole lives training to take care of humans.” 

Ganguly wants to be one of those physicians. She graduates from the Miller School next year and hopes to pursue a combined residency in emergency and internal medicine—an ideal springboard to practicing health care in space, she said. 

She has already conducted research on the effects of microgravity. “We know how bacteria grow on Earth. But what about on the moon, where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s, or on Mars, where it’s about one-third gravity?” Ganguly asked. 

She searched for the answers to those questions as part of a NASA-funded research project, discovering through simulations that as gravity decreases, bacteria grow faster and become more resistant to treatments. “Here on Earth, we’re covered in bacteria. Whether it’s in our gastrointestinal tract or in our lung, there’s bacteria everywhere,” Ganguly stated. “For some reason, humans tend to become immunocompromised in the microgravity environment and highly susceptible to these virulent bugs, which ultimately might require advanced antibiotic regimens well beyond our norms of tackling.” 

Ganguly completed a space medicine rotation offered by SpaceX. And when the pandemic limited her exploration to going from her bedroom to the living room, she started a lecture series on wilderness medicine that evolved into the Global Organization for Wilderness Medicine Education, an initiative dedicated to providing free and open access in this academic area. And she recently received the Charles A. Berry Memorial Scholarship, which supports U.S.-based students interested in pursuing a career in aerospace medicine. 

She developed her love for space as a little girl growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, participating in science fair projects. During the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge for middle school and high school students in 2006, MIT Lincoln Laboratory named a minor planet after her for her research in medicine and biochemistry. Named 22706 Ganguly, the minor planet is a near-Earth asteroid that orbits the sun. “I log onto the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory website to check on her from time to time, just to make sure she hasn’t exploded,” Ganguly revealed. 

If a seat on the first mission to Mars were offered, she wouldn’t turn it down. “But realistically, my sights are set on the moon,” she said. “I would love to, if the stars aligned, spend some months with my boots on the ground establishing the medical infrastructure for the first permanent moon base.” 

Her past experiences in extreme environments have given her a head start, such as the time she volunteered as a medical assistant on an Antarctica cruise expedition. In the middle of the treacherous Drake Passage, a day away from the nearest peninsula, heart problems sent one of the passengers spiraling to the brink of death. Taking advantage of a small window of tranquil seas, Ganguly helped arrange a medical evacuation for the passenger, ensuring the woman would get the lifesaving medical care she needed. 

Then, there was that time on Mount Kilimanjaro. She also has scaled the 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus and ascended Aconcagua—at 22,837 feet, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. “Four more to go,” said Ganguly, referring to her goal of conquering the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of each of the seven traditional continents.

“For whatever genetic blessing there may or may not be, I tend to handle altitude pretty well,” she said. “I know it sounds crazy, but being challenged by extreme environments makes me feel alive.”