Final frontier: Duke University offers course on medicine in space

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – You won’t be able to take all kinds of medical specialists into space. As man replaces machines, the journey to Mars, which can take up to eight months, and time on the planet will surely come with medical needs.

Dominic Tanzillo and Nick Saba decided to be part of the solution.

“Taking the human body, which is used to life on earth and terrestrial life, and then when you put it into space, you take everything to the extreme and it really pushes your understandings of chemistry, biology and physics,” Tanzillo said.

Saba added: “Space is becoming a much more applicable place. With all of the private industry and all of the money now flowing into it, this is the perfect time to learn about a subject like medicine in space.”

Tanzillo and Saba just wrapped up the second semester of teaching a course in space medicine at Duke University. They’ve now expanded that knowledge to high school students and have prepared an online summer Coursera course for Duke students and alumni.

“A lot of people that are very interested in STEM or interested in space haven’t really considered the medical side. It’s usually a focus on the engineering, but it takes a village to get someone up into space and part of that village is medical staff and personnel,” Saba said.

Tanzillo, who also worked as a Duke EMT, spent months interviewing NASA engineers, doctors and astronauts. He tapped the expertise of Duke physicist Ronen Plesser, who also sponsored the class.

“These two kids showed up with what looked like a really exciting plan to teach something really cool where I could learn something and maybe contribute something on the corners because physics comes into everything,” Plesser said.

“If we look hopefully to a future in space, well we’ll need to overcome these problems at some point. And having that optimism and hope is super important,” Tanzillo said.

That optimism and hope is something we may all agree is needed in space just as much as it’s needed on earth.

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