Aerospace Physiology Program Helps Prepare for Sustainable Life and Communities

Karen Gaines, Ph.D.

Taking the next step toward space  exploration and colonizing other planets includes the ability to sustain life. Helping train researchers and develop programs to do just that are Karen F. Gaines, Ph.D. a professor and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and Steven Miles, MD, FACR, Senior Vice President and Chief Quality Officer for Halifax Health.

Steven Miles, MD

Offering the only Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Physiology in the United States, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is on the cutting edge when it comes to not only the research of the future but also the training of the next generation of experts in the field of how humans respond to the stressors of extreme environments such as flight and space. 

Launched in the fall of 2017 by Dr. Gaines with 10 students, the aerospace physiology program has grown to more than 100 students since its inception. Focusing on the next set of questions and solutions as humankind expands its reach into the outer limits, Volusia County is ready to stake its claim in a $330 billion aerospace industry as part of the Space Coast. 

By offering undergraduate students the opportunity to learn real-world skills in clinical settings, while working with area healthcare facilities like Halifax Health and supportive medical staff, Embry-Riddle is leading the industry’s development of aerospace life scientists specializing in the fields that support aerospace medicine. 

“Working with Dr. Miles and the team at Halifax Hospital has been integral to the success of the Aerospace Physiology Program,” said the ERAU program’s founder, Dr. Karen Gaines. “Their experience in the areas of trauma and neuroscience has helped our students prepare for careers in both research and medicine as human space flight in the commercial and defense fields grow exponentially.” 

Realizing the importance of the education pipeline, Dr. Miles formed and leads a pre-medical advisory group comprised of practicing physicians along with Dr. Lucky Dunn, Dean of the Florida State Medical School satellite campus in Daytona Beach. 

“Connecting aerospace and medicine can be an economic linchpin for our area,” said Miles. “The work we are doing with Embry-Riddle is unlike any in the country.”

Haleema Irfan

Among those students gaining valuable experience is Haleema Irfan, a senior double majored in both Aerospace Physiology and Human Factors Psychology from Plantation, Florida. She aspires to become a pediatric neurosurgeon and is currently in the process of applying to various medical schools.

“Students in this program acquire knowledge about the human body in extreme environments much like those in space or on Mars,” said Irfan, sharing her experience. 

“We have the opportunity to participate in rotations at Halifax Health and AdventHealth to provide clinical exposure and real world application. Each student can also participate in research and the goal is to enable students to author publications. Allowing students to design their own research projects is another aspect unique to Aerospace Physiology.” 

At Embry-Riddle, Irfan is in the final stages of formulating a drug to target the inflammatory response of irritable bowel syndrome in patients, and her capstone project will include creating a sensor for the detection of hydrocephalus metabolites, supported by funding provided through the Office of Undergraduate Research at ERAU.

“Ultimately, my time in the Aerospace Physiology program will give me the opportunity to impact the lives of the people around me,” she said. “A medical practitioner’s ultimate goal is to improve the well-being of patients and this program provided me the foundation to be exposed to not only being a good provider but also changing the conditions that reduce quality of life. It set me on a personally curated path that will make me a successful individual beyond the scope of my undergraduate career.”

Showcasing the classrooms-to-career approach is critical to attracting businesses and economic opportunity to the Space Coast. 

Frank DiBello, President and CEO of Space Florida, sees the collaboration between institutions of higher learning like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, healthcare industry leaders and the aerospace industry as the answer to solving the challenges of tomorrow, today. 

“We have to find ways to have humans survive in space for long periods of time. We learned how to keep them up there for six months or a year on the International Space Station, but to go to Mars, a several month trip, stay until planets align so you can fly back, another three to five months, and you may have to be there a year. But to stay in that environment, we need to think about habitats, ways to allow an ecosystem to support humankind’s activities up there, so colonizing means we have to figure out all the human physiological characteristics and challenges, and meet them,” said DiBello, knowing the Aerospace Physiology program is one component of the larger puzzle. 

As students in the ERAU Aerospace Physiology program work across the field with colleagues and peers in clinical and research settings, their work is laying the foundation for future endeavors according to Dr. Gaines. 

“What most people don’t realize is that what we learn about how the body responds to stress in the space environment has so many ‘life on earth applications’,” said Gaines. “From cognitive resilience to cardiovascular health, what we learn from astronauts and the science they contribute to up in space has already had meaningful positive impact on how we approach medicine here on earth. I am humbled to be a part of the future of space medicine.”