Please tell us about yourself
Once upon a time, not so long ago, people feared that if a woman went into space while on her period, the blood would reverse its flow into her body — also known as retrograde menstruation — causing pain and possible death. This was one of many false notions that kept women from being included on space missions because back in those dark ages even the world’s brightest operated under socio-cultural misperceptions surrounding the still-taboo subject of a woman’s “time of the month.” It’s been more than three decades since the first American woman went where none had gone before, and times have certainly changed. For the first time in history, in 2013, NASA boasted its first ever gender-equal training class of astronauts. Today, the female astronauts now have their very own honorary researching gynecologist, Dr. Varsha Jain, whose current research examines menstruation, menstrual suppression, and risks of blood clots in space.
How does your work benefit the community?
This work is so important because women are human beings, and women can go into space as professionals behaving like normal, functional adults. People need to get more information, get informed, and get over these gender stereotypes. Get over these ancient barriers. This is 2016!
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I’ve always had an interest in space, being a Star Trek fan as a teenager. Dr Beverly Crusher inspired me to do the work I do today and I certainly wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Captain Janeway or Major Kira! I would like to believe that women in these strong female roles do have a part to play in inspiring young girls and women that they can do anything. At school I needed to make a decision on whether I studied astrophysics or medicine at university. I chose the medicine at Imperial College, London as my desire to help people in my job outweighed all other benefits I could see from future employment. Whilst at university, I found out about space medicine and went along to a small conference to learn more. From there, I discovered I could study extreme environments medicine, which I did , and this helped me get onto a research placement at NASA Johnson Space Center in 2007.
At the time, I worked on research related to balance control mechanisms in astronauts when they returned from space. I started practicing medicine in 2008 and found myself being drawn to a clinical career in obstetrics and gynecology. However, within a month of starting ob/gyn training, I found out about a Master’s degree in space physiology and health at King’s College London. Undertaking that MSc was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My thesis project saw me return to NASA Johnson Space Center to investigate the health systems on board the international space station. More importantly it provided me with the necessary network that I needed to meet my now supervisor, Dr. Virginia Wotring. It has been with her help and support that I have been able to return to Houston for placements where I research female health in relation to spaceflight.