Space Race

Along with 4,000 other hope­fuls, Gavin Tans­ley, MD’ 12, ap­plied to be one of Canada’s next two as­tro­nauts.

Trek Magazine - - Lens On Life - BY CHRIS PETTY, MFA’86

When Gavin Tans­ley was in grade 12, a per­cep­tive coun­sel­lor set him up with an unusual job in the school’s work place­ment pro­gram. The pro­gram, which was de­signed to give non-aca­demic high school se­niors a taste of the var­i­ous trades avail­able at post-sec­ondary schools around the prov­ince, was not in­tended for high achiev­ers like Tans­ley. But the coun­sel­lor saw the bud­ding sci­en­tist in him and mas­saged the rules a bit to set up a place­ment with UBC re­searcher Dr. Ch­eryl Welling­ton (pro­fes­sor of pathol­ogy and lab­o­ra­tory medicine in the Djavad Mowafaghian Cen­tre for Brain Health), who gave him a re­search project all his own.

“I got to look at choles­terol trans­port,” he says, “and how it might in­flu­ence the for­ma­tion of the protein plaque re­spon­si­ble for Alzheimer’s dis­ease. It was an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity for me, and I even got my first au­thor pub­li­ca­tion and was a co-au­thor on a cou­ple of oth­ers.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence, he says, con­vinced him that his ca­reer should al­ways be fo­cused on creat­ing new knowl­edge. “I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly bril­liant,” he claims, “but I was re­ally ex­cited by that ex­pe­ri­ence.” It also made him a life­long fan of UBC. “Hav­ing fac­ulty like Dr. Welling­ton, will­ing to take a risk on a cu­ri­ous high school stu­dent and of­fer that kind of op­por­tu­nity is what makes UBC spe­cial.” It also con­vinced him to ap­ply to UBC when he grad­u­ated from high school.

He started a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in cell bi­ol­ogy and ge­net­ics, then trans­ferred to medicine af­ter his third year – a dream he’d had since child­hood. Dur­ing his MD train­ing he spent time in BC’s north work­ing in re­mote ar­eas, and dis­cov­ered his re­search pas­sion. The chal­lenges of de­liv­er­ing medicine in cen­tres far away from cities – what he calls aus­tere, re­mote en­vi­ron­ments – ex­cited him be­cause of the op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­search but also be­cause his work could cause pos­i­tive change.

“It’s much dif­fer­ent pro­vid­ing med­i­cal ser­vices in places where they don’t have the kind of re­sources we have in ur­ban cen­tres,” he says. “You have to learn to be adapt­able and in­ven­tive. My cur­rent work as a sur­geon in trauma care links to that be­cause emer­gency medicine some­times re­quires creative so­lu­tions to im­me­di­ate prob­lems. You use the re­sources at hand.”

The trick, he says, is to bal­ance his pas­sion for re­search and dis­cov­er­ing new knowl­edge with his love for the prac­tice of medicine. “I will al­ways do both.”

Cur­rently, Tans­ley is work­ing as a trauma sur­geon in Hal­i­fax, do­ing his res­i­dency through Dal­housie. His ca­reer path is fairly clear: re­search into the area of medicine in aus­tere en­vi­ron­ments and per­haps even a pe­riod of time with Médecins sans Fron­tiéres. Un­less, of course, he be­comes Canada’s next as­tro­naut. His love of re­search and medicine not­with­stand­ing, Tans­ley’s real siren call has al­ways been the stars. “I’ve wanted to be an as­tro­naut since I was a lit­tle kid,” he says. “All through school I’d seek out books and mag­a­zines about space and as­tro­nauts.” But he kept his in­ter­est un­der wraps in high school and af­ter. “I didn’t want to be that kid in school or that adult work­ing a nor­mal job who was still talk­ing about be­ing an as­tro­naut,” he laughs.

He thought of ap­ply­ing when the Cana­dian Space Agency (CSA) put out a call for Canada’s next as­tro­naut in 2009, but he didn’t have the re­quired pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence – or his MD. He was sure he’d missed his chance, as the call for ap­pli­ca­tions is a rare oc­cur­rence. But when the CSA put out an­other call in June 2016, he knew his mo­ment had come. Al­most 4,000 Cana­di­ans ap­plied for the spot and, to his great joy, he was one of 72 se­lected to en­ter the first round of test­ing.

The se­lec­tion process is a com­plex one. Can­di­dates must un­dergo many se­ries of tests to de­ter­mine phys­i­cal en­durance, emo­tional sta­bil­ity and in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity. Though CSA prefers can­di­dates to not dis­cuss the na­ture of these tests, Tans­ley did al­low that they were dif­fi­cult and drain­ing. But did he feel he per­formed well?

“Meet­ing the other can­di­dates is a great way to be hum­bled,” he says. “You don’t leave one of these test­ing events feel­ing good about your­self. You’re be­ing com­pared to the top tier. It’s an amaz­ing group of peo­ple. They could pick one of the names out of a hat and get a spec­tac­u­lar as­tro­naut.”

In spite of Tans­ley’s self-doubts, he re­cently sur­vived the agency’s lat­est win­now­ing ex­er­cise to be­come one of the re­main­ing 32 can­di­dates. A de­ci­sion of the fi­nal choice will be made this sum­mer.

His med­i­cal back­ground, he feels, has lit­tle to do with his suc­cess so far. “That’s not why I was se­lected,” he says. “It’s less about my par­tic­u­lar skill set and more about the level of train­ing I’ve re­ceived. My re­search train­ing gives me a very me­thod­i­cal ap­proach to prob­lems. And, be­ing a trauma sur­geon by def­i­ni­tion means I have to as­sess life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions on the spot and come up with so­lu­tions quickly. I think that’s why they value that train­ing.”

If he is cho­sen to be Canada’s next as­tro­naut, he won’t nec­es­sar­ily be do­ing med­i­cal re­search. His pri­mary job will be as an op­er­a­tor. Scientists on the ground will have ex­per­i­ments they want to con­duct on the space sta­tion, and the as­tro­nauts be­come a set of skilled hands that can con­duct those ex­per­i­ments ap­pro­pri­ately and

“Be­ing a trauma sur­geon by def­i­ni­tion means I have to as­sess life threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions on the spot and come up with so­lu­tions quickly. I think that’s why they value that train­ing.” His love of re­search and medicine not­with­stand­ing, Tans­ley’s real siren call has al­ways been the stars.

pro­fes­sion­ally. For that rea­son, those cho­sen have to be gen­er­al­ists with a pas­sion for science for the sake of science. Which is a good def­i­ni­tion of Gavin Tans­ley.

In spite of the more sober re­quire­ments of the job of as­tro­naut, a brief pe­rusal of the can­di­dates’ re­sumes would seem to in­di­cate that they, as in­di­vid­u­als, are big risk tak­ers. Rock climbers, sky divers, moun­taineers, and cra­zies who go scuba div­ing in shark in­fested wa­ters. Tans­ley him­self is a ded­i­cated rock climber and moun­taineer. But he sug­gests that “risk” isn’t a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor.

“I’m not a risk-taker,” he says. “I don’t think risk tak­ers make it very far in those kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties. If you’re a rock climber and a risk taker, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to get hurt. I see my­self as a risk avoider with a huge pas­sion for ad­ven­ture. Ad­ven­ture takes you to these places and re­quires cer­tain skills, but you’ve got to have a me­thod­i­cal, very cal­cu­lated ap­proach. You have to have the ex­pe­ri­ence to do some­thing safely. Peo­ple who as­pire to be an as­tro­naut have that de­sire for ex­plo­ration and ad­ven­ture in com­mon. It’s not about risk; it’s about ad­ven­ture. And, at the same time, you’re work­ing at the very top of hu­man en­deav­our. That’s re­ally at­trac­tive to a lot of peo­ple, me in­cluded, so we as­sume the risk.”

But be­com­ing an as­tro­naut means he will have to give up be­ing a sur­geon. He will have to move to Hous­ton, Texas, and be­gin years of spe­cialty train­ing. He’s in his early 30s now, and, typ­i­cally, as­tro­nauts re­tire in their mid 50s. Af­ter 20 years, he’ll be hope­lessly be­hind as a med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner. Is he sure the sac­ri­fice is worth it?

“I’ve wanted to be a physi­cian all my life,” ” says ays Tans­ley. “All my train­ing, all my fo­cus has been on that goal. I wouldn’t give it up for any­thing, ex­cept for the chance to be an as­tro­naut. I’d do it in a heart­beat.” Gavin Tans­ley lives with his wife in Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia.

Up­date

Shortly be­fore go­ing to press, we learned that Gavin Tans­ley was un­for­tu­nately not one of the 17 can­di­dates to move on to the fi­nal se­lec­tion stages. “Al­though it is not happy news to hear, I look back on the ex­pe­ri­ence so fondly that I’m hav­ing a hard time feel­ing dis­ap­pointed,” he says. “I met truly in­cred­i­ble peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­enced things I would not have had the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence oth­er­wise. I will now press on through my sur­gi­cal train­ing and con­tinue do­ing the things I love do­ing. I can only hope that one day there will be an­other call and at that point I’ll be a bet­ter can­di­date.” We’ll be root­ing for him when he tries again.

(Credit: NASA)

NASA as­tro­naut Stephen Robin­son is held aloft by Canadarm2.

Tans­ley par­takes in first se­ries of ap­ti­tude tests. © Cana­dian Space Agency

Tans­ley par­takes in first se­ries of ap­ti­tude tests. © Cana­dian Space Agency

Tans­ley par­takes in sec­ond se­ries of ap­ti­tude tests. © Cana­dian Space Agency

UBC alum­nus Bjarni Tryg­gva­son, BASc’72, was se­lected to be one of Canada’s first six as­tro­nauts in 1983. (Credit: NASA)

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