In 1974, Douglas G.D. Watt earned his Ph.D. in physiology at McGill University. He later became guest researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center, where he developed his expertise in aerospace medical research. Since 1983, 15 of his experiments have been conducted on Shuttle missions. He was the first Canadian researcher to conduct a medical experiment in space. Remarkably, he was the first scientist at NASA to speak directly to an astronaut in space.
"The weightless environment of space flight provides us with a unique opportunity to study the influence of gravity on many body systems," says Dr. Watt. "This leads to new, basic discoveries that will find their way into medical applications at some point in the future. In a more immediate sense, certain problems, such as motion sickness and bone decalcification, are experienced by astronauts and non-astronauts; so anything developed to help the crew should be transferable to patients on the ground. Also, special equipment designed for flight experiments can have immediate applications in clinical testing."
Dr. Watt is closely following medical advances made on Earth that have roots in research done in space. "The entire field of telemedicine has advanced greatly as a result of the need to support orbiting astronauts. And techniques developed to help returning crewmembers readapt to gravity can be used in rehabilitation medicine."
Studies of space motion sickness have resulted in better ways of treating the disorder back on Earth. New methods developed to measure the effect of weightlessness on the balance organs have been used to test a variety of inner ear problems in patients.
Dr. Watt is one of the only scientists to speak directly to an astronaut while he's in space. The communications chain is very strict about who can talk to an astronaut on a mission. "Astronauts are bright but they cannot possibly know everything about the experiments they perform," he says. "Part of the role of the scientist is to answer questions posed by the crewmember and to interpret unexpected findings. This must be done quickly or the opportunity to the increase benefit to science will be lost. The first time I spoke to an orbiting astronaut was in 1983, early in the Spacelab-1 mission, and I have communicated with many others since then. In every case, it was because they needed information that others in the chain of communications could not provide."
Dr. Watt advises budding space life scientists to become well-trained and well-established life scientists first, and then get involved in space research. It will take quite some time, but the excitement of studying the effects of a completely new environment makes it worthwhile.