For 32-year-old Shawna Pandya, ambition is the passion that fuels her view that the “the sky is the limit.” As a global visionary, woman in STEM, she’s carving out a career that is what all dreams are made of. She’s been a model, activist, and even a musician. From medicine to martial arts to an citizen astronaut candidate, this young woman is fast-becoming a role model for many women both in and outside her community.
She points to a strong family roots as a guiding force.
“My parents have always been incredibly supportive, and never tried to hold me back by saying, ‘That’s impossible,’ or ‘You can’t do that.’ Rather, they tried to instill values in me that would get me there, like a very strong work ethic and a sense of personal discipline,” says Pandya.
Born in Brandon, Manitoba, Shawna was raised by her parents with her brother, Neil and currently lives in Alberta.
Shawna has also piloted a plane, written a chapter on space technology spin-offs in every day medicine on Earth, assisted in a paediatric cardiac surgery and co-launched an organization named ‘Civiguard’, an emergency management software company that made Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100. She has also been an intern at NASA-Johnson Space Center.
It’s no wonder that this year’s International Women’s Day theme, ‘Be Bold for Change’ aligns so well with her journey.
“This year’s IWD theme #BeBoldForChange is one that resonates with me deeply.”
Sometimes if you want to achieve, you need to push your limits and step outside your comfort zone. In other words, if you want to achieve results, you need to dare – you need be bold to achieve change.
In fact, she wrote an entire piece about it, which you can find here.
It’s her ability to see the potential in herself and everything around her that lead her to success as student studying neuroscience at the University of Alberta, and later medical school as well as the International Space University Masters Program.
From white coat to space suit, her days were long but her drive to reach for her dreams never faltered.
“I am in a very unique and fortunate position in that I get to practice both. My full-time job is as a physician, and at the same time, I train as a citizen-scientist astronaut candidate with Projects PoSSUM and PHEnOM and as an aquanaut with Project Poseidon. So both have always been passions of mine, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to do both.”
Pandya, a physician in Edmonton’s Alberta University Hospital, says her career in medicine helped prepare her for her jump to becoming an astronaut.
“There are definitely parallels between the two. For example, I developed good study habits in medicine, and that in turn has been useful when learning about complex and new scientific concepts that are outside my expertise, for example, learning about noctilucent clouds with Project POSSUM. Similarly, in medicine, I have to be able to take complex concepts and explain them in easily understandable terms to my patients,” says Pandya. “This skill has been useful during my public presentations to different audiences on the science behind Project PoSSUM, PHEnOM and Poseidon. Lastly, in medicine, you can often run into difficult situations, and developing the ability to stay cool in a crisis is a very important skill to have.”
She is training for two citizen-scientist astronaut missions and an underwater aquanaut mission.
“I very much look forward to flying with Projects PoSSUM and PHEnOM, and surpassing the 100km Karman line where space begins,” says Pandya. “The thought is so incredibly exciting to me! Until that day comes, I will take things one day at a time, prepare as much as I can and try to do the best job possible. Things can always go wrong or get delayed, but there is always something I can do to make myself better-trained and more prepared, and this is how I intend to prepare for Projects PoSSUM and PHEnOM.”
She is also a public speaker, often inspiring others in her field and beyond. She says accessibility to science still remains a challenge for women in STEM fields.
“There are still very real hurdles to equal representation for women in science, and a compounding factor is that girls and women don’t see role models in science and technology and don’t in turn see a place for themselves there,” says Pandya. “We can change this by becoming the change we wish to see: if we want to see more girls in STEM, then we ourselves need to get involved first and lead the way forward.”
How does she feel about preparing our daughters today for these challenges to access in science?
“Good examples start at home. As the old saying goes, “monkey see, monkey do.” So if we want to break down barriers about what girls can and cannot do, we need to start early. When Mom is “Mrs. Fix-it” and problem-solves on her own, or when Dad says to both his son and daughter “you are both going to learn how to change a tire today,” that goes a long way to planting those seeds that girls are just as capable as boys.”
While she is humbled that she is only a handful of Indian woman to head to space, she says she is proud to see women of all cultural backgrounds continue to break boundaries when it comes to success.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we will continue to see more of this. In order to catalyze the number of women in STEM and celebrate more successes, we must remember that we have a duty to lift each other up and help each other succeed.”
You can follow Shawn’s journeys via twitter @shawnapandya.
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