Prachiti Dalvi

Robert Satcher, MD, PhD –the first orthopedic oncologist to orbit the Earth –discussed his interest in telemedicine and telesurgery during a school of medicine seminar last month.

Growing up not to far from Duke in Denmark, South Carolina, Dr. Satcher developed a profound interest in science and chose to pursue chemical engineering at MIT. After graduating at the top of his class, he entered the MD/PhD program just across the river at Harvard Medical School and returned to MIT to complete his PhD in chemical engineering.

Then, he followed the more conventional route of interning in general surgery and spending his time as a resident at UCLA. Deciding to further specialize, Dr. Satcher proceeded with an orthopedic oncology fellowship at the University of Florida. For a short time period, Dr. Satcher was an assistant professor at Northwestern before he caught the space bug. Satcher successfully completed a rigorous application and interview process and was elected to begin space training at NASA.

Although his interests span chemical engineering and orthopedic oncology, he is particularly interested in bone mineralization, nanomaterials, and bone metastasis in cancer. At the MD Anderson Cancer Center he is exploring telesurgery and telemedicine. In November 2009, Dr. Satcher went into space as a mission specialist on Atlantis, spending more than 200 hours in space and engaging in more than twelve hours of spacewalk.

“Medical knowledge comes into play when people are going through adaptation in aerospace,” Satcher said. While in space, Satcher performed maintenance and conducted research on how the human body reacts in space. His own research interests resonated through when he was able to study how bone density and skeletal muscles are affected by zero gravity. Dr. Satcher likened walking in space while inspecting the station’s outside equipment to surgery: attention to precision is vital. To complete this task, he was able to use his surgical skills to navigate a robotic arm to scan the shuttle for damage.

Although space exploration comes with some dangers and difficulties, Satcher believes space exploration is important because there is a lot we still do not know. According to Dr. Robert Satcher, the common thread of curiosity for the unknown ties space exploration and medicine.