Physician, astronaut, black belt, entrepreneur — Shawna Pandya is constantly reaching for the stars.
For the multi-talented Shawna Pandya, excelling in one field isn’t enough — she has a list of accomplishments in fields from medicine to space science to martial arts. “I’m kind of a person who is like a jack of all trades,” says Pandya. However, she stresses that many of her accomplishments came from hard work, not simply a natural aptitude. “I was good at school but it wasn’t like someone like my brother, who doesn’t have to study,” says Pandya. “I studied very, very hard and did very well in math and science, and also in languages and history, but that’s because I tried very hard. I think it’s more stick-to-itiveness than anything else.” Her strong work ethic is matched by an equally impressive amount of ambition, something Pandya says she’s had since childhood. “I was a really ambitious kid and for me there wasn’t even a limit to the question of the sky being the limit,” she says.
Pandya studied neuroscience at the University of Alberta, and as she was finishing her degree, she decided to apply to two different programs — medical school, and the International Space University Masters Program. “I knew it [medical school] was extremely competitive,” says Pandya. “So I said, I need a backup plan that will be just as exciting as medicine.” When Pandya was accepted into both programs, she asked medical school for a one-year deferral to pursue her dream of going into space. She has since been accepted as a citizen astronaut for a variety of programs, including Project Possum, where she will go 80 to 100 kilometers into the atmosphere and study noctilucent clouds, and Project Poseidon, where she will spend 100 days in a tiny research space off the coast of Florida with a small team.
When it comes to medicine, it only makes sense that Pandya’s interest would be peaked by something as exciting as her space pursuits — it’s extreme medicine, as she calls it, that has truly captured her attention. “It’s not an actual specialty, but when we talk about extreme medicine, we look at anywhere where there’s remote, challenging, resource-limited environments. And that’s kind of where the space and exploration aspect tie into it. So whether you’re talking about practicing medicine under the sea, in Antarctica. That’s where I’d like my career to go,” says Pandya.
In addition to her science-related pursuits, Pandya has flexed her creative muscles through entrepreneurship. After her second year of medical school, she found out about a Silicon Valley think tank called Singularity University. Pandya applied, was accepted (with a full scholarship), and spent time collaborating with students from around the world, eventually participating in the creation of a software aimed at disaster response. She has also been practicing taekwondo for 17 years, and is a first degree black belt currently training for two major competitions.
Pandya acknowledges that balancing so many passions requires a bit of effort — “I say that checklists run my life,” she says — but, in her mind, she’s only just begun. “I do certainly have people who say how did you do so much at a young age,” says Pandya. “But what I tell them is I honestly feel like I’m just getting started. I feel there is so much more to learn, so much more to accomplish.”