2011 Most Promising Engineer - Doctoral Degree

Serena Maria  Auñón, M.D., M.P.H.
NASA Astronaut
NASA Johnson Space Center

Is there anything more academically and professionally demanding than enduring medical school and pursuing a career as an M.D.? Earning a spot in the Astronaut corps might be one of them. Statistically this is certainly true, as only 300 or so people in the history of humanity have ever flown in space.

But what are the odds that someone could successfully accomplish both?  Dr. Serena Maria Auñón has never paid much attention to the odds, which begins to explain why this remarkable woman has done exactly that. Factor in her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and you can bet the farm that Dr. Auñón will continue beating the odds in virtually any endeavor she chooses, on land or in space.

Dr. Auñón’s interest in space was cemented when she attended the NASA Space Academy in 11th grade. It also sparked her interest in engineering, which she pursued at George Washington University (GWU), her father’s alma mater. As she approached her senior year at GWU, Dr. Auñón discovered she had a passion for what she calls a “connection between engineering and medicine.” When she learned that the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) offered a combined residency program in Internal Medicine and Aerospace Medicine, her future was sealed. She was accepted to UTMB in Galveston, Texas, in 1997, and completed her M.D. in 2001. In the years immediately following she served as Chief Resident at UTMB and earned certification by both the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Preventative Medicine.

The specialized curriculum at UTMB allowed Dr. Auñón to lay the groundwork for a career at NASA and take her first steps to the stars.  She completed flight surgeon training and provided medical support to actual spaceflights launched before becoming a full-time flight surgeon at NASA John Space Center in 2006. The Aerospace Medical Association recognized her work in this capacity when they chose her for their Julian E. Ward Memorial Award for trend-setting contributions to spaceflight participant clinical care. She’s also provided medical support for zero gravity flights, bed rest and centrifuge analogue environments, and space operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia. Dr. Auñón also served as the deputy crew surgeon for NASA’s STS-127 mission.

Dr. Auñón was extremely proactive in instituting new and improved methods of monitoring and support, especially when American astronauts were engaged in field exercises and training in Russia. For example, Dr. Auñón developed a non-invasive way to monitor body temperature that reduced astronauts’ exposure to the dangers of heat exhaustion and heat stroke during water survival training in the Black Sea.

Dr. Auñon entered the Astronaut Candidacy Program (ASCAN) in 2009 when she was one of nine selected out of 3,500 applicants. Finally, in May 2011, after 2 years of training and a lifetime of bucking the odds, she graduated from ASCAN and became an official member of the NASA Astronaut Corps.

In addition to her work with NASA, Dr. Auñón is a clinical assistant professor at the UTMB and a volunteer physician at St. Vincent’s House Free Clinic. She has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from GWU, a master’s of public health from the UTMB in Galveston, and a doctorate of medicine from the University of Texas - Health Science Center in Houston.