When the 12 members of NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class report to Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX for their two years of training, two of them—Dr. Jonny Kim and Dr. Frank Rubio—will leave behind medical careers for the chance to explore the final frontier. SDN recently spoke with Dr. Kim about his nontraditional path to medical school and his transition from emergency medicine resident to astronaut candidate.
Dr. Jonny Kim started his career in the US Navy, where he trained as a Navy SEAL and completed more than 100 combat missions, earning a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Combat “V”. He earned a degree in mathematics at the University of San Diego and his MD at Harvard Medical School. He is currently finishing the intern year of his residency in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. At the end of the two years of astronaut training, Dr. Kim and the other astronaut candidates could be assigned to any of a variety of posts furthering NASA’s mission.
How do you go from resident physician to astronaut? What was your path there?
It wasn’t something that I foresaw or could have predicted. I’m so humbled that I was selected. There was an amazing swath of talented and motivated and compassionate candidates that were trying to get to be astronauts and all of whom would have made great astronauts. I definitely didn’t think that I would be getting selected.
How did I make that transition? I have been thinking about space for several years. It wasn’t something I always dreamed about, more because I didn’t really know about it. For me the common thread behind my life has been leaving something good and contributing something positive. I really enjoy helping people, and I would have been very happy pursuing that endeavor in medicine. But for me space has that allure of pushing that final frontier, making innovations and bringing those innovations back to humanity. And at the same time inspiring our young children to dream of a better tomorrow… Some of the same reasons that made me want to do medicine have made me want to go into space.
You come from a military background; How did that background help prepare you for medical school?
My military background helped me immensely for medical school in that I learned to work in small teams in an intimate environment with limited data, and to make critical decisions in a small amount of time. I think some of the specific skills I learned were learning to take critical feedback and improve on my weaknesses, and learning to get the input of team members to accomplish a goal. All of those things you see in medicine, especially in medical school.
How do you think your medical background will help you be a better astronaut?
Medicine is great in that it is a field of undifferentiated data that you have to sort through to make a diagnosis and then a treatment plan. People can say that medicine is very algorithmic, and for a lot of situations it is. But we learn human physiology, how each organ system interacts with another, and from there when we interact with those… hard cases that may not seem straightforward, we draw on… that different knowledge of each organ system to make that diagnosis. I think that helps in a career in space where you also have undifferentiated data, you don’t know what the situation is going to hold for you in the future, but you leverage the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your team members to get through the problem set and reach a good outcome. I think it’s not just medicine that has these skillsets; other fields in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, and math) have the same principles of working through problems with limited data… to reach a conclusion.
What made you decide on emergency medicine for your residency training?
I’ve always been a generalist by nature. I love every aspect of medicine… [W]hen it came down to choosing a field, it was a tie between emergency medicine and internal medicine. I love how my colleagues in internal medicine think so thoughtfully of their patients and really try to interpret every data point that they get. In emergency medicine, what I appreciated was being able to help people in a critical hour of need, having that profound effect of saving someone’s life. Also, there were more procedures in emergency medicine, so I think ultimately that’s what led me to emergency medicine.
How do you balance career with life outside of work?
You know, I think that is one of the greatest challenges for me. It certainly was in medical school as well as residency, trying to balance being a good medical student and a responsible resident physician, but also be a good father and husband. You’re pulled in various directions. The way I deal with it is trying to be as efficient as possible. The best advice I have received is to live in the moment. That means being a good resident while you’re in the hospital: thinking, not being distracted. And if you’re at home, making sure you put on the hat of being a good partner, or a good father or mother to your children, and not getting weighted down with different thoughts. For me that’s a constant struggle.
What will the next few years look like for you as an astronaut candidate?
We have a general sense of what the next two years will hold. Astronauts are very grounded operators and… I kind of feel like I’m just a highly-trainable monkey. So [in] the next two years we’re going to learn pilot training, we’re going to learn how to operate different aspects of the International Space Station, the robotic arm, how to speak Russian. We’re going to learn survival skills; we’re going to learn space walking and EVA (extravehicular activity) in the neutral buoyancy lab here in Texas, which is basically a really big pool that is supposed to be an analogy to a zero-gravity environment.
Do you think that having gone to medical school first will help you learn all the things you need to learn in the next two years? Do you think your learning style changed or developed through going to medical school?
Absolutely. I feel like one of the bigger struggles of medical school is not necessarily trying to retain the massive amounts of information that is fed through a firehose, but also learning your style. Pre-reading, a flipped classroom, or doing more active reading with question banks, everyone has their own style. I think learning that and leveraging your strengths is what makes you efficient. So absolutely, going through medical school completely changed my learning style… and I know that that will certainly help me with my future endeavors, where I’m going to have to learn various fields and be proficient in them in a short amount of time.
What advice would you have for medical students, especially someone like you who comes from a nontraditional background?
Wanting to be a physician and help people is one of the most admirable occupations you can do. I mean, there’s so much sacrifice and selflessness in pursuing this kind of work. I would have been very happy to [work as a physician] and maybe it will be in the cards one day for me to return and finish my residency training. What I would tell people is to really find your passion and do what makes you happy. Medicine is one of the most rewarding careers you could have, but at the same time you can get bogged down and lose sight of the big picture [while focusing on] boards or doing well on your Step or shelf exams. And then residency—I mean let’s face it, it’s a very stressful environment. All the while facing a huge debt burden and time away from your family. The field is so rewarding, but I think we also have to stop and remember to take time to take care of ourselves—not just our patients—and to take care of each other.
What advice would you have for a younger version of yourself?
If you have big dreams, go for it. Be passionate about what you do, do it for the right reasons, even if you don’t have the highest confidence—I never felt that I could be a doctor, or an astronaut candidate when I was a kid. I didn’t have the confidence, but I had the dream. If you believe in yourself… you can accomplish anything that’s worthwhile in life, with hard work and with the friendships and mentors you have. So embrace life, be passionate about who you are, and never give up. Those are the things I would say to myself.
Any last thoughts for SDN members?
The future physicians of America are some of the best of our generation. The work is extremely rewarding. Stay passionate about humanity and helping people; it’s a great honor to be able to help people who need medical attention, and so I’m very proud of people that go into that line of work.