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Thais Russomano, the founder of InnovaSpace, or what happens when space meets medicine

There are a lot of medical consequences which have been associated with human spaceflight; this is the reason why the research and the study of space medicine are so important, to discover not only how people can survive in extreme conditions in space and on other planets, but also how can they readapt to Earth after a long flight. This area is not important just for space travel; there are many space technologies that can be adapted to our day to day lives to improve the way we live.

To find out more about space medicine, we met online with Prof. Thais Russomano, MD, an active participant in the international scientific community.

Thais' career is impressive, having more than 30 years of experience teaching and researching in Aerospace Medicine, Space Physiology, Aerospace Biomedical Engineering and Telemedicine & Digital Health.

She graduated medicine from the Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil, specialising in internal medicine with experience in emergency and intensive care medicine. She also has a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Medicine - Wright State University, USA (1991), and a PhD in Space Physiology - King's College London (1998).

Thais is the founder of Microgravity Centre, PUCRS, an internationally recognised and leading research centre in human space physiology and space biomedical engineering, which she coordinated for 18 years.

Over the last few years, Thais has dedicated herself to InnovaSpace, a think thank company that develops scientific projects and educational initiatives. InnovaSpace is one of A.P.E.C.S.' dearest partners, and we are very happy to present you all this wonderful interview about what happens when space meets passion, medicine, hard work and hope for a better world.

To find out more about Thais click here: Thais Russomano - InnovaSpace.

A.P.EC.S.: You are an intensive care doctor by training, a professor and a scientific researcher specialised in space medicine, space physiology, biomedical engineering, telemedicine and telehealth, a mentor for Space4Women (a United Nations initiative) and an entrepreneur. What was your driver to manage to accomplish so many things, and where did you get the ”space bug”?

Thais: Well, in terms of the space bug, I am not sure. I just know that since a very young age, about 4-5 years old, I was in love with space and everything in my life that involved space, science, astronomy; I had a very small telescope when I was about 8 years old, so it went from there, but then I studied medicine, I gained a lot of experience in intensive care, and at some point, I have decided somehow to unify my space passion with my profession, medicine.

Space is just something that is just part of me, but I think that we need to dedicate ourselves to be committed to our goals in life, to be persistent, resilient, so I would say there must be more than just a passion, personality traits are also essential to achieve your goals in life.

- A.P.EC.S.: You are the founder of Microgravity Centre (the first academic and research establishment dedicated to Human Space Physiology and Space Biomedical Engineering in Latin America, PUCRS University, Porto Alegre, Brazil), which you coordinated for 18 years, putting a stepping-stone in space research. What were the hardships you encountered as a pioneer?

Thais: After I have finished my studies, I have worked for a while at a space agency in Koln (Germany). Then I have decided to return to Brazil, my home country, to establish a research centre. At that time, it was a small research lab, the first one in the area of human space exploration, called Microgravity Lab, which evolved into many different labs, around nine, then it had become a centre, which is now known as MicroG.

By definition, a pioneer brings something new to an environment; in my case, it was more of new science, new for the group I was working with in Brazil. The most difficult part was not to be able to establish the research place itself, nor to raise the money to buy the materials or to motivate people, but to handle the administrative aspects, the politics behind the new ideas, and the more conservative people who do not understand the reason behind creating something new.

These difficulties sometimes are invisible, you cannot identify them, they are a bit fluid because something which is new creates a psychological reaction and affects administrative movements and political support. At least in my case, from what I have experienced, the worse difficulties were the invisible conservative barriers raised by people who are not willing to change their mentality to explore something new.

- A.P.E.C.S.: Throughout your career, you were a senior lecturer at King's College London, UK, (Space Physiology), a guest lecturer at Aalto University, Finland ( Space and Design), and Deggendorf Institute of Technology, Germany (Medical Informatics), and at the University of Lisbon (Aerospace Medicine). Please share with us some of the exciting projects you have developed as a researcher.

Thais: As a professor, it derived from something very minor, studying and discussing microgravity simulation with students in Brazil, while I was watching these students taking the discussions further, talking about what to do, how to collect data. I remember that at that moment, I have realised that they were more independent; they did not need me in the discussions all the time.

As a researcher, these institutions where I have worked had my research applied to society or science space exploration. For example, we have a patent that shows a unique and new process or technique or a medical device, so it was very interesting to see that scientific recognition could be applied not just for space science but also for society.

Some of the exciting projects we developed are: an ear blood collector designed for space could be used here on Earth, or a new technique applied to cardiac resuscitation in microgravity and hypo gravity, some aspects of growing plants in hypo gravity; from all of these we could learn how we can base life support.

I am very happy with my work in this sense because it brings something new for students and professors, for the world we live in. Even in Europe, this area is something pretty new. When someone like me comes with something new to teach, I think that it is a huge achievement to motivate people; plus, the whole process of developing techniques that could be applied to many different scenarios is exciting.

- A.P.E.C.S: What is the path from an invention to a patent and then into the market?

Thais: It is a whole process of granting a patent that can take years and years because it has to be evaluated by a group of experts that need to compare your achievements, your technique, research the market to bring something new. You can retain the intellectual property, it has different ways to do, for something that a researcher does, or it can be in collaboration with the university or the research institute that you work for, and then you have the possibility to licence many different companies to reach the national market and find the demand for the devices that could be somehow applied here on Earth.

- A.P.E.C.S: Thais, you were the first person in the UK to complete a PhD in respiratory space physiology. What is a space pioneer's life, but also, how does it feel like to be a woman in the space sector?

Thais: My study was about how the lungs will adapt to microgravity simulation. We had all these types of exercises, hypoxia, which is the lack of oxygen. In terms of being a woman in this environment, it is again a kind of invisible barrier because there is no clear discrimination, but it is a very male-dominated environment, and of course, we can easily see that there are more male astronauts going to space. I would say roughly from 600 people that went to space, 11% of them are women, so it is a very small number among the astronauts, but at the same time it is a matter of you as a woman how do you want to be seen and how much do you want to work and to have maybe some personality traits that can help you to advance in your career.

There is this difficulty, somehow a kind of discrimination all over the world, not only in the space sector, but I believe that things are beginning to change, there are more women that are going to space, that are involved in space activities, there are women that are recommended to space missions, so there is this shift in space agencies, we can see more empowerment, more opposition. In the industry as well, we cannot deny that the beginning of that just happened, to have more women professionals building up a career in the space domain.

- A.P.E.C.S: You have started your own company, InnovaSpace. Can you tell us more about the mission of InnovaSpace?

Thais: Mary (Upritchard, the administrative Director 0f InnovaSpace) and I established InnovaSpace in April 2018, so it is a kind of a start-up, but I always say that it is kind of a fake start-up, fake in the sense that Mary and I have a very old history together in space science, for us it is not something that started only three years ago.

The idea was to create a very inclusive, diverse type of company, in which we could basically include and develop educational and scientifical projects, to work with people from different countries, nations that are not part of the elite club of the space countries, a way of making space knowledge democratic, in a sense that would be more spread over the world. The idea was also to destroy some barriers. Most of the space knowledge can be found in 2-3 main languages: English, Russian, Chinese, German. The idea was to create something, projects, activities in many different languages so that people, from kids to professionals, could get in contact with space, not having the language as a barrier.

At InnovaSpace, we work with four main areas: Space Life Sciences, Aviation Medicine&Aerospace Physiology, Human Physiology in Extreme Environments, Telemedicine and Digital Health.

We work on the development of research projects intended for university levels, but we also have projects that could be more for schools and kids in general.

We work in this area by developing research in collaboration with other companies, for space agencies, plus education in outreach.

A.P.E.C.S.: What are, in your opinion, the challenges of a space entrepreneur?

Thais: Everyone has his own challenges, but for me, it was the third phase of my career; after my academic and research in human space exploration, now I am shifting to the business side of space.

So for me now the main challenge is to set my mind in a different way, because in a company you have to think about the profit, you have to have this "business head", and for me coming from the academic area, the idea is something more important, and the money is just a way to get your equipment, materials, or to hire somebody to help you, so it means shifting to a different scenario.

You have to be very creative and work very hard to develop projects that can be self-sustainable and at the same time ideally also create some profit. It was a change to have to adopt a project from a different point of view, this is a different world and it takes a while to find the direction.

A.P.E.C.S: What impact has the InnovaSpace ’s education workshop for kids?

Thais: Education outreach is one of our area of activity. In the last year or so, it was more popular, being difficult to conduct our research on lockdown, we have decided to concentrate on education. We did a lot of online courses, lectures, webinars.

It is very difficult to say how it could impact somebody, but if I look at my life, something just clicked inside. It is difficult to measure, it is something that you did not know, and suddenly you know and then it opens up your mind and you are never the same person. We are offering new knowledge to the kids; you can never learn too much. It can help you sometime in your life and can also have a positive impact upon you; it becomes somehow part of you.

I hope the interview motivates someone in all these areas I have mentioned, especially space which is my passion. Space is a global, inclusive domain, and maybe this article can be a gate for new collaborations, or new projects in order to make space knowledge available, as it is part of our life.

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