For the last 28 years I served as an astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency and was privileged to fly twice in space. I have a lifetime of wonderful memories of both of those missions and long-lasting friendships with my crew mates.
One month ago, I left the astronaut corps to join the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Several people have since asked, “Why leave a space career to join a health research organization?” My answer in a single word is “exploration”.
Exploration has always been a part of my life. I enjoy reading about the early Canadian explorers – the aboriginals, Samuel de Champlain, Jacques Cartier, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, David Thompson. These remarkable people are my heroes. They discovered unknown lands and established new communities.
As a child, I enjoyed watching TV programs about the climbers who ascended the highest mountains, about the undersea adventurers who dove the depths of the seas and, of course, about the Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon.
Exploration is a basic instinct of all humans. It is about breaking through frontiers. During the age of discovery, these were frontiers of location, of distance, of height, of depth. Today when we speak of exploration, we no longer refer solely to geographical or spatial frontiers. Today we more commonly address frontiers of knowledge and capabilities.
The modern frontiers of exploration include health care. There is still much left to discover – the basis of consciousness, the riddle of the genetic code, the cure for cancer. Although I immensely enjoyed the challenge of spaceflight, it is discovery in general that captures my spirit.
Health researchers are remarkable people. They wish to provide societal value and make a difference in the lives of patients. They inspire me to attempt the difficult and to contemplate the unknown. They instill a ‘can do’ attitude to attack the tough medical questions of the day. This is why I joined the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. CIHR is an organization that espouses excellence, collaboration and innovation. It espouses a national spirit of exploration similar to that of other organizations like the CSA and NASA.
Anyway … this is the first entry of my blog on health research. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher, once said that “Life is a journey, not a destination”. The intent of my posts is to tell you about the journeys of discovery taken by my colleagues in health research. I’ll introduce you to the surgeons who use robots to treat brain cancer and to the scientists who unravel the genetic code. I’ll give you insight into their thoughts about health research. I may even share my thoughts as a new executive in health research. For me, this is certainly a journey into uncharted territory!
September 7, 2012
Question: Is the spirit of exploration alive and well in Canada?