Astronaut brings his problem-solving skills down to earth
When the world last saw Scott Parazynski in late 2007, he was dangling from a 50-foot boom that had been MacGyvered onto the International Space Station's robotic arm.
The unprecedented and risky spacewalk was necessary to repair a tear in the space station's solar array that engineers feared would worsen over time.
There were no tools on the station to fix the tear, so Parazynski and his crewmates, at the direction of mission control, improvised materials and then had the station's robotic arm grapple the shuttle's inspection boom. Parazynski traveled farther from the airlock than any previous foray outside the station.
In the end, the fix worked.
"That was my biggest day on the job, ever," said the Little Rock, Ark., native, who moved to Houston in August 1992 when he was selected to become an astronaut. "I felt like my entire career led up to that one single moment."
A physician by training, Parazynski, 49, said his nearly two decades with NASA have, in turn, prepared him for a new career at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, where he began last month as its chief medical and technology officer.
"Both are really highly innovative environments," he said. "I liken it to going from the exploration of outer space to the exploration of inner space, being able to take the same methods of curiosity and focus and try to find important discoveries and important solutions."
Focus on technology
Just as Parazynski helped fix the solar array and solve other technological challenges at NASA — such as devising ways to fix the shuttle's heat shield on orbit — he intends to work with researchers and physicians at Methodist to identify their problems and solve them.
Since founding the research institute in 2004 amid its split from Baylor College of Medicine, Methodist has invested more than half a billion dollars to build a research building and hire scientists.
A five-time astronaut, Parazynski won't be directly involved in too many of the research projects, but will instead meet with investigators to help them obtain funding and use the best technologies to meet their needs.
He said he's especially eager to tackle projects in the fields of minimally invasive surgery and nanomedicine, with its potential to use targeted drugs to destroy tumors and plaques in arteries. Some inspiration, he admits, comes from Star Trek.
"I'm hoping to leverage my background to create the next generation of minimally invasive surgery and diagnostic tools," Parazynski said. "As a physician growing up and watching Star Trek, we all wanted a medical tricorder. So one of the things I'd love to do is think big and push the envelope on what is possible."
For those who don't grok Spock, a "tricorder "is a fictional device that can scan a person and immediately diagnose a disease or injury.
'Perfect job for him'
Parazynski left NASA in 2009 to climb Mount Everest, which he successfully topped, and he said the culture change is a welcome one at Methodist. In contrast to NASA, which faces an uncertain future and conflicting messages from President Barack Obama and Congress, there's less bureaucracy, more freedom and a growing budget in his new pursuit.
"I'm just so excited about the future of medicine here being wide open," he said.
Parazynski's commander during the 2007 mission to the space station said she expects an easy transition for him from space back into medicine.
"I think it's a perfect job for him," said astronaut Pam Melroy. "His roots in medicine and his experiences at NASA will absolutely set him up to succeed. He's going to do really, really well."
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