How To Become A Citizen-Scientist
like Shawna Pandya

Adventurer Shawna Pandya always wanted to be a superhero. Today, she’s a physician, a motivational speaker, a black belt in Taekwondo, and training to become a citizen-scientist astronaut. Find out how this Role Model says YOU can follow your dreams and become a citizen-scientist too.

By Amy Hyatt Fonseca
Susan Fonseca Lanham

Since the age of four, Shawna Pandya wanted to save lives. She imagined living out never-ending adventures as a superhero or billionaire who used her powers and money to solve the world’s problems. Eventually, Pandya came to realize her dreams were unrealistic—at least by adult standards. But unrealistic didn’t equal impossible for this Canadian girl of Indian origin.

“I was always really ambitious and adventurous,” says Pandya. “So, when I learned there were no superhero schools or billionaire degrees, I asked What do I want to achieve? What boundaries do I want to break? And how do I get there?”

Those questions became an iterative process for Pandya, one she used to figure out her next steps. First, she researched what really smart people do and realized many worked in science, specifically space. Then, she followed the lead of Canada’s First Female Astronaut and the First Neurologist in Space, Roberta Bondar,and pursued a career in medicine. A plan she hoped would take her closer to the stars.

However, becoming an astronaut brought its own challenges. Out of 543 humans launched into space, only 60 have been women and 2 of those Canadian. Not only would Pandya need to defy gravity in the literal sense, but also beat the odds stacked against her.

Photo Credit: Dr. Aaron Persad

For Pandya, the answer was to become a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut, a qualified individual who trains alongside formal astronauts on missions like suborbital flight. The goal? To explore further, understand new and extreme environments, and expand our collective knowledge.

“It is really a resurgence,” she says. “In the 1700s and 1800s, it was the curious or well-off individuals who could be explorers and scientist. Then, it shifted to those with formal schooling. Now we’re shifting back, where it doesn’t have to be one or the other—there’s room and there are roles for both.”

Today, Dr. Shawna Pandya is a physician, pilot, scuba diver, skydiver, and entrepreneur with a background in neuroscience, space exploration, and social impact. She’s a black belt in Taekwondo, the host of TalkMedTech and a frequent lecturer on innovation and the future of medicine. In 2015, she completed Scientist‐Astronaut Candidate training with Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) and became part of the first crew to test a commercial spacesuit in zero‐gravity. In addition, Dr. Pandya was selected for Project Poseidon which aims to further ocean and space exploration while setting a world record for “the most days spent under the sea.”

With all this success, Pandya still keeps her sights on space. An unconventional path perhaps, but to Pandya, “the metric for success should always be changing.”

Photo Credit: Ross Lockwood

Intrigued by what a Citizen-Scientist is, and inspired by the idea that anyone can reach the stars, we asked Pandya’s advice on the process.

Here are 3 Steps to Become a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut like Dr. Shawna Pandya:

Step 1: Ask the Question. Break Down Your Goals.

Pandya suggests you start by analyzing your goal. Why? Big aspirations like becoming an astronaut become easier to manage. “Ask yourself what is the first step I need to take?” she says. “Now, break it down further and ask what do I need to do today? Maybe the answer is as simple as finding out what an astronaut actually does.”

“Your question is the answer!”

In this process, Pandya also suggests you “educate yourself about what you want to do.” It’s one of the initial steps she took when deciding her path. As Pandya puts it, find out the good, bad, and the ugly. Honestly ask yourself, how glamorous and how unglamorous is it?”

Finally, if you’re still inspired to reach your goal, then create action items. Pandya says to start by sketching out your idea. “Is the concept something that made sense in a feverish dream but now defies the law of physics?” she asks. “Or is it something people would want to make their lives better? Your question is the answer!”

@shawnapandya mapping her performance goals. Photo via Twitter

Step 2:  Embrace a Growth Mindset. Realize you are Limitless. 

Pandya radiates the example of how to live life to the fullest while embracing a fierce growth mindset, an ability to recognize talent can be developed through hard work, strategies, and input from others. Key drivers for her success include a strong work ethic and which she credits to her “hard-working parents” and practices daily through Taekwondo.

“Success is a changing target, and one should constantly re-evaluate it,” she says. “But for me, I am happiest when I am going 100 miles an hour, always pushing my limits, keeping my schedule packed, and realizing the work I’m doing is making the world a better place.”

This philosophy drives Pandya toward extraordinary depths of success. Probably because it’s the same one she uses to take risk, seek adventure, and push internal boundaries. “It’s all about learning,” Pandya says, “whether scuba diving, skydiving, or flying at Zero-G. It’s about increasing my situational awareness to make good decisions in tough situations…it’s about increasing my rate of scan.”

Centralized by her desire to “make the world a better place and leave it a little better than we found it,” Pandya continues to tackle life at top speeds. Sure, she fails sometimes. But she believes if you know yourself and know you are limitless” then you can achieve your dreams.

Photo Credit: Thumper

Step 3: Enlist the help of Role Models. Appreciate the Challenge. 

Once you understand your goal and ‘first-steps’ to succeed, you’re ready to find a role model or mentor to support and inspire you on your journey.

“It’s never too late to look for a female role model.”

“When I was little, I looked for role models based on my life goals (doctor, astronaut, pilot), not based on gender,” Pandya says. “Now, that I’m closer to reaching these goals, I look around at these very successful women with admiration at how they’ve balanced family and achieved a successful career.There’s  something to be said about women pulling each other up. When you meet the most successful women, they aren’t interested in tearing each other down but pulling each other up.”

Thus, Pandya’s advice is “it’s never too late to find a female role model.” She credits Roberta Bondar, Nicole Scott (first Astronaut to paint in Space) and Scott Parazynski (physician, astronaut, explorer, innovator) as examples of early role models. Likewise, Ellen Ochoa, Anita Gale (first female engineer at Boeing), and Marianne Mader all inspire this trailblazer. “And your mentors can be peers and contemporaries as well…you have as much to offer them as they have to offer you.” For Pandya,  peer mentors include Hillary Coe, Jamie Guined, and Privanhini Bradoo.

Photo Credit: Cooper and O’Hara

Pandya admits she’s been lucky when it comes to outside support of her endeavors. “I’m privileged that people I’ve come in contact with are just concerned with excellence. Not with gender, but with the outcome. To select good people and empower others to become a stellar team.” But she also realizes it’s not true for everyone. “It’s getting better,” Pandya points out, “but there still are not many female entrepreneurs in space and hurdles to push through.”

While Dr. Pandya’s journey might be unconventional and her daily schedule jammed-packed, her commitment to advance humanity’s collective knowledge is the definition of a superhero. A role model who shows us how to live to the fullest, persevere against all odds, and prove life is limitless<!

Additional Resources:

Non-Traditional Routes to Becoming a Citizen-Scientist:

Traditional Routes to Becoming an Astronaut

We hope you’ve learned something about #RoleModel Shawna Pandya and her journey to become a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut. Finally, we want you to tell us what steps you’ve taken to achieve your goals.


Amy Fonseca

Prior to catching the Women@TheFrontier bug, Amy was a research and clinical speech-language pathologist interested in the impact of technology on individuals with disabilities. Today, she is a wife, mom, lover of words, Co-Founder and Managing Editor for Women@TheFrontier.

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