November 22, 1996

Former NASA astronaut’s skills, experience put to use at VUMC

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Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon

Former NASA astronaut's skills, experience put to use at VUMC

It takes about two hours to get from Houston to Nashville by plane. By car, 12 hours – if you really push it and don't stop to look at the world's second largest ball of twine in Toad Suck, Ark.

For Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon, however, the journey from south Texas to the heart of Middle Tennessee took considerably longer, primarily because she took several detours into outer space as a scientist on board three different space shuttle missions.

Talk about taking the scenic route.

"I was born and raised in Murfreesboro and always wanted to come back to this area," said the former NASA astronaut, now at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "It's taken awhile, but the trip has been worth it."

Seddon will be doing double duty at VUMC. First by assisting Dr. David Robertson, professor of Medicine and director of the Clinical Research Center, in preparing an experiment set to take place on the space lab mission in 1998, and second by assisting in the organizational structuring of the Vanderbilt Medical Group (VMG), the region's largest physician practice group.

"When my husband and I decided to come back to Nashville, it was sort of a transition. The opportunity to come back to this area and still be involved with NASA was interesting," Seddon said. "But I knew it wasn't going to occupy all of my time, so I looked at other things."

One of those other things is assisting with the administrative formation of the VMG. In this role, Seddon is assistant chief medical officer, working closely with Dr. John S. Sergent, VMG's chief medical officer. She sees a number of parallels between participating in NASA's space program and helping create a new type of health care entity from the ground up.

"I'm looking forward to using some of the NASA background that I have and skills that I learned, such as putting teams together, setting goals, developing policies and procedures. These are the sorts of things that need to be done when you put together a new organization. NASA does a good job at this kind of thing," Seddon said.

The complexity of guiding a successful flight into space cannot be underestimated. It takes thousands of people working in concert with split-second timing and professionalism. The key word is teamwork, a word that is cropping up with more frequency in today's health care environment.

"I think the teamwork aspect is crucial," Seddon said. "NASA is not a top-down type of structure. Despite the public perception, astronauts are really just members of the team. Everyone has a role to play, and it's awesome the number of people that support a spaceflight – launch, landing services, mission control, flight surgeons, researchers, technicians, etc.

"You realize you are part of a team, and you don't run that team, you participate in it because everyone on that team has his or her expertise and you all work together.

"I think medicine is moving in that direction. People are realizing that there is too much to know and too much to do to have one person who's going to run everything. It's better to run it as a team in more of a collaborative group structure.

"Vanderbilt is really looking ahead by building teams of physicians, nurses, administrators and others to provide the finest patient care possible. We are looking at quality, cost, collaboration – many of the ideas and issues NASA has been addressing," she said.

The flip side to Seddon's VMG duties is her work with Robertson to prepare an experiment for Neurolab, the 1998 shuttle mission dedicated to research on the human body's nervous system and behavior. The experiment will study why astronauts, upon returning from space, feel dizzy and light-headed. There, on board the shuttle, astronauts will conduct tests to measure the electrical activity of nerve fibers in the peroneal nerve.

Due to the many limitations imposed by a spaceflight, experiments such as this must be meticulously planned and organized long before they are rocketed into orbit. This is where Seddon – who conducted experiments on three separate shuttle mission – and her wealth of experience comes in.

"Putting an experiment onto a spaceflight is always a challenge," Seddon said. "There are a lot of things to be coordinated and planned because how you do it in space is not the same as how you do it on the ground. And you also have to interact with NASA, because they are the ones who will do the experiments for you.

"I'm helping Dr. Robertson's team learn that language."

Numerous details need to be hammered out before an experiment is ready to launch, details of which are not always obvious.

"Each experiment does not exist by itself. There are many others and they are all done at the same time, so you have to share the resources of electrical power, data systems and people.

"There are many things you don't have to think about in your lab on the ground that you have to consider on the shuttle. A lot of it is very practical, such as 'How do I do this when all of my equipment is floating around?' Other things involve safety and having equipment properly stowed and secured," Seddon said.

"Also, the equipment often needs to be examined. On the shuttle you're in a closed environment, so you have to test everything. Often, you can't use an off-the-shelf piece of equipment because the material may off-gas slightly.

"You can't just take what you do in the lab and go up in the shuttle. There are lots of details to work on, and it takes a lot of people thinking about it."

Seddon received her medical degree from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in 1973. Her husband, Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson, was also an astronaut, going up in the shuttle five times.

Seddon flew on the shuttle in 1985, 1991 and again in 1993, where, as payload commander, she served as the mission's chief scientist. Serving as an astronaut proved the perfect opportunity for Seddon to pursue her interests in medicine and flight. Not to mention the chance to admire the view.

"Usually, you're so busy you don't have time to look out at the world," Seddon said. "But on that last trip I made a point of it. I lost a little sleep just staring out the window. The impact never fades."