May 17, 2017

UCalgary medicine resident a finalist to become Canada's next astronaut

Michelle Whitty on balancing life as a resident, wife, mother and astronaut candidate
Combat engineer, doctor, and Canadian astronaut candidate, Michelle Whitty is completing her family medicine residency at the University of Calgary. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Combat engineer, doctor, and Canadian astronaut candidate, Michelle Whitty is completing her family Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Michelle Whitty’s journey to become a candidate for Canada’s next astronaut has been long and unpredictable, but incredibly rewarding. Along the way she made time to pursue a degree and a master's in civil engineering, a doctorate in medicine, and she met the love of her life and gave birth to three children.

Through the Canadian Armed Forces, Whitty rose to the rank of captain as a combat engineer and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Upon her return from tour, Whitty began to consider another dream she had been keeping on the back burner: pursuing a career in medicine and becoming a military doctor.

Since her deployment, Whitty has completed medical school at the University of Ottawa and is now completing her residency in family medicine at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine under the Military Medical Training Program. While becoming a doctor was now in reach for Whitty, she never imagined another dream might come true.

“When I heard that the Canadian Space Agency was accepting applications for two new astronauts, I could hardly contain my excitement,” Whitty says. “I’ve thought about going to space for years, ever since my parents sent me to astronaut camp in 1994. What an adventure!”

Whitty has now been selected as a finalist for one of two open positions as an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. We spoke to her about her experiences, her thoughts on the road that lies ahead, and what advice she would offer to students and to anyone considering a career change.

Q: What inspired you to change from a career as an engineer to pursuing a career in medicine?

A: I had always had an interest in medicine, all the way back to my high school years. My experience as a combat engineer in the Canadian Army was a very positive one, but after a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, I felt that I had experienced the highlights of that aspect of my life and it was time to pursue my passion in medicine. I was also looking for a more hands-on, person-centred career where I would have a bigger impact on people and the world. 

Q: Why did you choose the Cumming School of Medicine for your residency?

A: I feel that the UCalgary family medicine program offers the perfect balance between family medicine clinical skills and exposure to all relevant disciplines that the family medicine patient would encounter. It’s a perfect balance between family medicine-specific skills, specialist teaching and community programs in both an urban and rural setting.

Q: What’s more difficult: engineering or medicine?

A: I had such different experiences that are quite contrasting between my civil engineering degree at the Royal Military College of Canada and my medical degree from the University of Ottawa and now my residency at UCalgary. I was a young 17- to 21-year-old in engineering, with significant military responsibilities and extracurricular activities including varsity swimming. My medical degree and residency was later in life, which academically was easier, but it included having three young children and the family responsibilities that go along with that. I do feel that that background in engineering, where I was taught how to problem solve, has definitely given me an advantage.

Michelle Whitty.

Michelle Whitty.

Q: What advice do you have for current medical students?

A: My best advice for medical students is to use the entire medical team (nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, administrative clerks, etc.). They have so much knowledge and experience, so ask questions and see what they recommend. You will end up way ahead, and waste so much less time than trying to figure out everything on your own. The second piece of advice is to have fun. This is an exciting time so don’t take yourself too seriously.

Q: How do you balance the military, your children, your husband, and your residency?

A: I am currently on maternity leave [Michelle’s youngest child is five months old], so things are much easier now that I am off with the three kids. My husband and I always sit down on Sunday evenings and go through the calendar for the week, co-ordinating work hours, the kids, time for each other to go to the gym or other sports, and time together. It’s a challenge for sure, but I’m sure everyone reading this is just as busy.

Q: Where do you find your energy?

A: We spend most of our time as a family outside. The kids play in front every day with the neighbours and on weekends we’re always exploring Calgary and the surrounding area. My husband and I value a healthy lifestyle and I feel that it is a key element in what we accomplish as a family. 

Q: How does a future with the space program fit into all of this?

A: This is only the fourth time in history that the Canadian Space Agency has recruited new astronauts! If I have the chance to become Canada’s next space explorer, my medical knowledge and experience will be invaluable to any future space mission. I also will have the opportunity to combine engineering, medicine and space knowledge to further current research. I will hopefully be following in the footsteps of Dr. Robert Thirsk, our very own Chancellor, who did this same transition during the 1983 selection process.

Q: Is there anything you would have done differently in your career/education choices?

A: I would not do anything differently. I truly believe in seizing opportunities that arise and to keep challenging yourself. Every experience I have had has allowed me to look at the next step in a different light. There’s no one path in life and this is made very evident by the other astronaut candidates I have met. We all have very different backgrounds (albeit all in STEM and/or medicine) as engineers, pilots, researchers, family/emergency doctors — but the one thing we have in common is that we are passionate about our jobs and have a sense of curiosity. 

Q: Have you read or seen The Martian? Would you have done anything differently than Matt Damon?

A: I think it’s a great movie and that Matt Damon did his very best considering his circumstances. I’m excited to have the possibility of exploring our solar system — but do hope that something like this doesn’t happen to me!