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Sky is not the limit for NASA veterinarian
While the space shuttle makes its last flight, NASA vet says it will usher in a new era for space travel


DVM360 MAGAZINE


And Dunlap says being involved with those four missions were some of the most exciting times of his life.

"It was an opportunity to experience things that I would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise," he says. "It involved extensive travel—overseas and to multiple universities and colleges to visit labs and learn their experiments. It also involved flying in NASA aircraft and spending a large amount of time in mockup trainers which resemble the actual shuttle environments."

Finishing his two-year residency in 2000, Dunlap temporarily put NASA behind him and began working as a physician in emergency medicine at St. Bernard's Regional Medical Center in Jonesboro, Ark. What started as a moonlighting position during residency turned into the perfect job.

And if he wasn't busy enough in the hospital, one year after joining the ER, Dunlap accepted the position of chief veterinarian for NASA. Now he is responsible for a multitude of activities like ensuring that NASA complies with all federal laws and regulations regarding the care and use of laboratory animal medicine. He also trains crew members to take care of the animals that are present on the shuttle.

"I am also present for launch and landing for shuttle flights that have animal payload and will split time at NASA mission control with Terry Blasdel, DVM, of Johnson Space Center in Houston," he says. "We are available during flights that have animal payloads in the event that there is a problem or if the crew has any questions."

Dunlap says they are in the middle of some "pretty neat research—testing the toxicity of moon dust."

"We have taken actual moon dust and aerosolized it," he says. "We are exposing that to mice and testing to see how it affects them. If, and when, we go back to the moon, we want to make sure we do nothing to endanger humans."

Dunlap said the Kennedy Space Center has a state-of-the-art animal-care facility.

"We bring the animals—mostly mice—in a few weeks before launch. They have to be pathogen free, primarily for crew safety. It has been found that a human's immune system is depressed in space," he says. "There is a selection process (for the mice) to see who's fittest to fly."

Then, 24 hours before the flight, the animals are loaded into cages in a clean room. Dunlap has even been able to take the animals out to the launch pad several times.

"When I first started, people said it would not be possible to do both—practice medicine and NASA," he says. "But being in the ER allows me to be more flexible. I wouldn't be able to do this if I had my own practice."

Dunlap estimates he spends 50 percent of his time with NASA and 50 percent of his time in the emergency room.

"It gets a little complicated around launch time," he admits, adding, "I have been in the ER answering NASA questions. It certainly challenges your ability to multitask."

But to help with his sometimes crazy schedule—he is on the road at least once a month—Dunlap has a solid support system at NASA, in the ER and at home.

Besides Blasdel, Dunlap also relies on Alvin Moreland, DVM, at the Kennedy Space Center and Joanne Blum, DVM, at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Plus David Liskowski, PhD, helps with animal policy development at NASA headquarters.

Dunlap's wife Trudy, also a veterinarian, keeps things running smoothly at home.

After 10 years of balancing two careers, Dunlap said he would hate to make a choice between veterinary medicine and his work in the ER.

"I never dreamed I would be a NASA veterinarian," Dunlap says.

"Follow your dream. And don't ever, ever give up."


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Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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