From student to astronaut: developing the skills to understand the world

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is looking to our left, smiling and giving the thumbs-up signal.  He is wearing a Russian cosmonaut Sokol KV2 space suit, without the gloves and with the helmet visor raised.
(Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Postsecondary students and postdoctoral researchers play a crucial role in the Canadian research ecosystem by pushing back the boundaries of knowledge. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) firmly believes that their discoveries and innovations help to make Canada a healthier, more equitable, more prosperous country.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques received support from NSERC when he was a student and a young researcher, so he was happy to talk with us about his education and career. Dr. Saint-Jacques told us about how he understands the world, the skills that he acquired when he was a student and still uses today, and the advice that he would offer students who want to pursue careers in aerospace.

Dr. Saint-Jacques, can you give us an overview of the academic training and professional career that led to your participation in the longest space mission to date for a Canadian astronaut?

Basically, I’m an engineer, like my father and grandfather. That’s the foundation of my career and my way of approaching the world. I studied engineering physics at Polytechnique Montréal in the late 1990s, then worked as an engineer for a small Quebec-based company designing biomedical equipment in Paris. I also received several NSERC awards that enabled me to do applied research during the summers when I was a student.

After completing my bachelor of engineering, I received an NSERC graduate scholarship, which enabled me to study abroad. You can defer this scholarship to take a job, which is what I did, then began my graduate studies a year later. Thanks to NSERC’s support, I was able to do my doctorate in astrophysics at Cambridge University. In what may have been a sign of things to come, I also received a supplemental scholarship from the Canadian Space Agency. After that, I worked as an astronomer for a few years while doing a postdoc in Japan, and then here in Montreal.

Next I went back to school again and did my medical degree at Université Laval, followed by my medical residency at McGill. I worked as a medical doctor at various locations in Quebec. Some time later, when the Canadian Space Program was conducting its third astronaut-recruitment campaign, I submitted my application. And that’s how I ended up on board a Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station, where I spent the six months from December 2018 to June 2019.

The support provided to students plays an integral role in Canada's research success. NSERC had the honour of supporting you during your studies in engineering and astrophysics through the awards and scholarships that you mentioned. How important has NSERC’s support been to you over the course of your career?

Without the NSERC undergraduate awards, I probably wouldn’t have been able to obtain summer jobs in the field of engineering that I was studying. The NSERC graduate scholarships that I received enabled me to study abroad, which always costs much more than staying in Canada. Thanks to the flexibility that these scholarships offered, I was able to go to the specific university that I wanted, to study the specific subject that I had in mind.

Securing funding for your studies and completing them are always daunting tasks, so it was great to have a scholarship that gave me so much latitude and flexibility.

Are there any skills and knowledge that you acquired as a student and have since applied in your daily life or during your mission in space?

All astronauts are engineers or at least think like engineers. That’s the outlook they need: a theoretical understanding of the physical universe together with a practical mindset. In terms of learning, I think that my years as a researcher have given me a certain confidence that if I make the effort, I can understand a fair amount—that even if something is complicated or intimidating, if I try hard enough, I can get to the bottom of it.

In a way, that’s what earning a Ph.D. is all about. It’s like getting a driver’s licence for academia. You show that you can tackle a problem that nobody has ever solved before. In the process, you gain the confidence that no matter what intellectual task you may face in future, you’ll be able to handle it if you make the effort. I think that this kind of confidence comes in part from having done graduate studies.

You’re well known not only as an astronaut, but also for your enthusiasm in communicating about science to young Canadians. Can you tell us a bit about your activities to raise awareness of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and then about your passion for scientific communication?

That’s not how I see it from the inside. I see it as my need to share my experience. My astronaut training, my experience in space and most of all the perspective that all that provides about our life on Earth—I can’t keep all that to myself. It’s so exceptional!

Whenever I speak in public, I keep in mind the dual message that I want to convey: the environmental issues and the tremendous geopolitical problems that we face are serious, but they are not insurmountable. Space exploration gives us not only a perspective on our home planet floating in the void, but also on our obligation to find solutions. It’s easy to be anxious about what’s happening on Earth. That’s why I think that international space exploration is a reassuring demonstration that human beings can work together and accomplish superhuman feats.

I love science and technology, and I love talking about them, but I think that there are other ways to make a contribution. Human progress comes not only from science, but also through the arts and exploration, so there’s room for everybody! I have a special place in my heart for science and technology. I’ve always been interested in them. They’re my hobby and the way that I make sense of the world. Nowadays, science and technology have become so important that everyone must have at least a general knowledge of them. I therefore set myself the challenge of understanding scientific concepts so that I can then explain them.

Do you have any advice for students who want to pursue careers in aerospace?

Lots of people dream of becoming astronauts. The idea intrigued me when I was young, but I didn’t know how I’d go about it. Since I’ve become an astronaut, however, I’ve observed a few things that all astronauts have in common.

First of all, nobody starts out by studying to become an astronaut; it’s always a second or third career. Astronauts are people who excel in their first careers. And the only way to get that far is to do something you love. You shouldn’t be looking for a direct path; first, you should be finding happiness in your professional life.

Second, all astronauts are in good health and good physical shape. They take care of their bodies. Whatever you want to do in life, whatever your dream, you’re going to need your body to achieve it. I think that everyone should take good care of themselves physically.

Lastly, astronauts are reliable. We don’t just apply our intellectual knowledge. We also perform practical tasks, take responsibility and meet our commitments. It’s just like when you’re sailing or rock climbing: there’s something tangible at stake, and other people will be depending on what you do. When you’re in an environment where you have to make decisions without complete information, you have to make them quickly and live with the consequences. Decision-making is a skill that you have to practice and maintain. I think that’s probably the most important thing.

What kinds of careers are available in the aerospace sector?

I see aerospace as a sector where you can apply knowledge in a field that you love. What’s important is to find something that interests you. To succeed, you definitely have to work hard, but most of all, you have to find something that you feel fundamentally passionate about. It might be engineering, or science, or math, or management—there are people from all of these backgrounds working in aerospace.

You also need to broaden your horizons. The aerospace field is planetary. You mustn’t be afraid to break out of your bubble and grow. What’s special about aerospace is that it often involves large-scale projects with a government and international component. This is an interesting aspect of the work, which is an odd hybrid: the ideal employee is both an engineer and a manager. He or she can communicate effectively and understand how government operates. It’s a great, fast-growing, multidisciplinary environment, and a good one to dream about working in.

My role now at the Canadian Space Agency is somewhat that of a mentor, so I’m constantly working with student interns and young engineers at the start of their careers. It’s a way not only of recruiting staff but also of preparing the next generation to take over. For example, one of the projects that we’re working on right now involves developing the vehicles that Canada will be supplying for lunar exploration in about 10 years and that will still be operating 30 years from now. There are so many long-term projects in the aerospace sector that recruitment is one of our main concerns. We try to figure out what we can do so that someone who is 12 years old now will later decide to become an engineer and study the right field. Students are our main resource!

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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