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Norm Thagard, MD

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Dr. Thagard draws upon his medical education and Vietnam combat experience to work at NASA.

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Norm Thagard

Medical School: University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas
Residency: Medical University of South Carolina
Specialty: Internal Medicine
United States Astronaut Hall of Fame Inductee
Director, EMS Technologies, Inc.

How did you incorporate your medical education and experience in to your work at NASA?

I was assigned to my first mission, STS-7, specifically to study space motion sickness, which has adversely impacted a previous space shuttle mission.

Do you believe that serving in the military prepared you for medical school? 

Serving as a Marine Corps officer certainly reinforced the notion that self-discipline improves one’s ability to succeed, especially in demanding environments or programs.

From another aspect, the fact that I had been a fighter pilot portended probable success in medical school.  I state this based on the fact that our psychiatry professor in a lecture my freshman year in medical school posed the question to our class: “The members of what profession do you suppose have the highest average I.Q.?”  Of course, we all answered “The medical profession.”  The answer, to our surprise was “Fighter pilots.”  It reminded me that of the 60 or so fellow fighter pilots who were my squadron mates in three years of flying F4 Phantoms, at least three of us, including myself, had gone on to become physicians; one at Duke, one at UTMB, and myself at UT Southwestern—and those are just the three of whom I am aware; there may have been others.  Of course, this is a rate far higher than the rate from the general population.

What led to your interest in medical school? Who or what inspired you? 

Throughout K-12, I was the top student, academically, in my class, graduating as valedictorian of my high school senior class in 1961.  Consequently, my family and even some of my teachers assumed that medical practice would be a likely career.

In addition, biology seemed to be a natural field for me; while I could make good grades in math and the natural sciences, I had to work at it whereas I did well with almost no effort in life science subjects.  In a standardized test administered in the tenth grade, I scored at the 99th percentile level on the biology portion and my teacher told me I had five more correct answers than required to reach that percentile.  She suggested that I would likely do well in the medical profession.

Did you participate in special programs such as volunteer work, study abroad or research opportunities before or during medical school?

I received a B.S. degree in engineering science (electrical engineering option) in less than four years, graduating with 160 semester hours and a second major in math.

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years and again between my junior and senior years, I was required to attend six weeks of Marine Corps officer training at Quantico, Virginia.  Following graduation, I entered graduate school, receiving an M.S. degree in engineering science.  Two days after oral defense of my thesis, I went on active duty at NASA Pensacola to begin flight training.

Three weeks after completing my tour in the Marine Corps, I again entered graduate school in a doctoral program in engineering science, only to have the School of Engineering Science at Florida State University terminated after completing five quarters of Ph.D. course work.  That was the event that impelled me to switch professions from engineering to medicine and to seek admission to medical school.

In short, I had no opportunity, given my studies and military obligation, to participate in special programs, unless flying 163 combat missions in Viet Nam in 1969 is considered a special program. 

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

The intellectual challenge. Diagnosing a sick patient, given limited information, was very stimulating.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

I would first assure them that there are no bad medical schools in the U.S., so wherever they attend they’ll receive an excellent medical education.  Secondly, if cost is a factor, choose the lower-cost school unless there is a compelling reason to choose otherwise.  For example, I was accepted to all four of the University of Texas’ medical schools and to Emory.  While Emory was my personal preference, its tuition was eight times higher than the U.T. schools.  For that reason, I selected U.T. Southwestern because it had the reputation as the best of the four U.T. schools.

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?

I am a big believer in perseverance.  From my own experience, I know that despite obstacles, it is often possible to reach one’s goals nonetheless.  For many, medical school admission is a “stretch goal.”  Those are the best kind, since they force one to put forth his or her absolute best effort—and those are the kind of people you want to see in the medical profession.

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