Reaching for the Stars

with Rebecca Blue, MD (M’08)

Dr. Rebecca Blue’s journey to Georgetown began much earlier than most. By the age of seven, Blue knew she wanted to work for a space program and decided medicine was how she was going to get there. At eleven, she won a scholarship to attend space camp in Kansas, making her one of the youngest campers to ever attend. This experience solidified her interests in aerospace medicine and fueled her desire to learn as much as she could about space. She read book after book, worked odd jobs for two years and finally by age 14 had saved enough money to attend an advanced space camp at Johnson Space Center.

After earning her undergraduate degree in biology from Truman State University in Missouri, Blue began looking at medical schools, focusing on the East Coast, where she believed the best were concentrated. During her visit to Georgetown School of Medicine, she recalls very clearly the moment in the fishbowl that sold it for her.

“It was the speech on cura personalis that each prospective student hears,” she explains. “In that moment I began thinking to myself, ‘What kind of doctor do I want to be?’ I knew I loved science and could handle the academics, but what I really wanted was to learn more about treating the whole person, not just the disease.” The school’s unique mission and guiding principle made Georgetown her top choice.

Like Blue’s path to Georgetown, her time as a student was just as unique. In her first and second years, she took classes on international culture and became interested in how medicine is practiced in other countries, and what are the expectations for care in different cultures. Curious about the role that physicians play to accommodate these differences in patient care, Blue applied for and received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University College of Dublin in Ireland. The program required her to take a year off from medical school between her second and third years.

“Georgetown embraced my decision to go to Ireland,” she says. “Dr. Mitchell and other deans helped me organize a leave of absence and made sure that I had all the resources I needed to be successful.”

Through the Fulbright program, Blue was able to design her own study plan, focusing on international health policy and the differences between countries. 

“At the time, there was a lot of activity in the health policy arena. Ireland had opened its borders as a member of the European Union, and as a result was forced to develop its human protection and health laws specifically for children and immigrants,” she explains. Blue ultimately received her Higher Diploma in Social Policy before returning to Georgetown to finish her medical degree.

Through all of these experiences, her focus and commitment to becoming a flight surgeon had not wavered.

Knowing that most successful flight surgeons were trained in one other field of medicine, she pursued a residency in emergency medicine. Blue matched at Orlando Regional Medical Center, which happened to be the primary response center for any space shuttle launch- or landing-related emergency at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. In February of her first year of residency, she attended a training program at Kennedy Space Center for emergency responders for space flight. Determined to find a way back to Kennedy, after much perseverance she secured herself a position on the Launch & Landing Medical Support Team. In this role, Blue was present for the last nine shuttle launches there.

Blue went on to complete her residency in aerospace medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), followed by two years at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There she helped provide medical support to the six astronauts living on the International Space Station (ISS) year round. Her team conducted routine medical conferences with the ISS astronauts to address potential concerns. Fire, toxic environment and decompression pose the biggest threats to an astronaut’s safety while in space, says Blue.

Presently, Blue wears a number of hats on a day-to-day basis. “I work as an emergency physician at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, and I’m associated with the Preventative Medicine & Community Health Division at UTMB,” she says. “I mentor current residents in the UTMB aerospace program and serve as a research lead for aerospace medicine. And I’m a flight surgeon for Virgin Galactic, the first commercial spaceline.”

Blue’s work for Virgin Galactic includes helping improve vehicle safety, focusing on triage coordination and emergency response planning, as well as some customer service with future passengers.

“My favorite part of my job is the number of incredible opportunities that have been given to me—even the training I have received,” says Blue. “I’ve been put into spacesuits, space capsules, centrifuges and simulators. I’ve undergone various water, winter and heat survival courses, and had parachute and flight training! Not to mention being sent all over the world for support and operational events. In this line of work, we often catch ourselves saying, ‘I can’t believe they let us do this!’” 

At this point in her career, Blue credits a great deal of her success to her experiences at Georgetown. “Everyone at the School of Medicine was so accepting of the nontraditional way. The faculty at Georgetown recognized and encouraged those differences and in my case, really helped me to explore opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

In many ways, Blue’s Georgetown experience influences the way she conducts herself in her current roles. “The education I received at Georgetown has helped me evaluate the kind of educator I want to be. I consciously try to recognize and embrace the difference in those I work with. The level of care and consideration you experience and learn at Georgetown is a rare thing, and it’s ultimately what sets Georgetown-educated physicians apart.” 

By Kate Corboy