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Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Nunneley

Sarah Nunneley, M.D., M.S., the first woman to complete a residency in aerospace medicine, stands in front of a historic hyperbaric chamber, which was used to treat cases of decompression sickness resulting from altitude experiments

Feeling the pull of aerospace medicine

As a young doctor in aerospace medicine, Sarah Nunneley, M.D., M.S., didn’t want merely to observe her study participants spinning in a human centrifuge. She wanted in.

For one study, Nunneley sat across from her study subjects in the centrifuge while drawing arterial blood samples. They spun at 3 Gs—or three times the normal gravitational pull—for six to eight minutes at a time. “By the way, I get motion sick fairly easily,” Nunneley adds.

But it was exactly what she had always wanted. Growing up with a father in aviation law and a mother who read science fiction to her, Nunneley dreamed of a career in aerospace.

By age 30, she had become the first woman to complete a residency in aerospace medicine and a year later was the first woman to be board certified in the field.

Nunneley, a member of the Medical School Class of 1967, spent the next 27 years studying how the human body reacts to aerospace-specific situations. She has conducted experiments on thermal stress, altitude, rapid decompression, acceleration, as well as varying combinations of these environmental factors to examine how they affect normal functioning. She also has served as a medical consultant and medical monitor for NASA-funded studies intended to simulate astronaut activities.

“I would go around thinking, ‘They are paying me to do this, and I would have done it just for fun!’” says Nunneley.

Breaking down barriers

During medical school, Nunneley considered specializing in a number of fields. After spending two summers working in the University’s Division of Pediatric Cardiology, learning that seemingly simple measurements of rates, pressures, flows, and oxygen saturations could help explain complex physiological functions, she became more interested in physiology.

But when she decided to apply for residencies in aerospace medicine, Nunneley hit a glass ceiling. She wrote to the navy—as most people in the field train in the military, and her father had served in the navy during World War II—but naval officials told her that women weren’t allowed on ships.

Next she wrote to Harvard University, whose officials said they weren’t sure women were eligible for that residency.

The Ohio State University was different; officials there invited her for an interview and accepted her into the three-year program. Nunneley says her sex wasn’t an issue with the OSU faculty or her five male classmates.

“They were wonderful guys,” she says. “If there were doubters in the group, I never knew about it.”

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