Humans of the Year: Varsha Jain


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The Future of Space Travel Depends on Varsha Jain, Space Gynecologist

She helps female astronauts deal with life in space, including what to do about their periods.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who's on the International Space Station right now, spent 377 days total in space prior to this mission—the most of any US woman. It's a huge achievement. The reality is that very few women have done a long duration space mission (or flown into space at all). Of the 500-plus people who've flown into space since the dawn of manned space travel, in 1961, only about 11 percent have been women. Dr. Varsha Jain is working to change that. She's probably the rarest kind of doctor in the world: a "space gynecologist" who specializes in understanding how women's bodies respond to living in space, including what happens when you have your period in zero-G, and what astronauts who want to skip their periods can do to suppress it.


I recently called Jain in London UK, where she's based. "It's pretty unique," she agreed when I asked about her work. Based at King's College London, she has often travelled to Houston to work with the astronauts at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Her latest research, soon to be published, looks at the risk of female astronauts developing venous thromboembolism (a blood clot), which "is unknown at the moment," she said.

Just one of the toilets on the Space Station can accept blood

Getting your period in space is a challenge for a few reasons. For one thing, just one of the toilets on the Space Station can accept blood—the other one turns urine into drinking water. A lot of female astronauts understandably decide to take birth control pills continuously to suppress their periods, Jain told me, adding that in the Shuttle era, when missions tended to be shorter, they might strategically take pills to delay menstruation instead.

Researching astronauts is tricky enough, because so few humans have ever flown into space. When you're just looking at female astronauts, she said, it's an even smaller group. "We're looking at about 60 women, and that's in the history of humankind," she told me. Compare that to clinical trials that can include tens of thousands of people.

Jain has always been interested in space travel, she told me, and once she was in medical school and found out about space medicine she thought it'd be the "perfect career path," shifting her focus towards obstetrics and gynecology.


Her research on menstrual suppression has applications beyond female astronauts: it could help women in the military, or in other active fields of work (she cited archaeologists), as well as in developing countries, "where resources are limited."

Read More: Why We Desperately Need to Study More Female Astronauts

As commercial spaceflight opens up and more humans start to go into space, we'll need to better understand the specific health risks that women face—including radiation, to which they seem to be more susceptible than men.

But women are still vastly underrepresented in space, as are people of colour. If we want the humans of the future to really be spacefaring, we'll need to recruit and study a more diverse group of astronauts, because chances are that people will be impacted differently. And we need to better understand sex, childbirth, and even menstruation in space.

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