'Space Gynaecologist' Dr Varsha Jain is the menstrual health champion we need
Taking vagina activism to new frontiers
Meet Dr. Varsha Jain, the ‘Space Gynaecologist’. She sounds like a superhero. You can picture her jumping through a window, cape fluttering behind her as brandishes a speculum (it looks like a gun anyway). The title was given to her in an interview and “honestly, I should have it on my business card,” she laughs.
Jain, Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Human and Applied Physiological Sciences (CHAPS) at King’s College, London, had an early fascination with physics which brewed her love for outer space. Interest in medicine developed with time. She combined the two with her research in the very specific field of reproductive health in space for NASA. Today, the London-based obstetrician and gynaecologist explains her day job, saying, “The doctors for astronauts are either what we call flight surgeons, who look after the astronaut’s overall health, or you can be involved academically, where they research astronaut health. This means you’re offering the best evidence for these flight surgeons to provide health care for the astronauts. Or for the astronauts themselves to make decisions about their health.”
Being of Indian descent, I wondered if the cultural taboo around sex and menstruation persisted in the diaspora as well. “I love my family and I know they’ve done their absolute best to raise me, but yes, there are definitely myths in our culture. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Indian in India or you’re an Indian outside of India, the myths follow you.”
The makings of a master
Though female reproductive health was not dinner table conversation at the Jain household, “the more I learnt about menstruation and science, I felt that there’s nothing I cannot communicate with the men in my life,” she recalls. “Why am I hiding these conversations? Because it’s shameful? Break the myths by having genuine conversations and using the correct terminology.”
I first read about her work when I was researching astronauts menstruating in space, something she has looked into extensively. The space element that comes into her work is within the division of space medicine,” she explains.
What does a space gynaecologist even do?
Life above Earth is just like it is on it – men and women experience it differently. In space, though, it’s minor disparities, says Jain. From approximately 600 people that have been to space, just over 60 have been women. The pool that Jain and the rest of the team have to work with is not large.
“The female body experiences motion sickness on entering the space environment, however men experience sickness on coming back to Earth. Once they’re back on solid ground, women are not able to maintain their blood pressure as well so they may have fainting episodes. Another important one is, men experience more vision problems and hearing loss in space than women. We don’t know why women seem to be protected,” she explains. Though none of this impacts the astronaut’s safety and ability to work in space, she iterates.
So how does a menstrual cycle play out in space? “It’s exactly the same,” she says matter of factly. There are 2 toilets on the International Space Station where the astronauts work and live. Water waste is recycled into drinking water, she explains, but blood is considered solid matter and therefore water waste mixed with blood is dumped—it cannot be recycled.
“Everything, in terms of tampons and pads, are available for astronauts if they want to have periods in space. If they need to change their sanitary product whilst they are in space, I would imagine it to be tricky,” she laughs. She gives an example of changing in a public toilet. You’re struggling to squat, there’s a limited amount of space and you’re trying to balance holding onto everything (and yourself). Now imagine doing this in zero gravity.
Onwards and upwards
The current question keeping this space gynaecologist occupied is something most women experience in their lives but there’s no clear cause for it. The PhD she’s doing as Wellbeing of Women Clinical Research Fellow, at Medical Research Council — Centre for Reproductive Health in Edinburgh delves into heavy bleeding.
“We don’t understand exactly why women are bleeding heavily. I’m looking at what’s happening in the lining of the womb to cause it to bleed heavily, when the conditions that are changing the womb are actually found in the muscle layer of the womb,” she explains, “All the medicines we’re giving these women are affecting the lining of the womb. So if we don’t know what the changes are, how can we provide the best medicine?”