Onward, Upward, Over and Out: Serena Auñón-Chancellor,
Hispanic Hoosier Astronaut
By: Nick Buffie, DA-Colombia & USA
I am originally from Bloomington, Indiana – an area southwest of Indianapolis with a booming arts industry – but have spent a significant amount of time in Latin America. For the vast majority of Indiana’s history, Hispanic-Americans played a behind-the-scenes role in the cultural and economic life of the state – but that now appears to be changing. Between 2000 and 2017, the Hispanic share of the population more than doubled. As of 2016, the state’s Hispanic employment rate was 69.3 percent, far higher than the overall employment rate of 62.0 percent and the white employment rate of 62.6 percent; even if Hispanics once stood on the outside of the Hoosier economy, today they are as integrated as any other group of Americans.
One clear Hoosier success story (“Hoosiers” are people from Indiana) is Serena Auñón-Chancellor – a Hispanic doctor, engineer, and astronaut who was born in Indianapolis. Her parents are both Cuban, and her father immigrated to the United States in 1960. For this Hispanic Heritage Month, I would like to take a moment to honor this incredible Latina by sharing a few of her accomplishments and contributions to our nation.
Dr. Auñón-Chancellor has led a truly remarkable life. Her educational background is as dense as it is impressive: she has received a B.S. in electrical engineering from George Washington University, a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas Medical Branch, and a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
In 2009, she was selected as just one of nine people (out of an applicant pool of 3,500) to enter the NASA astronaut program. For one of her first assignments during her training period, Auñón-Chancellor helped NASA collect more than 1,200 meteorites from Antarctica over a two-month period. She participated in two NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) missions in 2012 and 2015 that involved deep-sea dives meant to simulate space exploration, and in June of this year, she launched into space for the first time to join five other astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). As the only female astronaut aboard the ISS, Auñón-Chancellor is just the thirteenth Hispanic and the sixty-first woman to enter space. She manages to combine her work as an astronaut with her work as a doctor, having served as both a flight surgeon and a deputy crew surgeon with NASA; she actually holds board certifications in both internal and aerospace medicine. These days Auñón-Chancellor can be seen tweeting about the important research being done at the ISS on diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Her academic and career accomplishments have resulted in a number of prestigious awards, including the United States Air Force Flight Surgeons Julian Ward Award (2009), the Outstanding UTMB Resident Award (2007), the William K. Douglas Award (2006), induction to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society (2005), and the Thomas N. and Gleaves James Award for Excellent Performance by a Third-Year Resident in Internal Medicine (2004). These personal achievements notwithstanding, Auñón-Chancellor has continued to focus on people less fortunate than herself, volunteering at a free medical clinic for the uninsured in Galveston, Texas.
Auñón-Chancellor stands as a shining example of Hispanic Hoosier achievement. Moreover, given the growth of Indiana’s Hispanic population as well as the economic success of many Hispanics in the state, I hope—and foresee—that there will be many more success stories like Auñón-Chancellor’s going forward.