20 Questions with Stuart Gill

Published on July 6, 2013
Stuart Gill, formerly an employee at the European Space Agency, is now a medical student at Memorial University. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

Stuart Gill does not consider himself a public figure. He is, however, undoubtedly one of the most accomplished medical school students in the province.

Gill seemed right at home as he answered The Telegram’s 20 Questions at the St. John’s Health Sciences Centre. But he has only been at Memorial University for one year, since leaving his science fiction-style job as flight controller and biomedical engineer for the International Space Station (ISS).

“Ever since I was a child I was fascinated with space, with astronauts, with Captain Kirk and space science fiction,” Gill said.

Gill settled into an engineering degree at MUN after high school, but never gave up his outer space dreams.

During his undergraduate studies, he met a young woman — now his wife — who lived in Germany, so he knew he had to get to Europe. After graduation, he found the master’s program that would become his ticket.

“I ended up going to a university in Strasbourg, France, called the International Space University (ISU), which sounds like something straight out of a comic book, but it’s a real thing,” Gill said.

“After you come out of ISU you can end up in weather satellites, or communication satellites, or deep space probes, but I really wanted to work with astronauts because of this dream I had as a child, right? And there are not a lot of jobs for a biomedical engineer dealing with astronauts, except in the ISS program.”

The dream job would involve engineering, real-time support, immediate contact with astronauts and medical care. He wanted to be the person on the ground who would monitor a mission to ensure nothing went wrong — the “Houston, we have a problem” person, as he put it.

And apparently there was only one place in Europe where he could do exactly that: working in Cologne, Germany, for the ISS, two hours away from his future wife.

“A little bit of luck and a lot of effort, and I got a job there,” Gill said.

“I became one of the only five or six people in Europe who did the job I had wanted to do.”

After working for the ISS for seven years, he still loved it. But by then he had developed new dreams and ambitions, and decided to travel home to Newfoundland to pursue a medical degree.

“That’s always been a theme in my life, you know, follow your dreams. And if your dreams are impossible, then tailor them a little bit to make them possible, and follow those,” Gill said.

What is your full name?

Stuart Adrian Gill.

Where and when were you born?

In St. John’s in November 1978.

Where is home today?

St. John’s.

What is your profession?

My profession right now is student at Memorial’s faculty of medicine, so my future profession will be a medical doctor. The profession I left in order to come to medical school was ISS flight controller and biomedical engineer. The biomedical engineer profession designs machines that have to interact with the human body. In my case it was machines that interact with the astronauts’ bodies. I worked very closely with the medical doctors of the European astronauts at the European Space Agency. Another part of my job was to sit on a flight control console, as we call it, to monitor real-time missions in order to ensure the astronauts on the space station were executing their mission appropriately. If there were any problems, we’d be the ones to help solve them.

What was the most challenging thing about your job as an ISS flight controller?

Always being prepared for imminent danger. The act of space flight is an inherently dangerous thing. We are taking humans, we are putting them on top of a rocket which is basically a directed and controlled explosion, to put people at an extremely high speed into orbit. Then, when they’re in orbit surrounded by the vacuum of space they’re undergoing these amazing temperature fluctuations that are both too hot and too cold for human life, so we have to keep them safe within a pressurized vessel. That vessel is extremely fragile from an engineering point of view, since it has to be light to fly to space. And as a flight controller you are expected to have the answers. Which means if a crew mate or an astronaut calls down to the ground and says, “Houston, we have a problem,” there has to be somebody on the ground who knows the answer. As a medical flight controller, you are responsible for the medical devices that support the astronauts, and you are the eyes and ears of the medical doctors for their patients who are flying in space. So you have to have nerves of steel in case something actually does go bad, such as a depressurization, or a fire onboard, or a micrometeoroid hit, or a solar flare shooting cancer-causing radiation towards Earth. You always have to be prepared.

If you were a superhero or a comic book character, who would you be and why?

I’d have to be Superman. Flying around, being super strong? That’s excellent. Being able to go to space, you know, without having to worry about breathing or anything? Basically I’d have to be Superman, for the simple fact that he can fly anywhere he wants.

What made you decide to move back

to St. John’s?

Well, I was following a dream, to get into the human space flight industry in Cologne, Germany, and I achieved that dream. It’s hard to imagine anybody reaching their dream job and quitting it to move home. But I did. I missed my family, and I wanted to live in Newfoundland. And I kind of combined that with my own changing dream. While working with astronauts I ended up working very closely with medical doctors, and one day I realized I wanted to be involved in the most intimate part of medical support, which is behind the clinic door. As a biomedical engineer, you are always excluded from the closest contact with the patient. So I said offhand to one of my friends, who was also a medical doctor-engineer combination, “I wish I could be in there with you.” He said, “You should definitely go back to medical school.” And I was ready for something new and exciting. But first and foremost I moved to be close to family. And to bring my wife back, to experience living in my home, with me.

What was one act of rebellion

you committed as a youth?

The classic one, jumping over the fence at a public pool and skinny dipping at night with my friends.

What was your favourite year?

2000. That was the turning point for me. I was still in engineering, and I had an engineering work term in Oslo, Norway. It was my first international experience, being immersed in a country where I didn’t speak the language, made friends with people from a dozen different countries and got the bug — the international travel bug. It was there that I met my wife as well.

What’s your favourite food?

Pizza. But not just your run-of-the-mill pepperoni. I like to have an experimental pizza. One of the most memorable pizzas I ever tried had pear on it. The Europeans are a little bit more adventurous than North Americans when it comes to pizza.

Who would play you in a movie

about your life?

I don’t know. Maybe that guy from “Dawson’s Creek.” But only because a lot of people told me that I used to look like the guy from “Dawson’s Creek,” back when I had hair.

If you were an animal,

what would you be?

No one has asked me that before. Probably a dog. Some sort of graceful, trustworthy dog, like a greyhound or something.

What’s the coolest thing

you’ve ever done?

It’s a toss-up. It’s between watching a rocket launch from the Amazon jungle in South America, in the state of French Guiana near the city of Kourou, which is where the Ariane 5 rocket launches, or flying in a parabolic flight from Bordeaux in France. It’s the only place on Earth where you can experience microgravity, or weightlessness, for about 20 seconds at a time. The plane kind of throws you up in the air so that you’re skydiving within the plane, and then catches you again on the other side of a parabola. And for that moment in time, you’re like Superman. You’re floating off the ground, you can flip around, or fly through the air, or just hover. It’s a lot of fun.

What’s the strangest thing

that’s ever happened to you?

Myself and my wife were visiting friends in Switzerland, and they took us on a day trip to a mountain. We drove out to the middle of the Alps, and took this ski lift up to the peak of a mountain, looking out over this majestic landscape. We were hanging out up there for a little while and then, when I turn around, here is a woman walking towards me, my mother’s best friend from St. John’s. Happened to be at the very same time, on the very same peak of the very same mountain in Switzerland as I was. Both of us travelling internationally, me from Germany and her from Canada, ended up at the same time on top of this mountain. And we had a grand old catchup right there. Had a cup of tea, had a chat. I mean, what are the chances?

Could you name one thing people might not know about outer space?

Space is huge. The distances are literally astronomical. Things are so far apart. And in order for things to travel from one place to another it takes an extremely long time. With the most advanced technology we could imagine at this point, if we sent a crew of people from our star to the nearest star, before they ever got there it would be a completely different group of people because it would take longer than a human life. So science fiction has given us excellent imaginations, but it has also misled us.

Has anybody in your life

been an inspiration to you?

After working with this amazing group of people who have been literally hand picked at the highest standards of any job in the world, I’d have to say that the astronauts who I consider my friends are the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met. These are people who are not only intelligent and motivated and great communicators, but they’re also caring and thoughtful and talented in so many other ways.

Do you have any hidden talents?

People are always amazed when I show them how I can wiggle my ears. I’m pretty good. I can do left and right on demand.

What is your most treasured possession?

Two things come to mind: first, my photos. They are my memories. Second, I have this textbook about clinical space flight medicine, written by an astronaut, that was given to me as a gift when I left the European Space Agency. It is signed by all of the astronauts whose missions I supported throughout the years. They wrote some really warm things. That, for me, is my space career summed up in an object.

What has been your

greatest accomplishment so far?

Either landing my dream job at the European Space Agency, or getting into medical school. And considering the amount of work that I’ve had to do in my first year, I think graduating from medical school is going to be the greatest accomplishment I will have done, in four years.

Who is one person, living or deceased, you’d love to have lunch with?

I’d choose a classic scientist or philosopher who was expanding the envelope of human knowledge at a very early stage, so someone like Socrates. Or Galileo Galilei, who was looking at the stars and trying to figure out what was going on up there just by observing. We take all this for granted, but someone had to discover this stuff, right? I think I’d like to have lunch with Galileo.