Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Alumni Profile: Erik Antonsen


Alumnus Erik Antonsen, left, with his AE advisor, Emeritus Prof. Rod Burton
Alumnus Erik Antonsen, left, with his AE advisor, Emeritus Prof. Rod Burton
Dr. Erik Antonsen, who has earned three degrees from Aerospace Engineering at Illinois as well as a medical degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, has received AE’s 2017 Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award.

Antonsen earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in 1997, 2001, and 2004, respectively, then earned his MD in 2009. He holds numerous positions: he’s an Element Scientist for NASA Johnson Space Center’s Exploration Medical Capabilities in Houston; he’s an assistant professor for the Emergency Medicine arm of Baylor College of Medicine; and he’s a physician at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston.

After his AE undergraduate work, Antonsen worked as a graduate student in electric propulsion with now-Emeritus Prof. Rodney Burton. During that time he worked extensively at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California. His master’s and PhD work focused on developing experimental diagnostics to understand how pulsed plasma thrusters were operating so the research group could effectively model their interactions with spacecraft.

As a graduate student Antonsen applied to the Medical Scholars Program, Illinois’ MD/PhD development pathway. He finished his PhD work then started medical school, splitting his hours between fulltime medical school coursework and post-doc work under Prof. David Ruzic in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at Illinois.

Antonsen’s post-doctoral work, which continued for two and half years during medical school, focused on developing experimental diagnostics for extreme ultraviolet lithography. Medical school included coursework on campus and clinical work at local hospitals and clinics. Antonsen was awarded a National Institutes of Health Fogarty Fellowship in 2007 to spend a year doing HIV research in Zambia.

Upon finishing medical school Antonsen was accepted into a residency in Emergency Medicine at Harvard University, where he worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital for four years.

Completing his residency program in 2013, Antonsen took a position at Baylor College of Medicine as an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine with a co-appointment in the Center for Space Medicine as an assistant professor.

He started two companies to provide field medical support and medical consulting to high altitude projects. Antonsen worked as medical support for the Red Bull Stratos jump in 2012 and was the Field Medical Director for the StratEx high altitude jump in 2014. Both were record-breaking skydives from the stratosphere.

In 2015 Antonsen started at NASA as the Element Scientist for Exploration Medical Capabilities at Johnson Space Center. There he leads a team of engineers and medical professionals spread across four NASA centers to envision, design, and integrate the medical needs for human crews in upcoming exploration missions with spacecraft design and mission architectures.

Of the achievements throughout your career, please elaborate on the ones that have given you the most satisfaction and why?

In terms of awards I have always valued the teaching awards the most. I received an award for Teacher Ranked as Outstanding by their Students in 2007 when teaching physiology at the medical school. In 2013 I received the Senior Resident Teaching Award from Harvard and in 2016 I received the Outstanding Mentor Award from the Aerospace Medicine Student and Resident Organization. The ability to support students who are aspiring to work in this field is very important to me.

In terms of career accomplishments, my team was the first commercial group to medically support launch and landing of experimental high altitude crew in the StratEx mission in 2014. This was significantly different than government operations and required creativity and a high tolerance for innovation and risk. As the Field Medical Director my medical license was on the line. This raised my awareness of and investment in the challenges of experimental high altitude integration between medicine and engineering.

What have been the most useful lessons you have taken from your time as an AE student, and who helped you to learn them?

Being a product of two separate training pathways, I have become keenly aware of differences in how people in engineering and in medicine learn and process information. Many lessons are more clear in hindsight now than they were at the time I was in AE. Prof. Rodney Burton as my advisor put a significant investment of time and energy into educating me and working on bringing up my skills in a variety of areas to a professional level; not just in experimental work and design, but also in writing and editing, in speaking and engagement, and in how to communicate complex ideas. These lessons have served throughout my career. Prof. Lee Sentman helped me to value fundamental principles in how I approach problems. His courses in fluid dynamics and his focus on first principles and fostering the ability to derive approaches to problems has informed how I approach medical engineering work at NASA today. Prof. Wayne Solomon was head of the department at the time I was in graduate school. He challenged me to articulate how and why I was considering medical school after investing so many years in Aerospace Engineering. That articulation – an interest in merging disparate fields to advance human spaceflight in innovative directions – is now the expression of my career as I continue to build on the lessons I learned in the AE department.

What have been the most useful lessons you have learned during your career?

First, there is no right answer. There are a lot of wrong answers, but there are many ways to approach problems that can yield results. A systematic and disciplined approach is critical to solving a problem, but one should remain open to new ideas. Second, you can’t do everything yourself. With training to the doctoral level in two separate fields I have become keenly aware of my own limitations in knowledge and capability and the value of effective teamwork is more important than ever to me. Third, everyone is human. We all have lives to live and work can be a rewarding part of that but it is not everything. It is critical to take time for yourself and your family (and your sanity). More importantly perhaps, it is critical to allow that time and space for your teammates as well.

Who have been your inspirations, particularly in AE?

Within the AE department, Rod Burton, Lee Sentman, and Wayne Solomon come to mind for the reasons above. David Ruzic of NPRE has reminded me how important work-life balance is and (the importance of) taking care of your employees and teammates. (Emeritus Prof.) Harry Hilton comes to mind because he has redefined how long one can actually take pleasure in work beyond the typical retirement age. In the field of medicine, Stuart Harris at MGH, who is a mentor and wilderness medicine doctor; Ron Walls from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who helped guide me and was the first Harvard full professor in Emergency Medicine; and David Brown from MGH, who showed me new ways to teach and lead.

What advice can you offer current students?

Having been through training in two separate fields I became aware of a tendency of students to sometimes discount areas of required learning for a variety of reasons. Either they didn’t see the direct relationship to their expected career path or it was an area they didn’t understand as readily. In my own experience in engineering I didn’t care for dynamics as an undergraduate. Now I wish I had learned more of it. Similarly in medicine there were students who didn’t feel they needed to go as in depth in kidney physiology because they were planning to go into a different field of medicine. The advice is this:

When you are learning you don’t really have an appreciation of the applicability or importance of different areas of study to your later career. Have an open mind and learn as much as possible. You will never regret it.

Do you have any comments on or predictions for the future of your industry?

The human spaceflight industry is seeing something of a renaissance currently with the advent of commercial spaceflight and the successes of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, to name a few. Innovative approaches like landing the bottom portion of rockets back at a launch pad were considered unsolvable when I was an undergrad in the AE department. A commercial company delivering cargo to the Space Station and planning a trip to Mars were often considered out of the realm of possibility because of the state of the industry, the positions of the most powerful companies, and the level of interest in the field. The state of the industry today shows that we are often wrong about how the complexities of our industry will work out. Find the areas of work that inspire you and help to build those fields. Don’t let other people’s ideas of what makes sense or of what is realistic limit your innovation. If I had I wouldn’t be doing the jobs I am today.

Are there any other comments that you would like to make or insights you would care to share?

Seek out mentorship. Not only as you go through training but also afterwards. Formally asking for mentorship is a critical part of figuring out how you are going to approach challenges throughout your career. Having more experienced people to bounce things off as you face diverging pathways can help you make decisions that are right for you. And, when the time is right, be a mentor for people coming behind you on this path.