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Astronaut and Physician Robert Satcher Hopes to Prioritize Climate Change and Diversity

Astronaut and physician Robert L. Satcher, Jr. is running for a spot on the Board of Overseers on a campaign of prioritizing climate change, diversity, and Harvard's role in shaping higher education.
Astronaut and physician Robert L. Satcher, Jr. is running for a spot on the Board of Overseers on a campaign of prioritizing climate change, diversity, and Harvard's role in shaping higher education. By Courtesy of Robert Satcher
By Marina Qu, Crimson Staff Writer

In 2009, Board of Overseers candidate Robert L. Satcher, Jr. boarded the space shuttle Atlantis on a 10-day mission to the International Space Station, becoming the first orthopedic surgeon in space.

From 2004 to 2011, astronaut-physician Satcher worked for NASA, logging more than 259 hours in space.

Today, Satcher works as a physician and associate professor of orthopedic oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1994 after receiving his bachelor’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT in 1986 and 1993, respectively.

Satcher’s interest in joining the Board of Overseers stems from the “convergence” of issues that he claims currently face Harvard, including climate change, diversity, equity and inclusion, recent changes in leadership, and Harvard’s role in shaping higher education at large.

In terms of pushing Harvard to prioritize climate change, Satcher cited his background in chemical engineering and as an astronaut who had seen Earth from space.

“My commitment to the stewardship of the earth, of course, stems from the privilege that I had of being an astronaut and being able to see the Earth from space and from orbit and knowing what a precious resource it is for us that we have to work together to preserve,” he said.

Satcher said he is also committed to continuing Harvard’s efforts in educating the next generation of leaders and ensuring equitable representation.

During his time at HMS, Satcher said he had noticed that the faculty, relative to the student body, was significantly less diverse. To address this issue, Satcher worked with three other M.D.-Ph.D. students to write a white paper examining faculty diversity for then-Medical School Dean Daniel C. Tosteson.

“[The report] was instrumental in moving forward and establishing the Office of Diversity, which still is there and I think has done a great job in terms of keeping that issue appropriately in the forefront of considerations in terms of faculty hires at Harvard Medical School,” he said.

Satcher noted his efforts towards the establishment of what is now the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Partnership as one legacy he is “most proud of” leaving behind at Harvard.

Upon graduating from HMS, Satcher has continued to stay involved with the University as an alumni, giving talks at various alumni-sponsored events. Most recently, Satcher was chosen to speak at the Harvard Medical and Dental School’s 2020 virtual Class Day ceremonies.

“Coming back and talking to the graduates and being in that role was a pretty special experience,” Satcher said. “It was right in the midst of Covid.”

He noted that the pandemic backdrop brought even more attention to Harvard students and their leadership, particularly as graduating medical students prepared to enter the crisis-stricken health care workforce.

Having served in numerous roles at Harvard, even including as a former proctor in Pennypacker Hall, Satcher said he feels a commitment to contribute to Harvard as part of the Board of Overseers because of how transformative his experience had been.

“It’s not only the education,” Satcher said. “It’s just the thinking beyond and outside of traditional boundaries. It’s such a collection of fantastic people, doing things that you may not have ever thought or thought to do or thought to be possible.”

—Staff writer Marina Qu can be reached at marina.qu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MingyiQu.

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