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Dwight Holland, MD ’08, PhD

Explorer. Warrior-Scientist. Aerospace Systems Flight Researcher. Diplomat, Cross-cutter MD/PhD.  These are just a few of the many hats Dwight Holland, MD ’08, PhD, has worn.

Originally from Roanoke, Va., Holland’s career path began as a geophysicist, having studied the field at Virginia Tech. Through connections there, he took part in a scientific expedition in Antarctica and realized it was analogous to human performance in long-duration space flight. “I became fascinated by my physiological and other human factors responses to the cold, the thick gloves, group dynamics, computer interfacing, etc.”” he recalls.

Upon returning from Antarctica, he decided to pursue pilot training in the Air Force after a reserve squadron offered him a slot. After multiple attempts where he narrowly failed the vision test, he persevered and was finally accepted. During training, he learned even more about human factors in aerospace medicine. “With Antarctica as a background, it got me really interested in medicine as it applied to exploration, engineering, flight tests, space and ergonomics,” Holland says.

After completing pilot training and going back in the reserves, he began working as an ergonomics engineer at General Electric (GE) in a job aimed at preventing injuries in the workplace using applied medicine and human factors. He created the first prototype ergonomics program for GE, and it became a part of Corporate Policy. “All of this lead to the universe telling me to go to med school,” he says.

During his first two years at the UVA School of Medicine in the mid-90s, Holland finished his Masters in Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. He received notice for his research projects and was asked to consider an MD/PhD track. He worked with faculty leaders at UVA to leave after his second year of medical school for a PhD program in Human Factors and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech, where he was awarded a prestigious Cunningham Fellowship.

Not long after finishing his PhD program at Virginia Tech, Holland was called up by the Air Force Reserves in response to the events of 9/11. As a USAF reserve officer, he served almost 30 active call-ups in support of various missions around the world from 2001-2005. During that time, he received many honors, including Officer of the Year by the USAF/AFRL International Office for helping promote cooperation in the Balkans region at the NATO level, and taught as the first-ever reserve officer instructor at the US Navy Test Pilot School.

It was in 2006 that Holland was able to finally return to UVA to finish the clinical year in the UVA MD program he had started more than 10 years earlier. He graduated in 2008, and then moved on to a transitional residency at Roanoke’s Carillion Health System, where he trained mostly in internal medicine but also had exposure to the ER, trauma surgery, neurology, ophthalmology, and other specialties.

“Now, if I was deployed to a remote environment, I could handle most stuff that came in the door as a first-level MD responder,” he recalls. “The time finishing at UVA and the transitional residency year was brutal because I was also the chief of human systems integration (HSI) at Air Combat Command at the time and an attached instructor at Air Force Test Pilot School. Those two or three years were exhausting.” His personal experiences, as well as his research into the impact of fatigue on human performance, would later lead him to co-author an award-winning study that was cited in part to justify changes in resident work hours made in the late 2000s.

In the years that followed, Holland’s career did anything but slow down. In 2012, he was named a Field Grade Officer of the Year at the USAF Test Pilot School/Edwards Flight Test Center for re-designing the USAF Human Factors in Flight Test curriculum and other accomplishments such as co-managing the first-ever high performance physiologic and human factors studies in data jets at very high Gz while comparing them to centrifuge runs – all with new “full coverage” anti-G suits. He and colleagues also successfully advocated for NASA to change its medical space flight standards so that people who had refractive surgery corrections would not be disqualified from applying as mission specialist astronauts like he had been, leading to thousands of new people now qualified to be considered as NASA astronauts.  Holland also co-authored the NASA-sponsored book Breaking the Mishap Chain which received much critical acclaim and was cited as a featured “Book to Buy” in a review by Smithsonian’s Air and Space editors.

“Without having a fantastic UVA medical education in my quiver of arrows, I could not have connected the dots to get people to say ‘yes’ to these first-ever types of things that I did,” he says. “It gave me the capability and credibility to delve into these aerospace medicine and human performance issues and help directly save lives due to better human systems integration (HSI) in the Air Force and the Department of Defense.”

Holland is the first to admit that it wasn’t an easy path, and that faculty changes at both institutions over the many years he was a student sometimes led to considerable challenges. He gives credit to his supporters at both institutions for making a complicated dual-degree work. At UVA, they included his main advisor, Greg Saathoff, MD; his early advisor, Barry Hinton, PhD; UVA School of Medicine Dean Arthur J. Garson, Jr., MD; and mentor Kenneth Tuck, MD ‘58.

“A guy doesn’t get made across two schools that are ‘rivals’ on his own. It really does take a village of well-intentioned people willing to go to bat,” Holland says. “In this case, it took compromise by both schools to be able to allow me to do the later ground-breaking work that I hoped I could do.”

That work has introduced him along the way to pioneers like Neil Armstrong, who Holland interviewed just months before the astronaut’s death. He was also friends with two astronauts who became friends and mentors— Dave Brown, MD, and Sonny Carter, MD — who both died in NASA-related events.

As he continues his work in aerospace medicine and (HSI), Holland notes that the field is not just about avoiding mishaps. “It’s also about getting the best dollar for your buck out of the system efficiency-wise to fix an accident that occurred or re-create the engineering that was bad due to a lack of good systems engineering, including aerospace medicine and HSI,” he explains.

Holland is currently working on his next book, which will offer lessons learned in HSI over the past century and share case studies from explorations of the earth, skies and space. He also continues his consulting as the co-founder and principal of the Human Systems Integration Associates and works part-time as a certified professional ski instructor.

His career path may not have been traditional, but Holland nonetheless empathizes with current students and alumni who feel sometimes like they’re not thriving. “Just by surviving to live to ‘fight’ on a better day, they’re thriving,” he says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

His advice to those early in their medical career is to choose a field that they’re passionate about and committed to on a personal and professional level.

“My life fundamentally has been about making better systems work for people, while trying to push the boundaries of exploration on Earth or space. And, to try to use science and technology to do good on this Spaceship Earth and try to help those that are disenfrancished, weak, or sick.  At heart, I have a spiritual warrior-scientist, chivalric-like approach to life that I try hard to follow,” Holland says.