Please tell us about yourself
I have never regretted my decision to become a radiation oncology medical physicist – I love coming to work in the morning. I wish that someone had told me medical physics was an option earlier on in my studies. You deal directly with patients and you can make a difference on a global scale. You also get to travel to conferences all over the world and meet interesting people who are doing amazing things. There are plenty of jobs and opportunities out there and you can work anywhere in the world. There is a lot of flexibility as well: you can do mostly clinical work or you can focus on research – it depends what you like to do, however you will always have to do some clinical work.
Radiation oncology medical physicists work behind the scenes in the clinic – ensuring patient safety and checking that all of the machines and software are working properly. However, a large part of our job is creating and inventing new ideas to improve treatments. There are not many jobs out there where you can create a new technique and see it being used to directly help people. As a scientist, this is very satisfying and rewarding.
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I have always loved maths and science and knew that’s what I wanted to study at university. I started off studying computer science at university but I really didn’t enjoy the work, so I decided to just do something I loved – physics. I started off by completing my bachelor of science in physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do medicine or medical physics but I was offered an internship as a medical physicist at the Vancouver Cancer Centre for a year and a half where I did research on prostate brachytherapy and published my first paper.
I enjoyed the work so much that I decided to do my masters of science in medical physics at the University of Saskatchewan. At the Saskatoon Cancer Centre, I worked in the clinic and studied for my degree at the same time, which gave me work experience and exposure to the many aspects of medical physics – not just Radiation Oncology but also Nuclear Medicine and Diagnostic Imaging. I was then offered a full scholarship at Monash University in Australia to complete my PhD in medical physics. This was an incredible experience and the project I worked on was amazing – I looked at a new technique that could be used to classify and diagnose breast cancer. During my PhD, I was able to travel to Europe and the United States to perform the experiments and really became part of an international community of research scientists.
Tell us about your career path
After completing my PhD, I was offered jobs from all over the world and decided to move to the United Kingdom to work. I worked as a senior research medical physicist and was in charge of creating and developing clinical trials and treatment techniques in the centres I worked in. I also did consulting for several research groups and obtained grants to start new and innovative international clinical trials.
I have since moved back to Melbourne and started working at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre as a senior medical physicist. My job is balanced between clinical work and research, where our group is constantly working on improving the services and treatments we give our patients.
What I like most about being a Radiation Oncology professional is that you are working within a team and everyone has the same goal – to help our patients and improve cancer treatment. I am constantly calling people in the United States, Europe, and Asia to seek advice or ask questions and everyone is friendly and happy to share information. It is a great environment to work in.
What were your key accomplishments as a medical physicist?
A ‘silicon detector’ smaller than a five-cent piece has delivered a boost in safety for Victorian cancer patients by enabling real-time monitoring of the radiation dose they receive.
Radiation oncology specialists and physicists at the William Buckland Radiotherapy Centre at the Alfred Hospital have employed the new system to directly measure radiation.
This immediate feedback provides everyone additional confidence in the treatment.
WBRC director Associate Professor Jeremy Millar said radiotherapy was highly-controlled in Australia, and was already extremely safe, but there was a real plus in being able to achieve on-the-spot confirmation that the dose given was the dose intended.
‘We believe we are the only public radiation treatment service in Australia, maybe Australasia, currently using this quality assurance technique in day-to-day practice,’ Associate Professor Millar said.
‘Our next step is to extend this to the Alfred Health Radiation Service at Latrobe Regional Hospital in Traralgon.
‘When we treat cancer with radiation we give a patient a specific amount to a point in the body.
‘Until now, our control over dose has been reliant on calculating other variables during treatment and, then, confirming with occasional direct dose measurement, which comes at considerable delay.
‘It’s the equivalent of aiming to heat a swimming pool to 30 degrees but not being able to measure the water temperature directly.
‘This technology is a significant leap forward because the prior systems of measurement were costly, complex and time-consuming, so they couldn’t be used routinely,’ Associate Professor Millar said.
Radiation oncology medical physicist Sabeena Beveridge is behind the project’s roll-out and said the instant delivery of results provided confidence for the treating clinicians and, most importantly, to patients.
‘We attach the re-usable detectors to the patient,’ Dr Beveridge said.
‘The detectors have tiny ‘chips’ in them, like in a computer, but are specifically designed to directly and immediately measure the radiation dose.
‘It’s like having new glasses – and now we can truly see.’
The program is supported by a grant from the Department of Health.