“In 2003, after 6 years of study, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. I quit my job as a waitress to start graduate school, accepting a full fellowship at the University of California, Riverside. I quickly discovered that I did not enjoy spending all my weekends and nights doing research. I felt disappointed by the lack of mentorship, a focus on getting publications and grants over education and learning, and the politics of a big university system. I left my PhD program and taught astronomy as an adjunct professor until I found a full-time position at Loma Linda hospital's proton therapy cancer center. I worked first as a calibration physicist taking measurements and checking output from the proton accelerator into the treatment rooms, then for 7 years as a medical dosimetrist. I chose dosimetry over medical physics because work-life balance is very important to me and dosimetry usually has a 40 hour work week. I started a family, became certified in my profession, and taught radiation physics at Loma Linda University. Last year I moved to northern California to work for a smaller cancer center, cementing my experience and expertise in my field and finding a great place to raise my children.
Most dosimetrists have a background treating cancer patients on the linear accelerator as radiation therapists, but that's quickly changing. As technology becomes more complex the need for critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities also increases, and that's something physicists excell at. Beginning in 2017 dosimetry certification will require a bachelor's degree in physical science or radiation therapy and completion of an accredited, post-graduate clinical dosimetry program. The position itself is primarily software based and I use a commercial, FDA approved planning system to simulate radiation doses to each patient from a calibrated linear accelerator or LINAC. Each plan is unique, using the electron density information provided by the patient's CT scan and a complex algorithm to calculate the radiation dose distribution to a clinical target volume and nearby critical organs. The ability to think in multiple dimensions and visualize different coordinate systems is critical to successful treatment planning. As a dosimetrist I have to make decisions about dose delivery quickly, safely, and correctly. Physics has laid a strong foundation for everything I do.
I help people every day - by managing their pain or curing their cancer, and giving them a better quality of life.
I love that my job is where physics and biology intersects. I've picked up a lot of books and sat in on countless lectures to learn more about medical science and continue my education. Cal-Poly, and the professors who taught there, gave me that love of learning. Looking back I wish I'd taken the radiation physics lab more seriously, and spent time understanding and exploring the material. I had no idea how applicable it would become to my future career! My difficult classes are the ones I remember most and that have helped me in my career. Math physics, the series of advanced calculus courses required for physics majors, gave me a solid understanding of working in different spaces and thinking in other coordinate systems. My elective course in quantum computing my senior year would later make graduate quantum mechanics courses a breeze, and allow me to give a powerpoint presentation that wowed a government weapons contract company. It was a challenging course, and the first time I remember actually enjoying having to work so hard to learn the physics.
The time I spent doing internships, volunteering, and teaching was more valuable than anything I learned as a graduate student because it helped me develop a resume and hone in on the type of career I was looking for. Each hurdle in your education or career is a step to a new path. Spend time figuring out what you love about physics and focus on finding a career that let's you explore that.”