I am a medical physicist at the Nova Scotia Cancer Centre in Halifax, NS and have cross appointments as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in the Department of Radiation Oncology and Department of Physics & Atmospheric Sciences. When people hear this, I usually get one of two responses:
- “I’ve never heard of medical physics”
- “I hated physics in high school”
I’ll start by addressing the first comment since it’s probably something I would’ve said myself years ago. Medical physics is a branch of science that involves applications of physics to health care in ways like imaging processing and analysis, radiation protection, nuclear medicine applications and radiation therapy. Most medical physicists also hold academic appointments at universities which allow us to conduct research on novel treatment techniques and develop new technology.
I ended up in medical physics through of number of small steps that happened to be in the right direction. Like many people leaving high school, I put a lot of pressure on myself to decide on a university and program. I felt like I had to have the entire journey figured out. Did I want to be a high school math teacher? Did I want to be an oncologist? Did I want to be a mechanical engineer? I researched careers, job shadowed, compared salaries and considered employment availability. Those thoughts made the decision at hand seem larger and more definite than it really was. What I did know was that I wanted to study science and that I wanted to stay in Nova Scotia for the next four years. And you know what? That was enough. That’s all I needed to decide. When it came down to it, that choice was pretty easy.
I approached each step towards the career I have today in much the same way. I majored in physics at StFX, but kept my doors open by taking as many math, chemistry and biology courses that I could fit in. Near the end of my four years at StFX, one of my professors told me about the field of medical physics. It seemed to combine my interests in math, physics and technology with real-world applications in health care. I loved the idea of working on projects that could be directly translated into changes in patient diagnosis and treatment for cancer.
I completed my Masters and PhD in Ottawa at Carleton University and then did a two-year Radiation Oncology Physics residency which provided hands-on clinical training. After working for a couple of years at The Ottawa Hospital, I returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia as a medical physicist at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. My day-to-day activities include things like responding to issues involving operation and maintenance of the radiation treatment machines, monitoring performance of equipment and treatment procedures, and working on research projects. We collaborate with radiation oncologists to decide on the best way to attack a patient’s tumour with radiation and ensure that they receive the prescribed dose to the correct location. Each day brings new challenges and there are always interesting projects to get involved with.
Another part of my job that I truly love is teaching. I get the opportunity to teach medical physics classes to radiation oncology residents as well as graduate students. Coming to the second of the two responses I often hear about physics, I think physics sometimes gets a bad rap. At first glance it can seem boring and difficult, although it’s anything but. I was very lucky to have a great high school physics teacher who ignited my interest in the field. As a teacher myself, I love finding new and innovative methods to present physics topics, especially in ways that can get people excited about it. There are so many ways to present the same concept that you might not understand it the first time you are taught something, or even the second, the third or the fourth, but eventually you may read something or hear someone describe a concept in a way that finally clicks. I think for this reason it’s important not to write off any subjects or fields of study too quickly. Keeping doors open and taking it one step at a time is the best way to end up finding a career you love. Even if it’s one you never knew existed!
Amanda Cherpak, PhD
My name is Logan Sampson, and I am a third year student at CBU, enrolled in the Bachelor of Science program. I am a Student Ambassador, a member of the CBU Dance Team and Pre-Med Society, and the Vice-President of the Biology Society.
Choosing my university in my grade 12 year was not as easy as I thought it would be. For a long time I wanted to leave Cape Breton to experience the city lifestyle and go to a large university. But boy am I glad I didn’t. CBU has provided me with more opportunities than I could have ever dreamed of at a larger university. Even though CBU is a “small-town” university, it networks with so many other universities all over the world, and you don’t experience many limitations. After my first year I travelled to Ghana, Africa with a group of fellow CBU students through a group called Global Medical Brigades. Had I not been at CBU, it is highly unlikely I would ever get involved in such a trip but the comradery of my classmates was infectious and I was hooked!
Through CBU, I was also able to travel to Quebec City for a 5-week French immersion program. I was very hesitant at first because none of my friends were going; however with loving encouragement of my parents, I was able to experience living on my own for the very first time. I also tried many new things like river rafting, zip lining, and learning a new language in a foreign city. In the end, I was very happy I went and made life long friendships. With opportunities like this offered at CBU I want to encourage new students to partake in anything they are interested in even if their friends are not! The best part was, I earned 6-credits toward my degree! That experience is definitely one of the highlights of my CBU story, so far.
In my third year, I became involved with CBU’s Student Ambassadors. My responsibilities included being available for questions regarding any aspect of CBU as well as attending and hosting events. We held events throughout the year, including multiple events during Frosh Week, Frost Week, Pizza with a Peer and several coffee house fundraisers. We also attended multiple events such as University 101 and Multi University. As a Student Ambassador I was able to meet so many students, new and old. My favorite part was helping first-year students get comfortable here at their new school as well as teaching them some tricks of the trade-great study spots, helpful study hints and making known the opportunities CBU has to offer. Without the guidance of a helpful upper-class student in my first year, I would never have thought to go searching for ways to get involved.
One of the most important experiences I have gained by going to CBU is the chance to work with an incredibly intelligent research professor. If I were at a larger institution, I can say with great confidence that I would not have this opportunity, especially just being in my third year. Research is not something I ever saw myself enjoying however it has been one of my favorite things I have done here at CBU.
If I had to do my grade 12 year all over again, I would choose Cape Breton University from the get-go and save myself the stress of applying for other universities. Make it Happen.
I’ve always been told: “Don’t worry everything happens for a reason” and don’t get me wrong I’m a firm believer in that statement… Unfortunately that reason isn’t always clear at first. If you asked me when I was 5 years old what my dream career would be I’m sure that answer would vary from what I would say if asked when I was 10, 15 or even today at 20 years old. The truth is this question enters my head everyday and I still have trouble coming up with a concrete answer. But I’ve learned that’s okay, if I had everything figured out from the start I wouldn’t have any surprises and new experiences in my life or ultimately be where I am today.
Coming from a family where both of my parents are teachers, when people would ask me this question of what I wanted to be when I grew up their expectation was always well of course, I want to be a elementary teacher like my mom. It made sense… I love kids, snow days, summer vacation it sounds like the perfect fit doesn’t it? I tested out the waters over the years and spent many days in mom’s class with her students and realized this profession wasn’t for me.
So where to next? What was I meant to do? People often ask me how I ended up in Chemistry and a science program in general. I think this path I’m on now all started back in my days at Memorial High School and my encounters with my female science teachers. My Chemistry teacher specifically had this passion, and enthusiasm for something she loved—Chemistry. I remember walking into class on the first day of Grade 11 and thinking wow… I want a job where I love every minute of what I’m doing everyday. To me she wasn’t coming to work everyday, she was sharing her knowledge of something she truly loved and was enjoying every minute of it (except I’m sure when us teenagers had our… lets call them “moments”) She made Chemistry fun! We weren’t just learning new material and looking for a passing mark we were learning about everyday life and how Chemistry surrounds everything we do.
In my Grade 12 year I decided I might as well go to CBU and take science. What was my reason? Well, again I still don’t have a simple answer. Maybe I wasn’t ready to move away or maybe I liked the idea of a small close-knit university or maybe it was the fact that I was going to get to sleep in my own bed every night… The real answer doesn’t matter because everything happens for a reason and I’m glad that reason allowed me to choose CBU.
I have no regrets. Walking across the stage at my high school graduation wondering what next, I don’t think I could have predicted I would be where I am now… but that is part of the excitement! I’m currently in my third year as a Chemistry major at CBU and loving every minute of it. Finally, I’ve found something I truly, thoroughly enjoy. I’m not going to school everyday, I’m building a foundation of knowledge and skills that will lead me to the next chapter in my life. How did I choose to major in Chemistry? Again, who knows… maybe part of it relates back to my high school experiences. Another large contributing factor was the inspiring women in science I met in high school were present in a university setting too! These teachers and professors become your mentors and role models. What I think as students we sometimes forget is they were in our shoes not long ago. Listen to their advice! In my first year at CBU I got to know Dr. Stephanie MacQuarrie and she hired me to work in her research lab. That was all it took and I was hooked! Chemistry has turned out to be the right path for me.
Now, as my third year is quickly coming to a close I again find myself asking what next? I surely by now should know what I want to do for the rest of my life right? Wrong, I’m still trying to figure it out. Medicine has always been in the back of my mind since I was a kid. Maybe 10 years from now I will be a doctor or maybe I’ll find myself somewhere I never could have imagined but that is all part of the surprise! The truth is, I’ve learned you don’t need to know, you only have to be happy. Just keep your head on your shoulders and follow where your heart takes you; it hasn’t failed me yet. You can do anything you put your mind to and hard work pays off. Remember things can change in the blink of an eye and everything happens for a reason–we just have to find it!
Women in Pharmacy
Jodi Skinner, BSc Pharm
Wal-Mart Pharmacy 3101
Pharmacy has often been touted as a “female-friendly” profession. Is this actually the case? The CIHI (Canadian Institute of Health Information) states that 69.1% of community staff pharmacists and 75.7% of hospital pharmacists, in 2009, were female. Wal-Mart Pharmacy employees 1,047 pharmacists across Canada, of which, 620 are female. These statistics prove, without a doubt, that there are more women pharmacists than men. However, it does not address whether the profession is “female-friendly.”
Why did I choose pharmacy? Well, I didn’t give it much thought in the beginning. While in junior high school, my family travelled to Florida to visit relatives. They were both pharmacists. We visited their home on a lake and I thought; “Wow! Pharmacy must be a good career choice.” From that day on, I set my career goal as pharmacy. I made sure I had good grades. I met with resource councillors to make sure I had all the correct courses. I also volunteered at local pharmacies to ensure I had an exceptional resume. If it hadn’t been for that family vacation, I don’t think I would have known that pharmacy was a career option. It certainly wasn’t presented to me as a possible career choice during school.
I graduated from Dalhousie University College of Pharmacy in 2000. The majority of my class was female. Was there a feeling of inequality among us? Not in my opinion. We were encouraged to excel in the profession. We were taught to set our sights high and take leadership roles. During the 4 years I attended the College of Pharmacy, many of our guest lecturers were females. Among these women were leaders in pharmaceutical care in the community, managers in both the community and hospital clinics, drug information pharmacists, doctors of pharmacy and clinical pharmacists at local hospitals. There are many female mentors in the profession. Looking back, in my opinion, I was given a unique experience that I undervalued at the time.
So has my gender hindered my career? Absolutely not! I love my job (most days). Over the years, it has changed with me. During my 13 year career, I have worked in different provinces, travelled, taken 3 maternity leaves, managed two community pharmacies and worked in a hospital pharmacy. My job allows me to help people with their health. I love to talk to people, answer their questions, help them with their medications and hopefully, positively affect their overall heath. I enjoy holding community presentations, health clinics, school presentations, medication reviews and most recently, administering immunizations. Of course, every day is not rosy, but what job is? The important thing is to focus on those moments where you know you`ve made a difference in someone`s life.
As a female PhD researcher in the physical sciences, I have been lucky to be surrounded by strong females who have influenced my career-path. My scientific career has been linear, but not always obvious to me, and has mostly been based on opportunities presented in front of me, rather than the focus some young students have knowing they will grow up to be a doctor, or a lawyer.
Up until I was in high school, and even when I was applying for university, it was a toss-up between the Arts, and Sciences. Science wasn’t the obvious choice for me. I enjoyed my science and math courses, but I also liked my writing courses and music. One of the deciding factors in choosing science for my undergraduate degree was a high school chemistry teacher.
Mrs. J was a young, relatively new teacher; a petite French-Canadian woman who loved Chemistry. Rumour had it she went into teaching because she ended up having a child during her PhD program and chose a MSc rather than continuing on in her research. However she came to teaching high school, her passion for the subject was obvious, and I was thankful she taught my Chem-11, and Chem-12 classes. At the time I liked chemistry, and I was reasonably okay at it, but it still wasn’t a clear choice to me.
At some point I made the decision to pursue a general Bachelor of Science degree. I took biology, chemistry, calculus, and a couple other courses my first year at university. Even though I was now in university, when I hit a roadblock in chemistry, I went back to my high school teacher and asked for her assistance. I was no longer her student, yet she was willing to help me, and gave me a package of useful supplemental information. Mrs. J genuinely wanted me to succeed, even once I had advanced out of her class.
During my first year of university I had a young female instructor. She too held an MSc and a teaching degree, but was teaching introductory chemistry courses rather than high school chemistry. Tricia was tough, and knew what she was doing. She was able to have control of the class, even though she was probably about 26 at the time. (Looking back, after being in charge of a class at age 27, I now appreciate the skills it requires). To this day, when I do certain calculations, I still hear her voice explaining the principles of why a certain assumption allowed me to simplify the math. Not only have her lessons stayed with me a after a decade, later on, Tricia became a colleague I went to for critique and advice as I progressed in my academic career.
Throughout the last two years of my undergraduate chemistry degree, I had a young female professor who I originally mistook for a slightly older student – until she walked to the front of the room, and introduced herself as the professor. I ended up taking three courses from Heather in two years, and she became my Honour’s research supervisor. I then transitioned into graduate school with Heather as my supervisor. One of her causes in her research grant applications is to train highly-qualified personnel, more specifically female personnel. I fell in love with research in her lab; it was mostly the topic, but also the small, tight-knit group of students.
Working closely with Heather for five years has been hugely influential in my career. I learned the techniques used in my research, but also the details of the field from her expertise. I also learned things from her that aren’t so easy to identify, such as how to communicate science properly, both written and verbally. Many of the things I learned during that time were not the easiest things to say to someone, yet Heather managed to use constructive criticism without making me feel insecure.
I was told to stop apologizing for things that were not my fault, or outside my control. “I’m sorry, but…” was no longer an appropriate start to a verbal answer. I dropped the qualifiers that riddled my speech. Try telling a 22 year old not to say “like”. Heather did, and I decreased the frequency of that habit substantially. I was able to speak more clearly, more precisely. I was also taught to change my speech pattern so I didn’t “inflect up” at the end of a statement implying a question, or wavering confidence.
As my graduate supervisor, how I did reflected back to Heather, and so it was in her best interest to break me of certain habits. But that wasn’t the sole reason she did these things. Heather was legitimately interested in seeing the progress and development in her graduate students. A good relationship with a graduate supervisor, especially in the sciences, can make or break the experience. In my case, it was very positive and helped shape me to where I am today.
I know that when you’re in your teens, thirty seems so far away, so much older than you, and so hard to relate to. But the mentors I’ve had have all been women between the ages of twenty-five and forty. Perhaps it was because deep down, I knew “thirty-something” wasn’t really all that far away from me, and subliminally, I could become someone similar to these women scientists in a just few years. It was easier to mimic someone I could see myself becoming. It allowed me to grow by their example. At some point, I would like to be able to mentor young scientists like Mrs. J, Tricia, and Heather did for me.