Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What I've been up to...

People always ask me how school is going and what all I do everyday.  Mike gets frustrated with me for not explaining it well so I figured I'd give ya the run down on what my life as a medical physics grad student entails in case you're interested.

My first year consisted of all classes to get down the basics of radiation, dosimetry, physics, anatomy/physiology, and medical imaging.  One highlight was the cadaver lab where I got to hold a human brain, look at tumors, and explore the awesomeness that is the human body (really cool if you're not the queasy type- Mike didn't really like for me to tell him about it!).  I worked part-time in the clinic doing the quality control on the digital x-ray units around the Vanderbilt hospital and children's hospital.  I also worked on a research project that looked at breast dose from CT exams.

This summer we started our first practical coursework taking a class in Brachytherapy (which is a type of radiotherapy that uses permanent or temporary implants of radioactive seeds into the tumor or tumor margins to treat cancers).  We have the class three days a week where we learn all about the cancers, procedures, treatment prescriptions, etc.  We also have two days of practicum each week where we spend our time in the radiation oncology (what we call "the clinic") learning, hands-on, how to plan each type of treatment.  Our goal is to plan a few treatments of each of the therapies we learn about.  This includes cancers of the cervix, eye, prostate, breast, lung and sarcomas (skin/surface).  Basically, we use previous, real-patient images (CT, x-ray, ultrasound, etc.) and prescriptions and plan the entire treatment on our own using the clinics treatment planning software.  Each treatment then has to be approved by a physicist and double checked using hand calculations or spreadsheets to make sure the radiation dose is what intended.  It's the best learning tool as we are forced to figure out a lot of the details on our own.  We usually bring what we think to be a completed plan to be checked only to be told (multiple times) that we can make it better.  One of the biggest challenges we face is making sure to get the necessary dose to the entire tumor volume while minimizing the dose to healthy tissues.

Being in the clinic with the physicists provides us endless opportunities to learn through observation.  The physicists, radiation oncologists, and older grad students are all beyond helpful and always offering to show us what they are working on and invite us to observe their patient treatments.  My first day of summer semester, I was able to go with our director to an ocular melanoma (tumor on the back of the eye) implant surgery and witness the procedure standing right next to the surgeons in the OR.  It was an awesome experience to see how all our planning comes together in "real-life."  Plus, I'm the one at the gym with my treadmill TV tuned to the surgery channel so this was especially exciting for me.

Every Friday, all of the students meet up for our graduate seminar.  This is a time for "professional development" where we sometimes learn different perspectives on medical physics that we don't get in the classroom.  Mostly it's where, one at a time, we are called to the board, given dry erase markers and asked to answer questions on any random topic we've learned about.  The goal is to prepare us for our oral exam at the end of our second year.  It started out as the most terrifying experience I could imagine but, over time, it's gotten much more comfortable.  I guess that's the point!

Overall, grad school is an awesome experience so far.  Unlike the majority of undergrad, I love learning about things that I'm actually going to be doing throughout my career.  I'm excited to start the fall semester and get more time in the clinic learning new treatments. 

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