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How an IAEA Doctoral Coordinated Research Project Empowers Medical Physicists in Advanced Radiotherapy Techniques

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Bertha García Gutiérrez is working to complete a PhD in medical physics through support from an IAEA doctoral coordinated research project. (Photo: C. Garcia) 

In low- and middle-income countries there are often too few radiotherapy medical physicists available for cancer care services, and there are even fewer who are qualified to supervise training programmes of new medical physicists and advance research in this field. A series of IAEA doctoral coordinated research projects (CRPs) sets out to address this.

Medical physicists play a key role in cancer treatment. These health professionals calculate exact radiation doses and devise, with doctors, treatment plans to use these doses to target cancer cells with minimal damage to healthy tissue. Their role in supporting quality healthcare is increasingly recognized by the health community, as is the need to ensure sustainable educational programmes for the training of competent medical physicists.  

While a PhD is not necessary for high quality radiotherapy medical physics services in a clinic, a PhD holder has the added academic recognition and expertise necessary to supervise and pursue research.

An IAEA doctoral CRP provides a collaborative research platform for PhD students and experts from all over the globe. There are five teams, each made up of one PhD student and their local supervisor from a developing country, along with a remote expert supervisor. The student registers at his or her local university, which awards the PhD. The current doctoral CRP involves Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Israel, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam.

“The remote mentor provides guidance to ensure the high quality and scientific relevance of the research project,” explained Debbie van der Merwe, Head of the Dosimetry and Medical Radiation Physics Section at the IAEA. “This is particularly important when local research expertise in medical physics is not available.”

Changing professional lives

The CRP is leading to increased professional recognition and scientific progress, participants have said.

Daniel Venencia had been a student under the scheme and now has the role of remote supervisor. He is a PhD graduate from the University of Cordoba, Argentina, and was a student under the IAEA doctoral CRP from 2008 to 2012. Now, he is the remote mentor of Bertha García Gutiérrez, a PhD student from Peru’s Red Auna Oncosalud clinic. His role is to advise on the methodology of her doctoral thesis on radiosurgery, which uses radiation to destroy very small volumes of cancer tissue with high doses, a technique requiring very high precision.

“Joining the CRP was the best decision of my life,” said Venencia. “With a PhD, you can teach, and you are recognized by other specialists. That makes a huge difference. Being simply a senior medical physicist did not allow me that.”

Since he received his PhD in medical physics, one of the first awarded in Argentina, Venencia became responsible for the clinical training of 25 medical physicists and five dosimetrists from 10 Latin American countries. He works at the Instituto Zunino — Fundacion Marie Curie. He has also supervised eight master’s theses on medical physics and is currently mentoring two PhD students. When the IAEA contacted him six months ago to become a mentor, he did not hesitate. “I wanted to give back,” he said.

Mentoring is one of the most effective development strategies for both mentees and mentors. Venencia is still in regular contact with his former CRP mentors and students, and they seek each other’s opinions on various professional subjects.

For Bertha García Gutiérrez, the CRP represents “the best experience in terms of knowledge acquisition and personal achievement”. Once her doctoral studies are completed, she will become the first person to hold a PhD in medical physics in Peru.

In line with the CRP’s objectives, she will be able to improve the clinical medical physics practice in radiotherapy locally and nationally and to supervise the training and research of the next generation of medical physicists in the region.  Her drive? The wellbeing of cancer patients: “The smile of the patient who thanks us day by day for the knowledge we provide is priceless.” 

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