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IAEA Profile: A Life Devoted to Medical Physics and Disseminating Science

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Jenia Vassileva, during her IAEA fellowship at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London in 1998.

The IAEA profiles employees to provide insight into the variety of career paths that support the Agency’s mission of Atoms for Peace and Development and to inspire and encourage readers, particularly women, to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEM-adjacent fields. Read more profiles of women at the IAEA.

“I left the Royal Marsden Hospital in London with a suitcase full of scientific papers, because there were no laptops back then, and I wanted to bring all that knowledge with me.”

Jenia Vassileva speaks with passion when remembering her 1998 IAEA research fellowship in diagnostic radiology — a turning point in her 30-year career. Vassileva’s passion for medical physics remained undiminished in her role at the IAEA, working as a radiation protection specialist in the Radiation Protection of Patients Unit of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security.

Growing up, Vassileva showed a marked tendency towards mathematics and physics from an early age. Her talents prompted her to study to become a nuclear engineer, an in-demand profession in 1970s Bulgaria, as the country was initiating its nuclear power programme. She pursued her studies at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute in the former Soviet Union.

On return to Bulgaria, she was working as an assistant professor in nuclear physics when she was given what she describes as a “life changing” opportunity to establish Bulgaria’s first academic programme in medical physics at Shumen University. With her knowledge of nuclear physics as a basis, Vassileva quickly gained expertise in medical physics under the mentorship of leading clinical medical physicists who shaped her passion in this specialized field. She also took courses offered at the faculty, carried out independent study and received international training.

“I did not even know that the profession of medical physicist existed. When I entered the field, it became my life,” she said.

Another career highlight was being selected for a three-month IAEA fellowship with the Diagnostic Physics Group at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, where she developed a deeper knowledge in patient dosimetry and quality assurance in diagnostic radiology.

Vassileva likes to describe her professional life as a series of small steps and urges younger generations to stay resilient in the face of setbacks. "It is common to want to grow and develop our career fast, but often, life does not go that way,” she said. “We may feel discouraged when we do not see improvement, but we need to be grateful for the small steps and look forward with optimism towards realistic goals.”

“Nothing happens quickly,” Vassileva emphasized, pointing out that she received her PhD in Bulgaria in 2002 at a more advanced age than her peers. Her doctorate was based on her research in medical physics for diagnostic radiology and was the first on this subject in Bulgaria.

When Bulgaria started negotiations to join the European Union (EU), the country began harmonizing national legislation to EU conditions and directives. As a result, in 2003, Vassileva was invited by the director of the National Centre of Radiobiology and Radiation Protection (NCRRP) in the capital Sofia to establish a laboratory there dealing with radiation protection related to medical exposure.

As head of this new NCRRP department, Vassileva found herself at the helm of a laboratory that was driving all developments and the implementation of EU standards in patient dosimetry and quality assurance in Bulgaria, attracting top-tier international experts and technical support through EU special assistance programmes. The department also became a counterpart to the IAEA’s technical cooperation (TC) programme.

Jenia Vassileva studied nuclear engineering before entering the field of medical physics.

Sharing science and bridging gaps

Vassileva’s commitment to science outreach began with her physics students at the Shumen University in Bulgaria and extended to patients and health professionals around the globe during the nine years she worked at the IAEA.

“Our mandate is to share our work so that access to high quality and safe healthcare can be strengthened everywhere,” Vassileva said. She brought her expertise to more than 50 countries –  through expert missions, training courses and workshops – and to even more countries through a series of virtual webinars on recent developments in radiation protection for patients.

Vassileva created a close-knit group of collaborators and former students after teaching in various universities for over 30 years and during her decade-long tenure at the NCRRP. One of them, Desislava Kostova-Lefterova completed a PhD under Vassileva’s supervision and is now a professor at the National Cardiology Hospital in Sofia. She speaks of Vassileva as an “inspiring and magnetic person, with a tremendous energy and unstoppable flow of ideas for research and working projects, who has managed to fascinate many medical physicist graduates.”

At the IAEA, Vassileva employed the same eagerness and commitment to develop radiation protection and safety standards in the medical field and assist countries in their implementation, with “profound knowledge, analytical skills, capability to summarize complex issues and modesty,” said Madan Rehani, former IAEA officer and current Director of Global Outreach for Radiation Protection at the Massachusetts General Hospital under Harvard Medical School in the United States of America. Rehani first involved Vassileva in the Agency to teach at a regional workshop on radiation protection in diagnostic radiology for the Africa region in Nairobi, Kenya. From there, Vassileva participated as an expert and lecturer in several international missions under the TC programme.

Jenia Vassileva, leading a training course on quality control for medical physicists at a hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2006. (Photo: National Centre of Radiobiology and Radiation Protection)

The future: Youth

Medical physicists contribute to the quality and safety of the imaging process, including quality assurance and radiation protection of patients and staff. Vassileva explained that becoming a clinically qualified medical physicist in medical imaging requires a good background in physics and mathematics, followed by a postgraduate medical physics education and clinical training.

Vassileva encourages particularly the young generations to explore opportunities offered by medical physics, “a profession with a future and enormous potential.” She emphasizes that this is a dynamic healthcare profession that involves research and development of medical imaging technologies and practices and requires keeping abreast of cutting-edge areas, such as artificial intelligence and healthcare IT systems.

Looking back at her professional and personal life, Vassileva advises women not to feel compelled to choose between career development or personal life. “There is not a right order to do things. I chose to prioritize my family, and I was not so young when I started my PhD and my career in medical physics. I already had two children when moving to my current field,” she said.

In September 2023, Vassileva retired from the IAEA and is currently a professor at the NCRRP in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

The IAEA is committed to gender equality and to supporting the ability of all individuals, regardless of gender, to equally contribute to and benefit from its programmes and activities. To this end, the IAEA strives to achieve gender balance in the Secretariat and to implement gender mainstreaming in its programmes and activities.

Additionally, in 2020, the IAEA launched the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) to support the next generation of women nuclear professionals by offering scholarships for master’s degree in nuclear-related fields. A new IAEA initiative launched in March 2023, the Lise Meitner Programme, offers early- and mid-career women multiweek training visits to nuclear facilities.

Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality, and apply for vacancies, internships or pipelines.

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