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Turn Challenges into Opportunities, says Debbie Gilley, an IAEA Radiation Protection Specialist

 Debbie Gilley, IAEA Radiation Protection Specialist

Debbie Gilley, IAEA Radiation Protection Specialist, speaking to state regulators at the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors Annual Meeting about the radiotherapy training program she organized at H. Lee Moffit Cancer Centre. (Photo: M. Phillips/Florida Bureau of Radiation Control)

In 1987 when Debbie Gilley started working as a safety inspector of healthcare facilities for the Florida Bureau of Radiation Control, which is responsible for the US state’s radiological safety programme, she was one of only three women out of the 40 professional staff members at the organization. “My biggest challenge was earning the respect of my peers – the university degrees give you credibility, but being a man or a woman, it’s your performance that validates your ability to perform the task,” said Gilley. Now with a 40-year international career in radiation protection of patients, Gilley reflects: “I have tried to turn every challenge into an opportunity.”

As part of the IAEA’s commitment to achieving gender parity in the nuclear field, the Agency is putting the spotlight on women scientists to encourage other women to contribute their knowledge, leverage their skills and share their leadership abilities in realizing the full potential of nuclear science and technology to improve our daily lives. To achieve this goal, the IAEA has also launched the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, which provides scholarships for women beginning their careers in nuclear science and technology.

A calling to healthcare

Gilley started on her path to radiological healthcare at the age of 13, when she began working at a Florida hospital as one of the Red Cross ‘candy stripers’, young volunteers known for their red-and-white striped uniforms that were reminiscent of candy canes. “This really was where it all began. Supporting nursing staff and guiding patients to the lab and physical therapy appointments inspired me to pursue a career in health care,” said Gilley.

But it was X-ray that got her thinking: “I could see the procedures through a window behind a lead door,” she said. “The X-ray technology and images were fascinating.” Gilley decided to study towards a degree in radiological health sciences, which combines the principles of physics and engineering with healthcare.

“Being able to leverage my strengths in math and physics to improve patient care is what has made my career so fulfilling,” said Gilley. 

Like a racehorse out of the gate

Gilley’s first professional job was as a Radiologic Technologist — a health care professional who performs diagnostic imaging procedures that involve ionizing radiation, such as X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans. After two years in radiology, Gilley spent the following eight years working as a radiation therapist, after which she took on the job of a safety inspector of medical facilities for the Florida Bureau of Radiation Control. “I wanted more of a challenge and sought to help hospitals enhance radiation protection for patients,” she explained.

Gilley’s positive attitude and passion for radiation safety were well-recognized by her coworkers. Cynthia Becker, who worked with Gilley at the Florida Bureau of Radiation Control, compared her energy to that of a racehorse out of the gate. “Her determination and forward-thinking mindset challenged me and our coworkers to contribute 110 per cent to improving radiation protection,” she said. 

In 1987 Gilley enrolled in a Master’s programme in public administration, which would provide her with the knowledge she needed to become a manager overseeing the use of radiation in medicine.  

To finance her degree and earn a living, Gilley continued to work full-time while studying at Florida State University on nights and weekends. While her relentless energy was critical to her success during this period of her life, she cited her mother as being her biggest motivation. “My mother did not have the opportunity to learn beyond high school, so she always encouraged her children to do their absolute best academically. She insisted that we put education first because she wanted more opportunities for us than she had,” explained Gilley.

As a state regulator, Gilley’s impact in radiation protection extended beyond healthcare to other areas of nuclear technology, including space technology in the USA. Gilley and her colleagues established air monitoring capabilities for US space launches. (Photo: M. Phillips/Florida Bureau of Radiation Control)

A lasting legacy in radiation protection

Following her public administration qualification, Gilley became a state health physicist, achieved several promotions and went on to enhance radiation safety not only in the US, but globally. As a consultant she has strengthened awareness and training in regulatory infrastructure with the US State Department in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and first worked with the IAEA on advisory missions regarding medical radiation sources in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Tanzania, Canada and Kenya.

 “I have applied in my job what I learned abroad in order to further strengthen radiation protection in the US,” she said.  “But the most rewarding part of working for an international organization has been raising awareness of the need for radiation protection safety systems on a global scale.”  

Accident prevention through SAFRON

One such system is Safety in Radiation Oncology (SAFRON), the IAEA radiotherapy and radionuclide therapy incident reporting and learning system, which is used as an international source of information to prevent future errors. With Gilley as the project manager, SAFRON has expanded to include nuclear medicine and it is utilized all over the world to increase awareness of how to prevent errors in therapeutic applications of radiation technologies in medicine.

Gilley (center) promoting SAFRON at the International Radiation Protection Association Congress in Glasgow. (Photo: D. Gilley/IAEA)

While her work has international reach, it is her determination to provide the best possible care for patients and their families that motivates Gilley on a day-to-day basis. “When you strengthen patient safety, you improve the overall quality of healthcare,” she said.

Gilley is due to retire from the IAEA in July 2021 and has said she will turn her endless energy reserves to an outdoor life of hiking, biking, kayaking and swimming. Reflecting on her career, Gilley is quick to express gratitude for those who have helped her reach her goals: “I was grateful to have a good education in radiation protection and strong mentors to help me reach my goals. This included both women and men who helped open doors for opportunities for professional growth.”

Gilley will leave a legacy not just in radiation protection but also in having helped other women shape their careers. Gloria Mirescu, a former IAEA intern, says Gilley’s statement is a reflection of herself: “As a supervisor and mentor, Debbie has always had faith in my abilities, even before I believed in myself. I am grateful for the guidance she has given me throughout my career as both a fellow woman in science and a friend.”

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