Safety Trainer, Groundbreaker
(Date of Service: 27 February 2002 - 26 May 2009)
Teaching the Tools of the Trade

In May 2001, the IAEA was informed of the accidental overexposure of 28 radiotherapy cancer patients in Panama. Human error in calculating doses saw patients receive treatment times up to 100% higher than they should have been. Eight of the affected patients died by the time Agency was notified. Five of the deaths were probably caused by the overexposure.

Geetha Sadagopan is working to prevent these rare but fatal mistakes. She co-ordinates the IAEA's training and education program in radiation protection and waste safety.

"Human error and lack of training is a main reason why accidents occur," she says. "Any tool, if you use it carefully is not going to cause you harm."

And that is exactly what Geetha is educating people to do. The training programs she co-ordinates are rolled out globally. They give staff in hospitals and industry a sound understanding of radiation protection and the safe and secure use of radiations sources.

The training ranges from post-graduate educational courses, to shorter specialized training workshops, distance learning and "train-the- trainer" programs.

Geetha is standing in front of a Cobalt radiotherapy machine - a high-tech device used to treat cancer patients with radiation. To the average person it's a curiosity, which probably provokes a slight fear of the unknown. But in the developed world it is curing about one out of five cancer patients.

"People always have an apprehension about the use of radiation and radiation sources. That's what attracted me to this work. You have the chance to allay their fears and tell them how safely they can handle radiation and get the benefit out of it," she said. The benefits are as big as they are diverse. Radiation is used for many types of applications in medicine, industry and other fields. Applications range from using gamma rays to treat cancer to using X-rays to find defects in the welding of bridges.

Hear more

Geetha has pushed the boundaries for women working in nuclear. In her home country India, safety inspection of radiation sources had been the domain of men when it involved nighttime helicopter flights to remote offshore locations.

"There was resistance to letting me perform this task, because it required an overnight stay. After some resistance, I was allowed to do the job, which was a rare and interesting opportunity." Her successful work paved the way for future women to carry out such tasks.

"I've found that for a women to progress in her career she has to be the best. Even small lapses are magnified, which is not the case for men. You have to show that the place of work is the main priority rather than family." Geetha's husband and adult children live in India. She hopes her husband will be able to join her in Vienna.

Geetha started work at the IAEA in 2001, when a strategy to strengthen national and regional training centers in radiation protection and the safe use of radiation sources had just been developed. Now she is implementing the plan. "We're growing up in the Agency together." The key element of the strategic plan is to build competence in the IAEA's Member States, "so that they will be able to help themselves in conducting their own training programs for radiation and safety," she said.

The target date for this achievement is still some years down the road. But as with all her work, Geetha's aims are high. She hopes the strategy will be implemented in as many countries as soon as possible - an important step toward making accidents like in Panama a thing of the past.