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Report from the AAPM National Convention
By Kenny Homann, M.S., Medical Physicist, Baylor College of Medicine
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The annual national convention of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) is held in various parts of the United States (and sometimes in Canada), and 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the Society, as well as the 50th meeting, which was held in Houston, TX, July 27-31, 2008.    

While the official dates of the meeting are only five days long, the meeting actually runs longer than that.  It basically goes for a full week starting on a Saturday when professional, educational, and administrative committees attended by various members of the AAPM convene for meetings to discuss relevant topics of interest to the community.  These range from anything from our professional status relative to Radiation Oncologists, to the development of new techniques and protocols to be used for patient care, to marketing the profession to future physicists (hint, hint). 


A moderated poster session, during which presenters speak on their research followed by a short question and answer period. The posters stay up for the duration of the meeting to be examined by others at their convenience.


I am part of a committee that explores the appropriate teaching and training of medical physics principles for Radiation Oncology and Radiology Residents.  As a member who has less than 3 years of work experience, it was really great to be able to sit in and contribute my ideas with other physicists in the field who have been doing this stuff for 20 or even 30 years.  Not only do I get to observe where those most knowledgeable in the area of Resident teaching see the field heading, but I also can pick up some tips on how to better teach at my own clinic (something I do quite a bit of actually). 

In addition to attending the meeting, I attended a review course for one of the board exams that must be taken to become a Certified Medical Physicist.  The course was conducted over a one and a half day period and the lectures were provided by some of the most renowned physicists in the field.  Their expertise in specific areas such as atomic particle theory and it’s application to medical physics and brachytherapy treatments (irradiation of patients with small radioactive seeds implanted into the body) went a long way in helping my studying. 


In medical physics, accurate patient setup is of the utmost importance to ensure tumors are treated and not healthy tissue. Above is an immobilization device used to treat head and neck cancers. The material is heated to make pliable, then stretched over the patient. It hardens and maintains its shape once cooled, allowing reproducible setup over the course of treatment.


On Sunday, there was also a section of talks devoted to graduate student research called the Young Investigators Competition.  Abstracts are submitted by grad students from all over the country with the best 10 selected for oral presentation.  The top three are then selected and awarded prizes (And not just a handshake either.  Cold hard cash is included as well). This is the most prestigious award given to graduate students in our field and it is considered an honor just to be selected in the Top 10. 

On Monday the meeting really takes off with educational review courses on different areas of our field.  These included CT, Advanced External Beam Radiation Treatments with a Linear Accelerator, MRI, and accounting for breathing motion during treatment.  In addition, there are also scientific sessions where talks and posters are presented highlighting current research areas of interest.  These talks last all day and run from Monday thru Thursday. 

In between sessions, most physicists can go to the Vendors Showroom where all of the companies (such as Varian, Philips, GE, Tomotherapy, etc.) display their latest advances in technology and treatment capabilities.  These include the newest Linear Accelerators, CT Scanners, Treatment Planning Software upgrades (used for the design of the radiation treatments), and Quality Assurance tools available.  While it’s great to see what direction the industry side of the field is heading, it is all invaluable for those in charge of purchasing new equipment for their respective hospitals (a role the physicist plays a big part in).  By having all of the vendors on site, physicists can get hands on interaction with new equipment to compare and contrast against other similar products.  Plus, if you hit the right booth, you might score a very nice free gift (one year I got a pair of binoculars and a baseball signed by Don Larsen, who threw the only perfect game in a World Series.).


This is a linear accelerator. It is equipped not only with the standard MV treatment beam but also with kV X-ray imagers. The MV beam characteristics make it a more suitable energy to treat the tumors of our patients due to its dose distribution at larger depths. However, the dominance of Compton interactions at these energies makes it a poor choice to image patients for treatment setup due to minimal contrast. kV beams, however, are better suited for imaging (this is the magnitude of energy for CT scanners and X-ray units as well) because at these energies, the photoelectric effect is more predominant which interacts with a medium as a function of Z^3. This allows bone, tissue, and air to be seen and separated more easily and clearly.


While there are plenty of things to learn and see at the convention, it is hardly all work and no play.  In the evenings, there are various social functions and events that can be attended.  One evening celebrates the best in our field as various awards (for the year and for a lifetime of a work) are handed out.  This includes the prestigious William D. Coolidge Award.  It is presented to one Medical Physicist a year who has made a significant impact in the field both scientifically and professionally.  Only 37 scientists have received this award to date.  Another night was spent relaxing amongst our friends and colleagues at the Annual Night Out event where there is dinner and dancing (That’s right, I said dancing.  Apparently, we can cut a rug when the occasion calls for it.).  For those who don’t mind getting up a little early, the Annual 5K run is usually very popular and provides visiting physicists a chance to see a bit more of the host city than just the convention center.

As someone who has now been to five AAPM Conferences, I can say that it is definitely one of the highlights of the work year (and also a nice little pseudo-vacation as well).  The conference is always very well attended; drawing upwards of 4,000+ attendees (It is especially popular those years we have meetings in places like San Diego or Seattle.).  In addition to the professional development, the world of medical physics is a very close knit group as there are only about 6,000 members.  It is a small community and not uncommon at all to see former classmates and colleagues around every turn.  For those interested in an applied field of physics where you get to be an integral part of the fight on cancer and other maladies, take a few seconds and visit www.aapm.org.  Thanks and best of luck.

About the Author
Kenny HomannHi SPS! My name is Kenny Homann, and I’m a Medical Physicist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. 

As a former SPS member myself, I spent a lot of my time in undergrad trying to figure out what I was going to do upon graduation.  By chance, I stumbled across a graduate program for medical physics.  I knew very little about it at the time, but as I’ve progressed through grad school and into my first few years in the profession, I’ve found it to be a very rewarding and challenging career. 

To [help] introduce the field to some of you or perhaps further wet the appetite for others, I’ve provided the accompanying review of the Annual American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) National Convention.

When you join SPS as an undergrad, you get free membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the AAPM. Details....

SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

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