From Curious Kid to Medical Physicist and Educator
Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices
From Curious Kid to Medical Physicist and Educator
Q&A with Julianne Pollard-Larkin, plenary speaker at the 2022 Physics CongressBy:
Addison Hild, Alex Pantoja, and Caleb Robinson, SPS Reporters, Texas Lutheran University
Julianne Pollard-Larkin is the physics section chief of thoracic service in the Department of Radiation Physics – Patient Care, Division of Radiation Oncology, at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
What got you into physics?
Remember the first questions you asked as a little kid? “Why?” Those are the questions I had in my formative years, just like all of us human beings. I grew up in a family full of educators. When I would ask a question, my dad would say, “Julie, you want to know why? Look at that Britannica, figure it out, and tell me what you read.” Then he'd go to work. My parents fed my curiosity. They helped me expand my world. I give all credit to my parents for my staying with science.
Did you join any organizations while you were in college?
I joined the same one that you are in―yes to the SPS! I went to college at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. When it came to SPS, there was no one who really wanted to lead the chapter. So here comes Julie . . . I'm already standing out because, first of all, I'm a girl. When you're in university classes with hundreds of people and you're one of maybe 10 girls, you feel that pressure. To be chocolate [Black] on top of that . . . Going through that crucible at that young age, I figured why not get connected and join SPS? Then, when nobody wanted to lead the meetings, why not help run the chapter?
I was happier than the traditional physics student. SPS got me connected. That experience gave me my first taste of leadership. SPS was my avenue, and I am so grateful for what I got when I was at your stage in life.
What or who inspired you to join the field of medical physics?
In 2000, while doing a summer internship, I got the call that nobody wants. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I finished everything and went back home. I was there for her first surgery and her radiation therapy treatment. Before that, I had no clue what radiation therapy meant.
At her first radiation appointment, people were explaining the treatment and showing my mom the vault where patients are treated, the linear accelerator, and everything else in the room. Then lo and behold, a man in a white lab coat comes out from behind a wall that shields people from the linear accelerator. He had been playing with something in the back―maybe some wiring―and checking numbers on a screen. He sees us and says, “Oh, don't worry, I'm going to get out before the treatment. I'm just a physicist, I'm not going to get in the way.”
As a physics major, I turn to my mom and say, “Mom, why is there a physicist in your wall?”
He answers, “I help with your mom's treatment.” When I ask how and he finds out I’m a physics major, he says, “This is a linear accelerator, right? Don't you need one for quality assurance and everything? Haven’t you heard of AAPM?”
I now know that AAPM is the American Association of Physicists in Medicine. But as an undergrad, I hadn’t heard of it. None of my professors were in medical physics or talked about the field, if they even knew about it.
After that interaction, my real research began―understanding who and what my purpose was, as a scientist. I eventually identified that this is where my heart is.
What is your day-to-day job like?
I'm the manager of a physics team in the hospital. I'm at work before everybody else, getting everything set up for scheduling. I make sure there are no issues, all the machines are running, and nobody's sending desperate pages asking for assistance. Patients usually come in around 6:50 or 7:00 am. And then it's all patient care and dealing with high-dose, short fractionation treatments where an error or accident could be deadly—I'm here to make sure that doesn't happen. I do a lot of troubleshooting. That’s my job until about noon.
The afternoon is my academic time. I meet with graduate students, MD residents, physics residents, and others who I’m teaching or are related to my committee work for professional organizations. I also work on my research goals during that time.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
I love meeting people, encouraging them to go into the field, and nurturing their talents and gifts. Coming from a space where nobody really encouraged me to study physics, I decided to be a nurturing educator. I want to encourage the best in everybody, indiscriminately.
I have spent my time opening doors, making bridges, and not burning them once I get across. I can’t leave behind an obstacle just because I got over it: I want to make sure you don't have that same one. I will take all the licks so that you can come out brilliant and amazing, because the world needs our talent, and I want to make sure it's better for you. And I truly love and appreciate the interactions I have with patients.
What has been the hardest part of your career?
As a scientist, you always have the pull to do research. I do primarily clinical work. I have a passion for flash radiotherapy research, but at the end of the day, I don't have time to go at it hard. That’s a difficult thing to navigate, but I'm much better person-to-person than I am in the lab.
How has the representation of minorities in the field changed since you entered physics, and how can we do better in the future?
I am excited about where our field is compared to when I started. There was a lack of awareness and internet then. We didn't have pictures showing what people in the field really looked like―when I wanted to see representation, I would look in the mirror. With social media, physics students can see that representation now.
There’s a way of finding your niche, finding your community within physics and every organization. And if it doesn’t exist, make it. We have agency, we have voices, we deserve to be here, and we're being recognized. There are wonderful, powerful stories happening in every single city.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Learn More about Medical Physics
- American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM): aapm.org
- AAPM’s public education site: medicalradiationinfo.org
- GradSchoolShopper’s Pathways to Medical Physics: gradschoolshopper.com/pathways-to-medical-physics.html
Members of SPS are eligible for free membership in AAPM, for details see spsnational.org/about/membership.