My name is Alicia O’Leary, and I am a Radiation Therapist (RT) and Medical Dosimetrist working in the UPMC Hillman Cancer Centre, Waterford. Radiotherapy uses precise and carefully measured doses of radiation to treat cancer. As an RT I am responsible for the safe delivery of treatment to cancer patients using high-energy X-Ray beams on a machine known as a linear accelerator. I am currently working in radiotherapy planning as a Dosimetrist where I work within a team of radiation oncologists and physicists to plan how the optimal dose of radiation can be delivered, while minimising dose to healthy tissue.
In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about STEM careers?
Gender stereotyping in STEM careers. Interestingly, I have seen this from both perspectives. In many departments, the role of radiation therapists is typically dominated by females. In our department in the UPMC Hillman Cancer Centre Waterford however, we have 3 male radiation therapists. This not only adds diversity to the radiotherapy team, but it is important in terms of patient interaction also. Conversely, physics may be thought of as a male led area. However our team of physicists in the radiotherapy planning department is two thirds female and led by a female Chief Physicist! It is great to see that gender stereotyping in STEM careers is starting to change.
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
From my personal experience, yes. I remember attending a Women in Science Day in University College Cork when I was in Transition Year, and this definitely inspired me to study Biology, Chemistry and Physics in Leaving Cert. When I took part in the BT Young Scientists in 2008 I was impressed by the number of girls taking part in all categories, and I believe 10 years later in 2018, 60% of the participants were girls!
What do you love about your current role?
I love that a career in radiotherapy has allowed me to combine by love for Biology and Physics with my desire to help those with cancer. As a Medical Dosimetrist I get to work closely with the radiation oncologists and physicists to determine how we can deliver the prescribed dose of radiation can be deliver to where the cancer is (or was) without damaging normal healthy tissue. In order to achieve this, a number of things must be considered such as the radiobiology of different tissues in the body, side effects, advanced treatment techniques and machine capabilities. As a Radiation Therapist, I not only deliver the planned radiotherapy treatment, but I am a support to the patients and their families as they attend each day for treatment. Many patients will require treatment every day for a number of weeks, so the rapport that is built between patients and radiation therapists is a special one. It was important to me after I finished my studies that I would be able to help treat those with cancer in my local community. Fortunately, the UPMC Hillman Cancer Centre opened in Waterford in 2008. I love that we are able to deliver world class radiotherapy treatment to those in the South East of Ireland, who would have traditionally had to travel to Dublin or Cork for treatment.
Do you get to work with any new technologies?
Now is actually a really exciting time to be involved in the radiotherapy field. As technology advances, so does the radiotherapy treatments that we deliver. The technology and machines we have at present in UPMC Hillman Cancer Centre allow us to deliver a number of advanced treatment techniques. For example 4-dimensional radiotherapy allows us to track tumour motion in lung patients so that we can accurately deliver high doses of radiation to the tumour at specific phases in the breathing cycle, thus sparing healthy lung tissue. We also have the technology to deliver a technique known as deep inspiration breath-hold. With this technique, patients with a left sided breast cancer breathe in and hold their breath while we deliver the radiation beam. By holding their breath, the lungs expand and move the breast and chest wall away from the heart (which is naturally situated on the left side of the body). Again, this enables us to deliver the optimal amount of radiation to the tumour site, while sparing the radiation dose to the heart.
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to travel abroad to conferences and courses for work. I attended a conference a year ago in Glasgow dedicated to advanced radiotherapy technology, toxicity and treatment of brain tumours. In November last year I also had the opportunity to attend a course hosted by the European Society for Radiotherapy & Oncology in Brussels. This course focussed on a new practice used to treat early stage breast cancer known as Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation. By attending these courses and conference, I can present the information to the multidisciplinary team in the UPMC Cancer Centre and improve the quality of treatment we deliver to our patients.
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
I work within a Multidisciplinary Team made up of Radiation Oncologists, Nurses, Radiation Therapists and Physicists on a daily basis. As UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre) is an international organisation, our cancer centre in Waterford is also part of an integrated community network of cancer physicians and health care specialists. It is exciting to work within an organisation where global expertise and resources are at our disposal so that we can ensure we are delivering advanced, high-quality radiotherapy and partaking in research.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position?
I have been working in my new role as Medical Dosimetrist for the last 6 months and have learned a huge amount in terms of the radiotherapy planning process. By becoming a member of the Radiotherapy Planning Team I have been able to use my experience as a radiation therapist to contribute to the team in terms of practicality of delivering treatments, clinical implications that a complex plan may pose to the radiation therapists and by acting as a patient advocate. Similarly, when working as a radiation therapist again in the future, I will have an improved technical knowledge of radiotherapy treatment planning and quality assurance which I will be able to integrate into daily treatment procedures, and also can use to help orientate new staff into radiotherapy treatment planning. A thorough understanding of the whole treatment process from beginning to end and an integrated multidisciplinary approach is so important in healthcare.
Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?
I am not quite sure there is a “stereotypical” radiation therapist or medical dosimetrist. One thing we do all have in common as radiation therapists is that we are VERY talkative and enjoy getting to know our patients during their time with us. Other than that we are all quite different in terms of personality and interests. In fact, I am currently training to become a yoga teacher in my spare time!
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
Visiting your local radiotherapy department is a great way to get a sense of what the job of an RT or Medical Dosimetrist involves. I would give the same advice to any young person wanting to get into a STEM career. Meet with someone that works in the field you are interested in or arrange some work experience. It is the best way to get a feel for what a typical day in that career involves. If you are in Leaving Cert and are still unsure of what career you would like to pursue (as I was), study subjects that interest and excite you. Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the end goal of a job, but as long as you are studying something you are passionate about, you are sure to find a career you will enjoy.
Did you complete any sort of placement or internship during your studies? If so, did it prepare you for what you do now?
Placement is a huge part of studying to become a radiation therapist. As I studied Postgraduate Therapeutic Radiography and Oncology in London, my placements took place in some of the largest hospitals in the UK. It was extremely beneficial to be placed in a number of different radiotherapy departments as each department has different technologies, techniques and machines, and what I learned from each department has proved very valuable to me in my career now.
What television series are you currently watching?
I am always watching something on Netflix… But to be honest I am really just waiting for the return of Peaky Blinders and Game of Thrones!