Zach spent 8 weeks as a project intern in the summer of 2021 working with medical physicists at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham.
“I have had an ongoing interest in medical physics since as early as A-Levels, which inspired me to pick Nottingham as my place of study due to their links with MRI. This interest has motivated me to apply for the NHS Scientist Program in 2022. When I discovered there was an opportunity for me to work with people in the career I have been aspiring to, I jumped at the opportunity!”
The Big Picture
Medical physicists in the NHS work in a behind the scenes role compared to a typical doctor, they ensure that important equipment, ranging from ultrasound to X-rays to MRI, are all working properly and effectively. There are four key areas a medical physicist can work in: imaging with non-ionising radiation, nuclear medicine, radiation safety and radiotherapy. Each area involves different roles and jobs, all of which are equally important.
One of the most important aspects of the jobs, is quality assurance. This involves running a series of tests on different equipment and ensuring that it meets the criteria set out by a regulatory body. This is important as it can prevent severe damage being done to patients due to a malfunctioning piece of technology.
“I joined as a project intern at the start of the summer and was tasked with programming and automating the quality control process for the MR scanners used clinically. All quality assurance tests are currently performed manually by medical physicists, so to be given a chance to work on and attempt to automate such an important process was very exciting for me, as it felt like I could make a difference with my work. There were seven different tests for MR scanners, so there was plenty for me to work on. All of the tests are performed on images obtained from the MR scanner being tested, so there was a lot of image processing involved which I had little experience of doing.”
How did it go?
“By the end of my 8-week internship, I had produced a program which would sort a set of MR images and produce a data structure containing results from six of the seven tests, with very little user input, except for visual checks.“
Zach identified that the benefit of automating this process was that it was consistent every time – when a medical physicist performs the tests, there’s always going to be some variation in what they do, which isn’t the case for a program that will repeat tests the exact same way every time. He applied the program to images from 12 different scanners in the Nottingham area and was able to identify multiple scanners which failed one of the tests, however these images were from a few years ago so he wasn’t able to do anything! Even so, he felt it was rewarding to see his program was working as he had hoped.
“I was also lucky enough to also come in for a week to shadow people in the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre at Nottingham, and I was able to observe the quality assurance tests performed on the scanners used for research there. I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in and observe a kidney study. This gave me experience on both sides of clinical research, and I got to have my first MRI which I found to be a unique experience!“
Zach had never used MATLAB before and had only ever been taught Python at university. To prepare for the internship, he took multiple online MATLAB image processing courses, which were freely available. These courses provided him with invaluable image processing skills, which allowed him to manipulate and process the images used for the QA tests. The courses also provided Zach with skills that weren’t as relevant to the project, but were still useful to have in his toolbelt going forward
“I was able to apply the skills I had learnt during the courses throughout my project and was able to come up with my own techniques and solutions for specific problems I was facing. Learning a second programming language was a lot easier than the first, as I already understood how to code from modules which were part of my Physics degree – I just had to apply this knowledge to a different language.“
Boosting the Portfolio
“As part of the internship, I was offered the chance to sign myself up for a course which would allow me to develop my professional skills. After some reflection and deliberation, I identified public speaking as one of my weaker areas and signed myself up for a course in November. Whilst I’m very nervous about public speaking, I think pushing myself outside my comfort zone by doing this course is the first step to improving in this area!“
“The project was performed remotely, which worked well for me as it allowed me to live at home over summer, as I was worried about not being able to spend any time there and that I wouldn’t see my family after spending so much time away at university. This did however come with the issue of motivating myself whilst working at home. Working at home has always been difficult for me, as there isn’t a set start and end time like you would have with a normal work shift. It took a lot of self-control and time management, but I managed to find a system that worked for me, which involved having multiple breaks spread throughout the day, after one to two hour long working periods. I found this also gave my mind a rest which was extremely useful when I was having very frustrating issues with my code (which was a very regular occurrence).”
The Next Step
“Overall, my experience has cemented for me that medical physics is the career I want to pursue. There are so many interesting areas of research, and different areas to specialise in, all of which make a difference. If you’re searching for a fulfilling physics-related job that makes a difference, then medical physics might just be what you’re looking for.“