On October 10, 2021 the AAPM Working Group for Non-Clinical professionals (WGNC) held a virtual career expo featuring 10 medical physics professionals working outside of the clinic to share their stories and career paths. Following opening remarks these working professionals split off into five breakout rooms with the 30+ students and trainees in the session. Careers in regulatory science, academic research, industry research and development, as well as business administrators and entrepreneurs were all represented in the expo. As a graduate student participant, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with medical physics professionals in diverse fields as well as other trainees preparing to transition into careers themselves. Amidst the Delta wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty of future in-person professional networking events, the virtual expo was especially welcomed by all trainees involved. Below I summarize some lessons learned from various session breakout rooms.

Career transitions are possible

In my first breakout room I met Young Lee, Principal Medical Physicist at Elekta, and Sharon Dye, product manager at Elekta. Both physicists had past clinical experience and later transitioned to industry. They agreed that there is not a large barrier separating clinical and industry careers as the skills developed in clinical medical physics are broadly applicable both inside the clinic and out.

Physicists play play diverse roles in medical device development

The next breakout room featured Mark Holmes, a quality assurance manager at Gammex Inc. Mark discussed his background as a Ph.D. and experience in industry as a medical physicist. He explained the general design process of medical device development in industry and the role physicists play at each stage. While different companies formalize the process to different degrees he found the general process applies to most organizations.

The first stage of a new product starts with marketing level physicists who are closest to the clinic. These physicists combine their physics background to better articulate clinic requirements to downstream engineering teams. Before going to the design and production teams that implement the new product, intermediary engineer teams determine formal requirements including assessing the risk of the product to the patient and users, important for FDA clearance. The final stages of product development includes customer support, where the customers are often physicists in the field. Mark’s overview of the design process and opportunities for physicists to contribute was enlightening to me and the other students in the breakout room and led to lots of discussion.

Better understanding the business behind medical device startups

In the next room was Adam Uselmann, CTO and co-founder at Onlume, a company developing intra-procedural optical fluorescence imaging. Adam described the impact an entrepreneur bootcamp had on his career by better understanding the value of a sound business plan in the success of a medical device startup company. He then described his experiences applying for government Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants which included sections on research strategy, problems to be addressed by the product, potential market size to benefit from the product, and how the technology is uniquely positioned to address the problem, including revenue potential.

Tools to support physicists

Meeting with Paul DeJean of Luca Medical Systems, which makes automated quality assurance hardware and software, he shared his passions in hardware and software and making the lives of medical physicists easier. He shared that working with medical physicists as customers is particularly rewarding because they are so knowledgeable of problems that need solving.

Starting a company while working as a researcher

Brian Progue, professor and chair of Medical Physics at the University of Wisconsin and professor of engineering at Dartmouth, described his experiences of starting medical device companies (Quel Imaging and DoseOptics LLC) while keeping his job as an academic researcher through collaborations and pursuing SBIR grants. Different from the typical business world, scientists tend to invent interesting products and then find the niche market. SBIR grants enable scientists to keep their research positions while starting a company which can reduce some risk due to the unstable nature of early startups.

Research and teaching at a liberal arts college

Another medical physics career path was introduced by Heather Whitney, a professor of physics at Wheaton College. In this session Heather described how she started a research program in computer aided diagnosis at a small liberal arts college by joining a collaboration with the University of Chicago and an NIH R15 grant. The research program has been a success by combining access to clinical databases and colleagues at the University of Chicago to discuss ideas with. With these resources she and her undergraduate students can bring physics questions to investigate.

Regulatory Science at the FDA

Gabriela Rodal, a lead Reviewer, at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Imaging, Diagnostics, and Software Reliability, reviews both pre-market and post-market radiation therapy devices and imaging software, including X-ray radiography, SPECT, and PET. Before being a lead reviewer, Gabriela did regulatory research at the FDA to better inform regulation of new medical devices including photon counting detectors and artificial intelligence applied to medical imaging.

Standards Research

Finally I met with Malcolm McEwen in the Ionizing Radiation Standards (IRS) Group at the Canadian National Research Council where he focused on developing measurement and dosimetry standards for ionizing radiation and therapy and protection. Malcolm advocated the large body of research in developing standards of measure and is well suited for researchers seeking to be more applied.

Conclusions

These were a few lessons gathered from breakout rooms I was able to take part in. I want to give a big thank you to all participants and organizers! Please follow the WGNC on Twitter (@AAPM_WGNC) and stay tuned for more events and opportunities to get involved!