Two CERN Alumnae Straddling the Worlds of Research and the Medical Sector.
In May 2021, a team of medical physicists was delighted to announce the arrival of MARS Bioimaging's 3D colour X-ray scanner in Europe (containing detectors based on CERN technology), demonstrating another remarkable example of technology transfer from high energy physics to Medical Applications. Equally impressive is the knowledge transfer from CERN within Lausanne University Hospital's (CHUV) team in the form of two talented CERN alumnae, both of whom have found their next professional challenge working at CHUV with the MARS Bioimaging's scanner.
Lucía Gallego Manzano charts her career from completing her PhD in Medical Physics, to being awarded a Fellowship at CERN and currently Scientific Collaborator at Lausanne University Hospital, (CHUV), working on a 3D colour X-ray scanner using CERN technology!
Lucía Gallego Manzano, Scientific Collaborator at CHUV came to CERN in 2017, as a Fellow, having completed her PhD in Medical Physics in Nantes (at the “laboratoire de Physique SUBAtomique et TECHnologies associées (SUBATECH)”, part of the Institute Mines-Telecom, IMT Atlantique, Nantes). It so happened that a member of the jury was renowned CERN physicist, Paul Lecoq, who strongly encouraged Lucía to apply for a CERN Fellowship. Lucía was successful in her application and started working in a team within the HSE Radiation Protection group conducting R&D in detector development. “This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished my PhD and I consider myself extremely lucky to have found this position at CERN which enabled me to continue my career in this field.”
Lucía worked in the HSE radiation protection special projects section which focussed both on R&D detector development for radiation protection, dosimetry and medical applications, and clearance projects for radioactive waste, designed to ensure that nothing radioactive exits CERN. An autonomous system of smart detectors was developed and implemented so that an alarm is set off if anything radioactive is thrown into a conventional bin. “I was involved in the environmental radiation monitoring project. My duties for that project included project management and the more technical part, such as performing measurements. Additionally, I was part of the CERN Knowledge Transfer project GEMpix performing experimental measurements, Monte Carlo simulations using FLUKA, and designing the detectors.”
Lucía’s affiliation with CERN came to an end in December 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and working from home. ”On the one hand, accessing and measuring data was a fairly simple task to carry out remotely but it was a crushing blow that all the planned GEMpix detector tests in Italy were cancelled.” Prior to leaving the Organization and taking on a new professional challenge, Lucía was able to finalise both projects on which she had been working. On reflection, Lucía confirms that she learnt so much from her CERN experience, “I am not from the accelerator world but becoming a CERN guide certainly helped me learn more about accelerators, magnets and how the Higgs boson was discovered.”
Lucía was also given the opportunity to lead multidisciplinary projects, with a focus on many different fields. “For example, initially, I had no idea about wireless technology, but after much studying and several discussions with colleagues from the IT department, it was extremely rewarding to be able to participate in discussions with experts in the field.”
Lucía describes her transition from CERN to her current position as fairly ‘painless’. “When I saw the job posting for the Institute of Radiation Physics, it was as if it matched my profile completely! I had a good combination of solid experience in medical physics and detector development, in particular the Timepix/Medipix detector”. Furthermore, perhaps the painless transition was also thanks to her particular mindset: Lucía recalls that her supervisor had told her from the start that her position was temporary and that she should take advantage of every opportunity she encounters. Lucía confirms her advice for those soon-to-be alumni contemplating a career outside of CERN, “Once your CERN experience has come to end, make sure you use everything you have gained in knowledge as well as all the connections you have made. Take what you have learnt to your new position!”
Prior to taking up her new role at CHUV, Lucía affirms she had concerns about the unknowns surrounding her new professional challenge, such as the potential loss of flexibility and other challenges related to working in a new environment, learning new terminology from the medical domain, for example, but provided reassurance, “It’s certainly challenging, but as a researcher, you are used to being adaptable and taking onboard new ideas.”
Lucía explains that the collaboration between MARS Bioimaging and CHUV was established several years ago thanks to the tireless dedication of Jérôme Damet, head of the Radiation Protection group at CHUV and associate at CERN in Pierre Carbonez’s section also strongly involved in the project, and Fabio Becce, Associate Physician and Medical Senior Lecturer. The whole team is very excited about the new European MARS Collaboration, that has been made possible thanks also to the contribution of François Brych, Benoît Palmier and Monaco Molecular Rocfund. The MARS scanner arrived at CHUV in May 2021, prior to which, Lucía was focussed on project managing the transportation and subsequent installation of the equipment. Much time and effort was invested in liaising with IT services for the server installation. Being a medical device, MARS Bioimaging's scanner will collect sensitive patient data, so every precaution has to be taken to install it securely.
Lucía is currently commissioning the scanner, setting the reference values, the required calibrations and quality control checks, after which she will be able to begin with the optimisation of protocols to improve their understanding of various diseases, with the help of Dr Fabio Becce and Anaïs Viry (medical physicist of the Radiology department). Paperwork is also being prepared for the ethics committee to request authorisation to perform the first clinical trials in humans. Lucía admits that she feels very privileged to be working on the scanner, “I feel very lucky that CHUV and the Institute for Radiation Physics is investing in this type of novel technology, which allows me to conduct exciting and challenging research. It’s also a bit like having a new toy!”
In her career so far, Lucía is something of a pioneer. Within her former team in Madrid, she was the only woman and was also the first woman to enrol for the Medical Physics PhD. This changed however when she arrived at CERN, as within her section there were more women than men! When I quiz Lucía about her best CERN memory, she replies that she does not have an exciting anecdote of how she had lunch with a Nobel prize winner, but rather expresses the awe and wonder of being part of the endeavour that is CERN, “When I would take out my CERN badge to enter the site, I would think quite regularly, wow, I am entering CERN, I’ve got a CERN badge and I am working there. I am a CERNie, I am part of CERN!”
Fortunately for Lucía, being a member of the CERN Alumni Network means that even though she no longer works at CERN, she still remains a valued and important member of the CERN community.
Marie Nowak, former Doctoral Student at CERN opens new doors into the world of medical physics by working at CHUV on a 3D colour X-ray scanner using CERN technology.
Marie Nowak concluded her master’s in medical physics with a placement at CHUV, where she first encountered Jérôme Damet, Scientific Collaborator also working at CHUV. At the time she was undecided whether to pursue her studies with a PhD, but thanks to discussions with her colleague Jérôme Damet, and a CERN contact, Pierre Carbonez, she formulated a project proposal to develop a new detector based on spectral information from the Medipix pixel detector family. Her proposal was accepted!
“This is how I found myself working at CERN, within the Radiation Protection group, developing such detectors. I was very much motivated by the idea of taking something developed at CERN and applying it in the medical domain.”
Marie was fully aware of CERN’s renown, but had thus far never had the opportunity to visit the installation, let alone consider working there. Six months before beginning her PhD, she took part in a company visit of CERN and was inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of the researchers and rather humbly made the following observation,
“When I saw how involved and absorbed this brilliant people were, I never imagined I would one day have the opportunity to take part in this great endeavor”.
Marie initially intended to study medicine but had a natural proclivity for physics so pursued her education in this area. Prior to her masters, one of her lecturers advised her that it was possible to study for a master’s in medical physics.
“Doing such a master’s would enable me to apply what I had learnt in physics to the medical sector. I was driven by the idea of improving patient health and protecting the medical staff, I thought it was a great way to serve the population.”
Marie’s discussions with Jérôme Damet, were also instrumental in her decision to continue her research along the medical physics path,
“We both agreed that currently, there are gaps in dosimetry and the prospect of reducing these gaps and making more precise detectors was very exciting and stimulating. I knew it would be a challenge, that it would involve plenty of coding, but I decided to take the plunge!”Confirming the importance of medical physicists within the Aesculapian domain, Marie explains that currently, in Switzerland, she is part of still a rather small community. She sees the same faces at conferences, however there are increasing numbers of people studying medical physics and joining the radio therapy and medical imaging sectors.
Once at CERN and fully immersed in her PhD, Marie appreciated being able to straddle both the world of pure research at CERN and the clinical sector at CHUV, giving her the opportunity to communicate with both physicists and doctors, all experts within their respective fields.
“Doing my PhD at CERN enabled me to have close contact with such knowledgeable individuals. I was often wowed by their brilliance. Equally, I learned how to be a link between both worlds. On the one hand I could relay to the medics that for some of their proposals, the physics would not work and on the other, I had to tell the physicists that their suggested solution would be too fragile for the medical world.”
Marie’s CERN experience also opened doors into new worlds, thanks to her participation in the regular Medipix collaboration meetings four times per year. This is the occasion for members to assemble and exchange on the latest advances with their detectors. Marie recalls that a couple of collaboration members were responsible for analysing data captured by the Timepix detector and another was in charge of ensuring the correct functioning of the detector so it could accompany astronauts back to the International Space Station,
“I could barely believe that I was working with a team sending equipment up into space. It’s the stuff of dreams!!”
During the first part of her PhD, Marie also had to opportunity to travel to New Zealand to work on MARS Bioimaging's CT (computerized tomography) scanner as well as exchange ideas and compare results with the New Zealand team. Marie explains this as the virtuous circle of CERN making advances on detector performance and the clinical results feeding back to drive the advances.
“At the time CERN had no accessible scanners so we would travel out to New Zealand to take our measurements. As well as that, it was a perfect opportunity to discuss topics such as the decision to use different materials on the detectors. The communication would flow back to CERN, which would drive advances in the scanner.”
Now working at CHUV since the beginning of February 2021, as a medical physicist Marie has several areas of responsibility, including the optimisation of image quality, which means ensuring medical scanners deliver the best image with the lowest possible dose. As a medical physicist, she must calculate doses for patients and ensure the medical staff are protected. Marie is also bracing herself for requests from various services, such as interventional radiology, who have got wind of the arrival of MARS CT, and who are champing at the bit begin research with the scanner.
Prior to starting research several hurdles must be cleared. Operations such as connecting the scanner to the internet must be completed, ensuring absolute security; one cannot connect the MARS CT to a standard network because it will be managing sensitive medical data. Marie highlights this as an example of one of the differences between working at CERN and in the medical sector.
“The CERN environment is protected, once within CERN it is easy to progress with tests and research, whilst in the medical sector, we have to ensure that each scanner is secured. One might think that connecting it to the internet is a simple task, but far from it, it is rather complicated. There might well be other challenges we have not planned for, but it is stimulating. We have opened another door without knowing what is behind. It is exciting! “
Marie emphasises that she is thankful for her CERN experience and is delighted that now she is working at CHUV with the MARS CT, as this enables her to maintain links with CERN. In turn, this has made leaving the Organization a little less traumatic. It took Marie approximately nine months to find her new position at CHUV and she states she feels lucky to be in a situation where she still has contacts with CERN colleagues who are willing to collaborate on common projects.
Furthermore, Marie is delighted with her new professional challenge. Her position at CHUV is relatively new. Previously, physicists have worked at Lausanne University Hospital without their positions being specifically dedicated to CHUV, which is no longer the case for Marie’s current position. As Swiss law states that those authorised to use machines such as the MARS CT, must do so in conjunction with a medical physicist, this is a great opportunity to create more positions for physicists. Marie is already seeing much interest in possible research projects. With the arrival of the MARS CT scanner more and more people have been reaching out to her, keen to begin research.
“People have their ideas about what they want do, but they are keeping their cards close to their chest. As in the world of particle physics there is a lot of competition!“
Looking to the future, Marie is happy to be in the juxtaposition between research and medicine. She is also eager to continue developing and learn more,
“I regularly have to ask for clarification from the medical staff. A couple of days ago I was carrying out a cardiology audit, and referred to the cardiology room, someone responded,” that is a catheterization room, and this is an electrophysiology room”. There is a lot to learn, but it is highly stimulating, and I appreciate that! “
Moreover, it is imperative that Marie understands what her colleagues need to carry out with the MARS CT, their goals and how they wish to achieve their goals. Having worked at CERN, Marie confirms another similarity between the world of high energy physics and medicine,
“In both environments I have worked or am working with specialists who are passionate about what they do and are driven. At university hospitals, the medical staff understand the importance of research and are very much in favour of it and are only too happy to dedicate the necessary time towards it.”
Finally, Marie has maintained her links with CERN, not only thanks to the Medipix collaboration, but also through the CERN alumni network, which she anticipates will prove extremely useful to stay connected with her former CERN colleagues in years to come.
Author: Rachel Bray (CERN)