After earning her undergraduate degree in physics at Duke in 2007, Katie West Hulme earned a master’s degree in medical physics at MD Anderson in Texas. She says she thought about going to physics graduate school, but was looking for something more applied. Then she read an article in Duke Magazine about medical physics. “It looked like a very applied field,” she says. “You have not only the theoretical component, but you interact with a lot of different people. So that sparked my interest.” Today she is a diagnostic physicist in radiology at the Cleveland Clinic, with a specialty in general radiography--using X-rays to make images of the human body. She’s working on getting her FDA certification in mammography. “I do a lot of quality control,” she says. “The biggest part of my job is determining what needs to be tested and how often we need to test it.” In addition to making sure all current equipment is working correctly and compliant with state regulations, she also tests and calibrates new equipment after it is installed. She also helps set up clinical protocols to optimize the balance between image quality and the dose of radiation the patient receives. She doesn’t read images—that’s the job of radiologists—but if there’s an issue with an image due to the equipment, she might help troubleshoot it. In the coming years, she’ll add job responsibilities as she gains experience. For example, physicists on her team sign off on blueprints for treatment rooms in new buildings and compute the radiation dose estimates for a fetus if a pregnant patient needs a CT scan. After working at the Cleveland Clinic for a year and a half, she says, “I get to interact with a whole host of people from clinical administrators, radiologists, technologists. I like that my job is to approve things, so there is a tangible aspect to what I do. I like that there is a teaching component—I do a lot of training sessions with our technologists and I work with radiology residents. I like the variety—every day is very different.”
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.