This post is a little bit late considering that the conference happened on June 15th and it’s now July! But I had to go on holiday to Los Angeles and New York City, so it just had to wait. Now that I have a little free time, I wanted to write about my first conference experience.

The All Wales Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering Meeting is a popular, annual meeting, and this year it was held at the Village Hotel in Cardiff. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the pre-conference dinner, but I did attend the conference itself. The conference was aimed at those who specialise in areas concerned with radiation therapy, whether it be treatment, protection, planning or otherwise. Most of the participating speakers were young students who had only just entered the medical physics profession.

So how I was I involved? For my fourth and final year of my masters degree I chose to do a project which was not directly involved with the university. I wanted to learn a little more about the medical physics profession, and what better way to learn than to get right into the thick of it, and work at a hospital with a medical physics team. I approached the Velindre Cancer Centre (VCC) in Whitchurch, Cardiff, and they kindly agreed to help me set up a project with their radiation therapy treatment planning department. So for my final year in Cardiff, I cycled 10miles a day, five days a week to the VCC for my project. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and liked being part of a team. It was nice to work on an applied project, in a working environment where I got the full experience of being a real medical physicist.

My project was a retrospective treatment planning project, comparing three different external beam radiation therapy methods for cervical cancer. These were Conformal Radiation Therapy (CFRT), which is currently used to treat patients with cervical cancer, Intensity Modulated Arc Therapy (IMRT) and Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT). These three methods are all concerned with the same final goal: keep the higher doses of radiation confined to the targets whilst lowering the doses to the normal tissues around it. If I was able to show an improvement between the current treatment being used, and the more advanced methods available, then the planners were going to look to change the way they treat the patients….no pressure!

As a brief description, each of these three treatment modalities is conformal in that it aims to shape the radiation beams to the target. But each does this in a slightly different way. In CFRT, four beams are placed orthogonally around the patient, creating a “box-shape” of high dose radiation to the target, as well as any nearby healthy tissue. The beams are then shaped to the target using Multi-Leaf Collimators (MLCs). IMRT allows you to not only change the number and shape of the beams, but also the intensity, hence giving more degrees of freedom to improve conformality. VMAT further improves conformality by allowing you to also vary the rate at which the dose is delivered. It also removes the limitations of having fixed beams as it has the radiation continuously delivered in an arc around the patient.

The success of radiation therapy is mostly measured by how well the treatment is delivered. There are three main aspects of this; firstly, the aim is to deliver the prescribed dose of radiation to the target (tumour plus a small increment around it to account for any scattering). Secondly, you want to avoid as much of the healthy tissue surrounding the target and any organs at risk nearby. And finally, it is important to be able to reach the two previous aims in the shortest time possible, to improve patient through put as well as patient comfort during treatment. I wanted to see whether the IMRT or VMAT treatment planning methods provided an improvement in all these objectives, compared to CFRT which is currently used at the VCC to treat cervical cancer.

Luckily, my results showed a significant improvement in target coverage and healthy tissue sparing for both IMRT and VMAT compared to CFRT. And VMAT turned out to be the best of all three as it also decreased treatment time, making it more efficient than CFRT and IMRT. This means that VCC are going to look into changing the way they treat their patients! My work is directly contributing to the health of many patients passing through the centre. It’s a great feeling!

As a result of my successful project, my two supervisors (Dr. Tony Millin and Dr. Geraint Lewis) at the VCC asked me to present my results at the conference. This was quite an honour for me, and a very daunting task too! Thankfully I already had a set of slides prepared from my project talk for my assessors at the physics department, so I didn’t need to change much.

The actual conference was small, which made it feel more like an informal gathering, lowering the pressure a bit. Many of the speakers were students like myself, although most of them were Medical Physics students on the Grade A training scheme to become fully qualified medical physicists. There were only two other Cardiff University students there, both on the combined BSc in Physics and Medical Physics, so both knew a lot more about the profession than I did. I felt a little outnumbered.

Once the talks started, I started feeling a little bit worse. Each of the speakers in the same sessions as myself were all talking at a very advanced level. From my point of view, it appeared as though they were aiming their talks at people who were on the same level as them, which made it more difficult for the likes of me to understand what they were trying to talk about. Not everyone at this particular session was an expert in the same field; each speaker had a particular project they wanted to talk about, each in a slightly different part of radiation physics.

I’m just nit-picking a little bit now, but I found that a few of the presenters didn’t have a huge amount of confidence when it came to presenting. Maybe it’s because they had never presented before, or they didn’t enjoy it, or they simply had never been taught how to give a good presentation. The latter reasons I find quite hard to believe. In my four years at Cardiff, I think we had at least one lecture a year about how to give a good presentation. Scientists are constantly required to present their research results at conferences and meeting both within and outside of their research groups. Being able to provide a clear, well spoken and confident presentation is a vital skill to have.

I tried to keep my talk fairly basic; I gave a quick overview of the background and motivation, described the three treatment modalities and then presented my results before making a conclusion. All neatly packed into a ten minute talk. I personally thought it went quite smoothly, up until the point when I got asked a question. A speaker from Swansea Univeristy asked how I thought the treatment modalities affected the healthy tissues at the lower doses of radiation. This wasn’t something I had looked at in my project. I ventured an answer, and I think I went along the right lines, but didn’t get very far before my supervisor took over. It turns out that the gentleman who asked the question wanted to stimulate some discussion after my talk as nobody else had any questions to ask. I like to think that it was because my talk was so well presented and the results were fab. This probably wasn’t the case, but a girl can hope!

I was approached after the session had ended, and was told that my presentation was very clear cut, precise and easy to follow. These are all complements that I take very gratefully, especially considering that I hope to go on to be a science communicator! Another young lady asked if she could have a copy of my project thesis, as it would complement the work she was doing for her PhD very well.

Overall, it was a great experience for me, and hopefully I will be able to attend many more conferences. Each time I speak in public I become more comfortable, more at ease, and more confident in what I am saying.

Go to the orginal article here or listen below