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Kristen McConnell: From Mechanical Engineer to Medical Physicist

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Author: Charlotte Anthony | Category: Meet The Researcher | Radiological Sciences (Ph.D.) | August 15, 2016

Kristen McConnell graduated from The University of Texas at Austin where she majored in mechanical engineering. 

After graduating she worked as an IT consultant at Accenture, LLP where she helped a team integrate and deploy a new iPad app aimed at using a paperless system for maintenance of nuclear power plants. 

During this time, she also decided to work on a master’s of nuclear engineering where she was exposed to many applications of radiation and saw the impact it could have.

It was the overlap of these two experiences that led her to consider a career in medicine.

“I found myself drawn to projects where I could see the impact on people. My time at Accenture showed me how we could help make people’s lives more efficient, but I really wanted to find something that I could incorporate my nuclear background into more readily.” 

For her, that was medical physics.

She had a conversation with the campus reactor health physicist about her interests and “he told me to check out medical physics,” she said. “I thought to myself—I have finally found something I can use my nuclear background while making a direct impact on someone’s life.”

What is Medical Physics?

McConnell explained that there are multiple types of medical physics, but the two big types are radiation therapeutic medical physics and medical imaging physics.

As a therapeutic medical physicist, McConnell works at the radiation oncology clinic at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center. 

In a nutshell, a medical physicist’s job centers around maintaining and improving the quality and safety of patient care – which means anything from testing new radiation delivery machines to calibrating current machines to performing research on radiation delivery techniques of the future. 

At the end of the day, the physicist wants to ensure that the delivery machines accurately target the cancer cells in a way that is safe and effective for the patient.

Diagnostic medical physics focuses on applying ionizing and non-ionizing radiation to image different things in the body. This deals with MRI, ultrasound, CT scans, x-ray machines and any other imaging techniques.

A big part of a therapy physicist’s job is to calibrate machines to deliver correct doses by taking exposure and relating it to dose inside the body. “Radiation dose is related to how much damage to DNA occurs, which is the goal when you are trying to kill cancer cells…but there are some cases where limitations make it hard to measure the dose accurately,” McConnell said.

“My research is centered on a new dosimeter model, which uses DNA to directly measure damage. We believe it is more representative of what’s happening in your body and will provide a better measurement to predict how our machines affect your cancer.”

Engineering to Health

Cline explained that her engineering background has helped a lot in her coursework as a Radiological Sciences: Medical Physics Ph.D. student.

“Being an engineer, I’ve been trained to see an efficient solution as well as think about how people in the future could use new research developments. A new technology is only as good as how it gets applied. For instance in this DNA project, it’s important to think about how things work in a real life situation and how our dosimeter can be used in a clinic.”

Passion for Teaching

When she’s not working on her research, McConnell can be found helping new students get their footing around UT Health San Antonio. She serves as the COGS chair for Radiological Sciences and is the point person for new students. She recently wrote an article featuring her best tips for new students.

She also teaches undergraduate courses in Radiation Physics at Texas State University, and tutors undergrads in physics and math.

“I like that I can mentor students – people helped me out along the way and I want to pay it forward,” she said.

Improving Patient Care

Another project that McConnell is working on with a team at the CTRC is a database that will track the progress of a cancer patients’ treatment plan from the time they get their first scan to the time they lay on the table for treatment.

“It’s helpful because we are now collecting data that we can use to do statistical analyses that will help us find our weak points. We can correct those and make it more efficient, so that we can reduce the time our patients wait for treatment,” she said.

Life Goals

As a medical physicist, McConnell will graduate with a Ph.D. and then do a two year residency before finding a job.

“My goal is to be a licensed medical physicist. I’d ultimately want to work at a research institution where we can use cutting edge technology to make lives better. I’d also like continue teaching classes, working on research projects, and being involved in the clinical aspect.”

This article is part of the "Meet The Researcher" series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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