St. Olaf College | News

Applying physics to the world of medicine

St. Olaf student Nellie Brovold’s internship at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Care Center has given her an up-close look at the work of medical physicists.

Until this summer, St. Olaf College student Nellie Brovold ’18 didn’t spend much time thinking about the important role that physics plays in treating cancer.

But her internship at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center (SCCC) has given her an up-close look at the work of medical physicists — and an idea of how she might like to apply her physics major to a growing field after graduating from St. Olaf.

Brovold, a physics major and Miami native, has been working in the SCCC’s Department of Radiation Oncology.

During her time there, she’s shadowed dosimetrists, medical physicists, and radiation therapists, learning the intricate process of imaging, planning, approving, and administering radiation to cancer patients.

Hospitals have many different machines and techniques for administering radiation in the best way for a wide variety of patients — and Brovold has gotten an up-close look at what role experts can play in figuring out a treatment plan to pursue.

“The role of the dosimetrist, the medical physicist, and the radiation oncologist is to make decisions and compromises in the planning stages about certain cases,” she says. “Each patient is different and may present different constraints than a typical protocol patient would present.”

In the past few weeks, Brovold’s attention has shifted to solely looking at the role that statistical analysis can play in determining the best course of action for treating patients. To do this, her team is employing software that works by taking previously planned anonymized patients from the SCCC to create a model for future patients with similar characteristics.

“I have been learning how to use the University of Miami’s planning software to be able to analyze and understand methods dosimetrists and physicists use in treatment plans that are drafted to doctors and used in treatment for patients,” says Brovold.

Why do hospitals such as SCCC create models for planning cancer treatment?

“Our team wants to analyze how well such models can increase the overall quality and homogeneity of the plans for patients at SCCC,” explains Brovold.

Brovold illustrates the importance of hospitals creating efficient models for cancer treatment.

“Without this tool, it may take several iterations of planning for a dosimetrist to achieve a plan that a physicist and an oncologist will also approve. One patient may take hours to plan, and in a comprehensive cancer center, it still amazes me how many perspectives it takes to accomplish one job very well.”

As a physics major at St. Olaf, Brovold was well equipped for the work that she is doing this summer. The Modern Physics class that she took last spring was especially useful in preparing her for the work this summer, she says.

“I was so excited to recognize how quantum phenomena such as simple Compton Scattering play a role in calculating how X-rays in a linear accelerator disperse doses in a patient’s body,” she says.

Brovold has already been invited to return to the University of Miami next summer to continue her work.

“I am eager to continue learning more about the ever-growing physics applications in the medical field,” she says. “I’m glad that I had the opportunity to study a small part of a large field of interdisciplinary knowledge. It is so satisfying to see how radiation treatment immediately benefits those of all ages in their battles against cancer.”