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Dr. Wayne Beckham: My Path to a Career in Medical Physics

December 3, 2014

Hello everyone, I’m pleased to have been asked to be this month’s guest blogger (I’ve never been an official blogger before!).

I grew up in a town in New Zealand called Rotorua, in the middle of the North Island. At that time, Rotorua had a population of around 45,000 comprising around 50% native Polynesian (Maori) and 50% of European descent. This is a much higher proportion of native to non-native people than most of the rest of New Zealand and so the city has a rich cultural heritage that extends well back before European settlement.

During high school I developed an interest in physics, but was also attracted the biological sciences. Just before I graduated from university with my bachelor’s degree in physics one of my lecturers asked me if I would be interested in being part of a newly designed Master’s degree program in medical physics. I immediately said yes and then proceeded to ask, “What actually is a medical physicist and what do they do?” (My good colleague Dr. Kirpal Kohli a previous BCCF blogger gives a fine answer to that question in his blog post.

It was during my Master’s degree that I met my favourite and most influential medical physics mentor Dr. Alun Beddoe. He taught me that it is possible to combine research with a clinical medical physics career but to do that successfully he insisted that I consider a PhD degree first. I waited five years to do this working in a hospital doing some real medical physics first. Later, Alun moved to the University of Adelaide in Australia and he invited me to come and be a PhD student under his supervision. I have never regretted this move.

An interesting aside is that Alun came from a small town in New Zealand called Te Awamutu. Te Awamutu only has a population of 9,000 but it has produced four internationally famous medical physicists! This is amazing given that there are only about 18,000 medical physicists in the entire world and only about 400 in Canada. No medical physicists even work in Te Awamutu!

Most of my family are still in New Zealand, but my wife Sue and I came to live in Canada in 1998 with two boys aged six and two, with a third on the way who was born six weeks after we arrived! I started at the BC Cancer Agency then as the head of the Medical Physics Department in Victoria.

You might wonder why I would uproot my family and move across the Pacific Ocean to Canada. A defining event occurred when I was working in New Zealand soon after graduating with my Master’s degree. My office colleague (incidentally he went on to become one of those four famous physicists from Te Awamutu) did a six-month exchange with a medical physicist who worked at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. The Canadian physicist told me all about her Canadian medical physics career experience. I quickly realised that in Canada (unlike in New Zealand at the time) the medical physicist was expected to be a strong partner with the rest of the patient care team in improving outcomes for patients undergoing radiation therapy. This appealed to me immensely and from then on my sights were set on Canada as a place that I really wanted to practice medical physics.

I saw so much potential to be part of the BC Cancer Agency with its comprehensive cancer control program serving the entire province. I didn’t know of any organisation anywhere else in the world that provided consistent cancer care to a single population as large as B.C. (4.5 million people). I was very excited by this. 16 years later – I still am!

See you next week!