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Physics saving lives: Consultant Medical Physicist

Heather is in charge of nuclear medicine at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, one of the largest cancer treatment centres in Europe.


Heather Williams at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust

I walk into work through a waiting room full of patients every morning, and if we get what we do right, then those patients will get better treatment.”

First name: Heather | Job title: Consultant Medical Physicist/Lead Clinical Scientist for Nuclear Medicine | Organisation: The Christie NHS Foundation Trust
Qualifications: PhD, Positron Emission Tomography, UMIST; MSc, Physics and Computing with Medicine and Biology, University of Manchester; BSc, Physics with Medical Physics, University of Nottingham

Can you describe a typical day for you?
I oversee delivery of nuclear medicine at The Christie cancer treatment centre in Manchester. Physicists in my team are very involved in the delivery of therapy, giving radioactive materials that are attached to drugs that target cancer, and give a very localised radiation dose to the tumour. They are also heavily involved in imaging, which requires knowledge of how radiation works, and how to take and process images using complex equipment – all in the context of the anatomy and physiology of the patient.

There isn’t a "typical day" because the science that we do is individual to the patients that come in. For instance, if a patient can’t hold the standard position for their scan, we will be drafted in to see how to modify the setup and still get the information needed by the medical team.

What do you enjoy most about your role?
I enjoy being able to change things. Having been a medical physicist for quite a long time now – I’ve been doing it 20 years – I have that breadth of experience to be able to look at a problem and say, “Yes, I know the solution to that”. Well, most of the time, anyway! And having managerial responsibility means I can make those positive changes happen. I also like being able to create a way of working that serves the brilliant scientists on my team better.

What is the impact of your work?
I walk into work through a waiting room full of patients every morning, and if we get what we do right, then those patients will get better treatment. Either they’ll have that treatment direct from us, or they will have scans that show in beautiful detail what’s going on so our medical colleagues can make the right decision about other forms of treatment.

Everything we do, even things like keeping radioactive materials safe, all of that is looking after people and improving their lives in all sorts of different ways. It’s tremendously satisfying because of that.

Which skills will the next generation need to succeed in medical physics?
I think the way we’re moving, there will be an increased use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to partly automate tasks that medical physicists do at the moment. So if you want to steer more towards the computer science side of things, there will be loads of work for you to do. However, there will still be things that can’t be automated, many of them similar to what we do now, answering questions like, how do I optimise this scan for this particular type of disease? Or, how do I measure what’s going on in this group of patients most effectively? All that work will still be carried out by people at the frontline of nuclear medicine.

Do you have any advice for a young person thinking about a career in medical physics?
When you ask, “Is physics for me?”, don’t think you must be a genius uber-nerd to do it, because that’s not what a lot of us are like. Instead, project yourself 20 to 25 years into the future, and ask yourself: "What’s going to get me out of bed in the morning? What am I going to be excited about doing? What do I want to go home having achieved at the end of the day?" Medical physics and clinical engineering have loads of opportunities where every day you are making a difference to someone’s life.

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