Una O'Connor, Medical Physicist
"I'd definitely encourage people to enter medical physics if they are interested in using physics for a practical application and want to help in patient care. Interacting with patients is a part of the job I really like," says Una O'Connor, Senior Physicist at St James's Hospital in Dublin and Associate Member of the IOP.
Una also enjoys the variety her job offers. "One of the main things my role involves is X-ray quality assurance and radiation protection. I make sure X-ray equipment works to certain standards and is compliant with legislation by testing it for radiation dose and image quality. If there is a problem, I liaise with the clinical staff and call in service engineers, reporting back to doctors and radiographers about what we've found. Radiation protection covers things like checking staff doses are low enough, and that X-ray rooms have enough lead protection in the walls. I'm also involved in giving advice on doses if someone has been unnecessarily exposed," she explains. Other aspects of her work include training doctors, nurses and other hospital staff in radiation protection, and administering nuclear medicine treatments. "I really love the mixture between the practical routine measurements - being very precise and thorough when I'm making sure equipment is calibrated and working properly - and the health care aspect when I'm explaining radioactive treatments to patients," she enthuses.
After her interest in physics was sparked in secondary school by "doing all sorts of mad experiments!", Una took physics as part of her Leaving Certificate (Irish equivalent to 'A' Levels). She then chose physics and computer science as her major subjects during her BSc in Applied Science from the Dublin Institute of Technology and Trinity College Dublin, which she completed in 1999. "The final year of my degree coincided with the Celtic Tiger boom in Ireland when all the IT and software engineering jobs were really taking off, so there were lots of exciting opportunities in that field and I thought I'd like to go and become a computer programmer."
Despite this, "I chose medical physics and medical informatics for my final year options and got to learn both aspects of a medical physics job," she recalls. "I studied the basic physics of X-ray tubes and generators, nuclear medicine and MRI, and also how digital imaging and image processing worked. My fourth year project (on X-rays) was in conjunction with the local hospital, so I started to see that there were jobs here for physicists."
While working as a programmer on financial software during a gap year in Australia, Una realised a career in computer programming was not for her. So she applied for a medical physics training post in St James's Hospital on her return to Ireland. This included part-time study for an MSc in Physical Sciences in Medicine back at Trinity College, and she was offered a full time Basic Grade Physicist post at St James's on completion of her masters degree. Although clearly interested in the medical applications of physics, Una still enjoys the wider subject. "Physics World keeps me up to date with what's going on more broadly in physics, and it's good to get the e-mails from the Irish branch of the IOP as I sometimes go to general interest physics meetings and evening lectures in Dublin," she says.