Tyler: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today! Before we get into questions about work, what does life look like for you outside of work?
Dimitris: I spend lots of time with my daughter, who is 14. I help out with her homework, primarily with math or science. I have a son as well, a college freshman. I’m no longer helping him with homework! I like to run with my daughter as well, and she and my wife are involved in yoga and organized dance lessons. I study and run with my daughter when I’m home, but by the time you do a couple of these things the day is over!
Tyler: Finding balance in life is an ongoing adventure, that’s for sure.
Dimitris: Yes, you said it. Balance isn’t always easy, but I love walking into the clinic every day of the week, even if I know I will have to run around and resolve clinical issues and argue a little bit with the therapist. This is part of what we do and that does not deter me a single bit to get in there and get on it.
Tyler: What is your day like at UPenn and how do you balance your workload with your other commitments?
Dimitris: I’ve been at Penn for about 4 years now. I first started at Penn with a leadership position, but after a period of change and transition, things have stabilized a bit and at present I’m about 85-90% clinical and 10-15% teaching/research. I’ve given up much of my leadership responsibilities and now I’m able to spend more time in the clinic and mentoring students and residents. I’m doing a new course at Penn dedicated to radiation detectors and measurement, and I’ve been enjoying dedicating time to developing that curriculum.
Tyler: What was your background like? Where did you go to school and how did you discover medical physics?
Dimitris: I grew up in the suburbs of Athens, Greece, and I went to an Italian high school not far from my home. While studying there, I developed this kind of affinity with Italy and I looked for avenues to study nuclear engineering there.
This passion brought me to Padua, Italy in the early 80s to begin studies in nuclear engineering, but shortly thereafter I returned to Greece to pursue physics. While in Greece I developed a lot of interest in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in the United States to study nuclear physics and ultimately took an opportunity at the University of Minnesota.
Here’s the best part, and how I got introduced to medical physics: I was looking for a member of my thesis defense committee that was not a nuclear physicist—a scientist, but in a related field. I ran into someone named Faiz Khan at a university event. We all know who he is! I asked him if he would like to be on the committee—and he actually accepted it! He was extremely influential in my decision to choose a residency in medical physics after graduating instead of continuing with nuclear physics research at MIT.
Tyler: You mentor a lot of students now. What advice do you give to them? How do you involve yourself as a mentor?
Dimitris: I find that medical physics is a practical, clinical problem-solving science and profession, especially as it applies to radiation oncology. Medical physics is not a basic science. So for me, clinical training is more important than being a good researcher in medical physics. I really pay attention to the details of clinical training, so for me that’s number one. Second, I try to give to students and residents the feel of the profession—where the profession may go in the future, advancing in our field, and what it means to be a professional.
Tyler: Our field is changing so fast! Where do you think it’s going in the next five or ten years?
Dimitris: I am looking at it quite conservatively to tell you the truth. I do have great concern, not about where we are going, but how we are going there. I worry very gravely that our future medical physicists may end up being more computer programmers or software specialists than what we think of as medical physicists today.
Colleagues may argue we simply have to evolve as technology does. Yes, we have to adapt our field, but we do not have to sell out. I bear a healthy skepticism for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics. Taking a medical physicist and transforming that individual more into a technology guru, that is a task that right now nobody knows how to do while still maintaining the clinical component.
Who is the owner of all of it is the most important thing. Take AI or machine learning: who owns it? If vendors or physicians own it 100%, then we are losing our handle. If we as physicists are part of the group that is calling the shots then there is more hope that where we are going to be is a safe place.
Tyler: You’re good at so many things, Dimitris. What are you not very good at?
Dimitris: I am not very good at dancing…actually not good at all! But what the heck, I’m still going to dance! The other thing that I collect from self-investigation is that many times I am missing a good emotional moment.
Tyler: How would your high school classmates describe you?
Dimitris: They would describe me as funny, for sure. Conservative, but also anti-conformist, in the sense that I don’t accept status quos. This can be a bit confusing because the definition of a conservative mind is that you go with the tradition established, but I keep on questioning: why are we doing it the way we do it?
Tyler: Do you have a favorite book?
Dimitris: I do have two favorite books that I have read many, many times. One is God’s Pauper: Saint Francis of Assisi. Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a lot of books about spirituality, and every time I read it, it touches my inner world. The other book that I like is Critical Assembly: Technical History of Los Alamos During the Oppenheimer Years. It’s a very detailed history of every single step that the scientists and politicians took to make the atomic bombs in the early 40s. It reminds me a lot of my life at Los Alamos while I worked on my PhD.