In this edition of the focal spot, I interview Julianne Pollard-Larkin, PhD. Julianne is an associate professor of medical physics at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. In addition to clinical and research duties, she is heavily involved in service to AAPM and medical physics outreach efforts. In this interview, we discuss her recent work in FLASH, outreach efforts at MD Anderson, and her take on diversity and inclusion as it applies to the field of medical physics.
Julianne: It was a project my mentor didn’t have time for, to be honest. The big problem with FLASH experiments using a conventional linac was finding a linac that the department didn’t mind sharing with me, knowing that I would torture and destroy it. We were able to find one that was being decommissioned, so I worked with the in-house engineering team to push 40-66Gy per second on that linac. Because it was being replaced, we only had the opportunity for one year. The presentation in 2019 was based on the animal studies we performed in 2017 with that linac. I was a nervous wreck sharing the stage with the likes of Billy Loo and Lei Dong!
Tyler: This year there wasn’t any capacity at the virtual annual meeting FLASH session. It’s obvious that we’re all eager to see more results.
Julianne: We do have some proton FLASH data in its infancy and we are working on electrons as well. MD Anderson is directing resources toward the topic, and it’s now a research pillar for our division. Maybe come 2022 we’ll have mature data on multiple versions of FLASH, so I’m excited about that. I do expect to go back to my radiation biology roots at some point and focus on projects like FLASH, looking at DNA repair mechanisms to ensure tumoricidal kill. I think understanding the biology is going to take us forward with things like FLASH. Radiation needed an innovation, and this is the beginning of it.
Tyler: Despite technological progress in radiation therapy, we haven’t seen a paradigm shift that completely changes the game, which is what’s so promising about FLASH.
Julianne: We need some good news in 2020. Whether FLASH will revolutionize treatment or not we have yet to find out, but we’re getting started. Pediatric proton FLASH will be available soon in the Northeast, and in the United States, human trials are getting started, with mature data available in a year or so.
Tyler: What advice would you give to people interested in medical physics?
Julianne: Be aggressive. Find out who’s working at the centers close to you and reach out to them to shadow them and learn about their specialty in medical physics. There are opportunities for a well-funded career in our field that most children and adults aren’t aware of. Believe it or not, at one of my science nights I got one of the fathers so excited about how an x-ray generator worked that he asked how to get a job in the field. Lo and behold, he later started the coursework for his master’s degree!
Tyler: Can you detail for me what you are doing for outreach? What does it look like?
Julianne: At least once a month I do some kind of medical physics outreach to students, trainees, or parents. The Big Bang Theory brought some attention to physics, but also we need shows that don’t just perpetuate the geeky profile. At MD Anderson, we get volunteers to speak with the kids in a seminar series, which we’ve done the last five years. We bring local Houston kids to the department for tours. We provide small group mentorship and we talk to parents as well, discussing the challenges they face and how to overcome them. If you can reach both students and parents, you create a circle of support that helps everyone feel comfortable to move forward.
Tyler: I want to ask about your energy and passion, where did that come from? Is it a family thing?
Julianne: It is! My parents were larger than life. My dad was a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, so I got to live in a couple places stateside, and even Europe. With those experiences, making friends became easy. It doesn’t matter where you put me, I will make myself comfortable, I will make my environment conducive to success. I learned at an early age to be like my mom, who was full of life and energy. As a business education teacher, she created a method for teaching keyboard that earned her state teacher of the year honors that year. Brilliance and having a presence were expected in my family.
Tyler: With such high expectations from your family, I would think developing confidence might be challenging because you’re constantly comparing yourself to phenomenal people.
Julianne: I’m very aware of what I’m not good at. I know my strengths, so I try to focus on those. I know who I am, and I’m okay with it. I’m at the right age where I know I can’t do certain things, but I’m great at others, I accept it.
Tyler: How do you define success?
Julianne: I’m in a new period of my life because even though I’m doing a lot in my career I also just became a mom. I now understand that, for me, success is raising an individual as well as my parents raised me and my siblings. My new goal is to ensure my child can shine and outdo anything I’ve imagined.
Tyler: As you mentioned, 2020 has been a year of reckoning. The topic of Diversity and Inclusion has taken more of a spotlight recently, and rightfully so. As the chair of the AAPM Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee, what’s your take?
Julianne: Bearing witness to huge movements across this Earth saying, “we believe that Black Lives Matter,” from Sweden to South Africa to Chicago, it was overwhelming. I had never thought that I would get to experience such love and solidarity, despite what it took to get here. It makes me feel supported as an African American person, and I love my other humans that much more. Overwhelmingly, most people care enough about our fellow humans not to hurt each other. Most of us go out of our way to wear masks and to be kind, and that brings me joy. When I see my fellow essential workers on the street and tired, they pass me with a head nod to let me know “I’m with you,” and that lifts my spirits. There are lots of reasons to feel burnt out because of all the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives, but within the last two months we’ve made a transition as a human race. It’s a process, and even I am still getting used to it all. Being black doesn’t mean you know it all…
Tyler: These days it sometimes feels as if there’s an expectation that in order to join the conversation, you have to be an expert. We’d probably all benefit from engaging in civil conversations, and allow the conversation to bring us together instead of driving us apart.
Julianne: It’s “cancel” culture in 2020: once you’re found to be wrong you get fired, but the truth is that everyone across the whole spectrum of identities will be wrong at some point. We need to be at the point where we can have the conversation necessary to move forward because we are being held back.
Tyler: Speaking to the topic as it applies to medical physics, as chair of the Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee, where does medical physics fit in with all of this?
Julianne: The ad hoc committee for diversity and inclusion within the AAPM was created by our president, Saiful Huq. Because of events in the national news, we’ve broadened our scope to ensure EDI is addressed in medical physics globally. The first step is to create a statement of why AAPM must make this stance to improve our EDI initiatives, our goals, our exact recommendations, and outline everything from there. Surprisingly, we still lack a lot of racial and gender diversity data; only 20-30% of people provide any racial or ethnicity data when they sign up as a member.
Tyler: During the presidential symposium last year, Cynthia McCollough indicated that AAPM had begun to collect baseline data for diversity by providing those fields in member profiles, but the challenge lies in getting members to participate.
Julianne: Gender is one thing we have been paying attention to in past years because we agree that a disparity exists, but when it comes to ethnic or racial disparity, so far it hasn’t been pushed or promoted as much. Only last year did we initiate voluntary demographic data collection. If you haven’t already, please update your member profile with this much-needed data!
Tyler: Is there anything else you want to mention about diversity and inclusion?
Julianne: I don’t want anyone to be scared of dealing with diversity and inclusion no matter your personal background. This topic is about making sure everyone feels included, welcomed, and is allowed to progress just like any member—this is not a means to point people out. We want to improve how we get along with each other and be more efficient as a community of scientists, that’s our goal. Diversity, inclusion, and equity bring innovation and allow us to work better with our clinical teams and our patients, who are diverse by nature! A more diverse team makes us better in the clinic and the research lab alike. We should be excited because it allows us to be better acquainted with our fellow colleagues as well as fellow physicists. Get excited about EDI and don’t be scared. Be humble. No one has all the answers.
Tyler: As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Julianne: I wanted to be an astrophysicist.
Tyler: What song do you have to sing when you hear it?
Julianne: I Wanna Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston. When we play it for patients, I have to scare them and sing along.
Tyler: Travel is a little restricted, but if you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
Julianne: Japan. I was hoping to go to either Japan or China this year with a friend…
Tyler: What’s the best thing about Houston?
Julianne: That cost of living! I’m originally from Miami then I went to UCLA for grad school—Westwood is expensive. When I came here, I suddenly felt rich even on a resident stipend! The people are great here because after all, it’s the buckle of the Bible Belt, and everyone is so kind. People here are family-oriented, and I really enjoy the pace of life. Even though it’s a big city, you don’t feel rushed.
Tyler: Do you have any nicknames?
Julianne: My friends just call me Julie. My family nickname from when I was a toddler was Duty, because it was everyone’s duty to take care of Julie because there was such a large age gap between the siblings. When I came, I was the bonus baby. I cramped everyone’s style and travel plans, so the nickname stuck.
Want to listen in on the conversation? Here’s a short clip from the interview with Julianne:
written by Tyler Blackwell