January 21, 2020
The Focal Spot: Robin Miller
featuring Robin Miller, MS, FAAPM
“One of the most important things to me personally and professionally is that medical physicists are extraordinarily generous with their knowledge and time. This has been one of the most unexpected but meaningful things to me about medical physicists—the generosity.”
Robin Miller is a member of Northwest Medical Physics Center and chief physicist at Multicare Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, WA. She is a fellow of the AAPM, in recognition of her ongoing service to the organization spanning multiple decades. Presently Robin serves as past-president of the Northwest Chapter of the AAPM and chair of the Professional Services Committee, among other things. In this edition of The Focal Spot, we discuss the importance of AAPM volunteerism, how to get involved (and why), and the odd shape of brachytherapy applicators.

 Tyler: I’m so glad to have the opportunity to chat, Robin! You’ve been a close friend and mentor to me since we joined Northwest Medical Physics Center around the same time in 2010, and I have long valued your guidance and friendship.

Robin: It’s all about making connections and keeping connections.

Tyler: You’re somewhat known for your active participation with the AAPM. I’d wager that most AAPM members, especially early-career members, would say there is a perceived barrier to getting started volunteering in committee work. Since you are no stranger to the process, can you give any suggestions about how to get involved?

Robin: There are a variety of tactics. For those still in graduate school or residency, the Students and Trainees Subcommittee (STSC) is a fantastic way to get started. They have been able to gain traction in the AAPM in a way that others couldn’t. It’s a useful launch pad for aspiring professionals and it gives me optimism about where we are going as a profession. I’ve been blown away by what the subcommittee has accomplished.

AAPM is also currently trying to democratize how people get involved in committees, via the yellow pages. A recent change now ensures everybody interested in a committee classified ad gets an automatic response.

Tyler: Why has committee work been such a key component of your professional arc?

Robin: AAPM committee work is important to a medical physics career because you can learn skills that are not taught in graduate school or in residency, like negotiation and consensus building.  Also, every medical physicist needs leadership skills (see why here). AAPM work is a non-threatening way to test things out. I’ve gotten more than I’ve given, though there definitely is a sweat equity component.

I distinctly remember a town hall meeting early in my career. Senior members were making major decisions that would impact my career, yet they were on the verge of retirement. The idea that if I was involved and could help influence the course we took going forward, as opposed to having it dictated to me…that was impactful.

Tyler: How do you keep copacetic considering the additional workload from professional commitments along with your full time clinical position?

Robin: I’d like to say that I don’t sleep, but that’s a big fib. Some jobs take more effort than others, but it’s a matter of understanding what the time and effort commitment is and the role you play. I do not believe in committing to something if you can’t contribute to the extent that you need to.

Tyler: What is a talent that is uniquely and unequivocally Robin that has been helpful to you in the field or elsewhere?

Robin: I’ve learned in life we don’t always get it right. Listening and seeing different perspectives is important. There have been topics in which I thought I was on one side, but after listening to eloquent arguments and hearing points I hadn’t considered for various reasons, I realized I may not be as secure in my position as I thought.

Tyler: Tell me about any fun or special projects you are working on at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.

Robin: Recently we’ve implemented ClearCheck and EZFluence and are working on tailoring it to our site. We installed a new TrueBeam not long ago and will have another coming in the future. Otherwise, my focus now is on using tools that we already have but are currently underutilized.

Tyler: You’ve had extensive clinical involvement with HDR in your career. What has your experience been like with patient interaction via HDR?

Robin: HDR was off-putting to me when I was in graduate school. I remember looking at an applicator and asking my professor, “How do you get that in there? That looks too big!” For penance, I did a longer brachytherapy rotation than my peers.

Patient interactions terrified me because I had basically no training. One of my first professors at the University of Kentucky, Charlie Coffey, had a rule that you do not work with a patient without knowing his or her name. It’s a rule I still abide by. Patients are going through a lot that can be hard to appreciate, and it’s an evolutionary process, interacting with patients and seeing what works.

Tyler: I know it took me a while to get it right, but you’ve been in the field long enough now to succinctly answer the question: what does a medical physicist do? Do you have your elevator pitch down?

Robin: I have an elevator pitch, but it has definitely changed over time. The easiest thing that I’ve learned to say is I’m a member of a cancer care team and it’s my job to deliver radiation in the most safe and efficient manner for the best patient outcome.

Tyler: I’ve learned you have to be careful describing our work so you don’t get “the look.”

Robin: Yes, it’s that glazed eye look, where their eyes roll back in their head and then they just kind of move on. The Medical Physics 3.0 initiative has been working on a great 30 second pitch that’s coming soon and should make it easier for those that don’t have a pitch ready at hand.

FLASH QUESTIONS

Tyler: What are you not good at?

Robin: Physics billing is my downfall. Whenever you mention billing there is kind of a collective groan in the room. Part of being a physicist is knowing about yourself and when you’re pushing the edge of bluffing.

Tyler: How would your high school classmates describe you?

Robin: Embarrassingly enough, in my senior year of high school I was voted Most Likely to Succeed. I think they handed out superlatives in a very generous manner.

Tyler: Do you have a favorite book?

Robin: If I was forced to choose a book it would be To Kill a Mockingbird because I keep going back to it. I like the movie as well, but the book is written in a way that I just have an emotional connection to.

It never fails: every conversation I’ve had with Robin has been insightful and thoroughly entertaining! I admire her practical, common sense approaches to sticky situations. We covered good ground, but what else should we ask her? Let me know in the comments below.

written by Tyler Blackwell

Tyler is a board certified medical physicist with extensive clinical experience in radiation therapy. He is active in several AAPM committees, has served as secretary-treasurer for the Northwest Chapter of AAPM, and is an ABR orals examiner. Tyler dabbles in real estate investing and loves preparing breakfast for his two kiddos.

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