February 18, 2020
The Focal Spot: Todd Atwood
featuring Todd Atwood, PhD
“I’ve been blessed to have good mentors to guide my direction. In the past I’ve worked hard to connect and partner with the people who understand my passion. I’ve just tried to ask good questions and listen.”
In this edition of The Focal Spot, I interview Todd Atwood, PhD. Todd is an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, where he serves as Technology Section Chief for the Benign service and Senior Associate Division Director of Transformational Clinical Physics. He and his team at UCSD are pioneering a new niche for medical physicists as an integral part of patient care with their Direct Patient Care Initiative. Todd contributes to the AAPM via Medical Physics 3.0 and other committees. In our interview, Todd shares with us what life is like as a physicist at UCSD and makes it known that he considers himself a real nerd. At the bottom of the interview, you’ll find an audio clip from our conversation.
Tyler: You did all your schooling in North Carolina, is that where you grew up?

Todd: That’s right. I grew up in a rural, mountainous part of North Carolina, which is a beautiful state. I was lucky and had a wonderful childhood. I have a great family—they facilitated our interests and constantly did fun and creative things with us.

Tyler: You studied applied science at UNC, is that where you learned about medical physics?

Todd: I went to undergrad at UNC, which was a family thing, and I loved it there. When I was 10, I was pretty sure I was going to be on a basketball scholarship, but that didn’t exactly pan out. (laughs) Initially I planned to get my degree in computer science and then get an MBA. But when I mentioned this in class one day, my friend sitting next to me said, “Oh I didn’t really have you pegged as someone who wasn’t a real nerd!” I didn’t think of my plan in that way, but it stung! Eventually I found biomedical engineering. A small part of BME was devoted to medical physics, and I got into it and loved it. To me it sounded like a great way to make a difference in patients’ lives.

Tyler: You’re at UCSD now. From my perspective, UCSD always has something fun and interesting going on. Always clinically relevant. What makes UCSD different?

Todd: Thanks! Everyone here is striving to be productive, so that’s really nice to hear. It was all laid out for us by AJ Mundt (radiation oncologist) and Todd Pawlicki (physicist). They organized the department from the ground up with the intent of creating a passionate work environment. They established a culture where people openly collaborate, with a focus on the patients. They are also really open to trying new things. It’s a great place to work. 

Tyler: I’ve found that being passionate about a topic makes staying engaged and productive a lot easier. Otherwise the work doesn’t have the same intensity and it’s harder to gain traction.

Todd: I’ve always thought the same thing. You mentioned clinical research, and I’ll say this, the size and number of faculty at UCSD ensure that everything is devoted to clinically oriented projects. We’re all passionate about improving care for patients in the near future. That’s the mindset of everyone here.

Tyler: You’ve been a physicist now for 10 years. After being in the field for a decade, what is it that you love about being a medical physicist?

Todd: A decade, wow! Sometimes I still feel like I just finished residency. People gravitate towards different parts of the field, that’s for sure. I think what I like most is the idea that we oversee all of the technical aspects of radiation oncology. When you think about what all means, it’s really exciting. There are so many ways we as physicists can make a difference and help radiation oncology evolve. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s what I love about being a medical physicist.

Tyler: What do you think is not great about being a physicist?

Todd: In some places there is a perception that medical physicists only exist to ensure that QA is performed, so an accrediting body remains happy. This drives me crazy. I prefer a much broader view of our profession. I could go on a longer rant here, but I’ll stop. (laughs)

Tyler: What are you excited about in medical physics as a field right now?

Todd: The future! I’m constantly talking about the idea of physicists establishing independent professional relationships with patients. I believe this is the most important way we can impact patient care. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t just mean communicating with patients to improve the patient experience. In our minds, this means laying the groundwork for future innovations and patient responsibilities. I want medical physicists to think broadly about how they can utilize their unique skill sets to change the way we collaborate with radiation oncologists, to provide the best care possible for our patients.

UCSDs Todd Atwood explaining the radiation treatment delivery process to a patient
Tyler: What’s a unique skill you possess that’s helped you be successful?

Todd: This is a tough one. I’m not sure it’s a skill exactly, but I would say being honest with myself. Early on in my career, I worked on a lot of projects, but I wasn’t overly passionate about any of them. I was essentially just trying to keep everyone happy. A few years ago I decided to simply focus on what was most important to me, what I was most passionate about. It seems simple, but it’s not always easy to think this way early in your career.

Tyler: How do you take advantage of life in San Diego?

Todd: I started here at the same time as Derek Brown, and he single-handedly convinced several people in the department to start surfing. This is easily the most quintessential southern California thing I do. I should probably clarify something though: when I say surfing, I mean take a surfboard out into the water…I’m still terrible. San Diego is a really great place for young families too. I have three young kids, and we spend as much time outside as possible. 

FLASH QUESTIONS

Tyler: If you weren’t a medical physicist, what alternate career path would you pursue?

Todd: Psychiatry. It probably sounds strange, but I’m really interested in it for some reason.

Tyler: Do you have a favorite movie?

Todd: The Empire Strikes Back. I mean it has AT-ATs and tauntauns. My son agrees with this choice.

Tyler: What’s the coolest place you’ve ever visited?

Todd: As a child we’d go on big family vacations and Glacier National Park was absolutely unbelievable to me. That was one of my favorites as a kid. Now I tell everyone my favorite place on earth is here in California—Big Sur.

Tyler: I know you’re into health and fitness, but what is your favorite treat or indulgence?

Todd: Oh wow! Can I just say whiskey? (laughs)

Tyler: I’m looking forward to seeing you at the next conference! I think we will get along just fine…

In case it’s not clear in text, Todd is energetic, enthusiastic, and humble. Broadly speaking, he’s passionate about the field of radiation oncology and his effervescent personality makes him the perfect advocate leading the charge for the Direct Patient Care Initiative at UCSD. Let us know what you think of the interview!

Want to listen in on the conversation? Here’s a short clip from the interview with Todd:

written by Tyler Blackwell

Tyler Blackwell 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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