Improving Health Through Medical Physics

Featured Physicist - Margie Hunt

Katie Woch Naheedy, MS | Ann Arbor, MI

AAPM Newsletter — Volume 44 No. 3 — May | June 2019

Margie Hunt is the Service Chief and Vice Chair of Radiotherapy Physics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). She earned her bachelor's degree in radiological health from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh then earned her master's degree in radiation health from the University of Pittsburgh. I met Margie in 2009 when I started working as a physicist in the External Beam Treatment Planning Section at MSK. I had just finished residency and was eager to start my first professional position. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Margie at the beginning of my career. I learned innumerable things from her, but what stands out the most to me is her vast knowledge and enthusiasm for treatment planning, her passion for patient care, and her dedication to patient safety. Thank you to the WPSC for the opportunity to share this interview with Margie Hunt.

Margie Hunt, MS
Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a very rural part of south-central Pennsylvania. My father was a cabinet maker, but my parents divorced when I was quite young, and I was raised primarily by my mother and paternal grandmother. I always loved school and had my heart set on being the first person in my family to go to college (which I eventually was). At the time, though, my family felt strongly that I should become a secretary. This conflict was ultimately resolved by my high school allowing me to take typing and stenography in addition to college prep classes. It wasn't until I got to graduate school and started using computers that I realized how serendipitous it was that I got the opportunity to become a really good typist!

How did you get into the medical physics field?

I always knew I wanted to work in health care and went to Duquesne with the intention of majoring in medical technology. A completely chance encounter there with a priest who taught physics and encouraged me to take his class led me in a totally new direction. While exploring the career options in physics, I learned that Duquesne was one of a handful of colleges at that time who offered an undergraduate degree in radiological sciences and that I could subsequently move into medical physics by attending graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. It seemed like the perfect fit for me and I happily changed my major to point me in this new direction.

Where have you worked as a medical physicist?

My first job was at Montefiore Hospital just next to the University of Pittsburgh campus where I worked with another physicist just out of graduate school, Peggy Eddy Blackwood. We bonded over our shared fear of being such novices and became close friends. Once my husband finished graduate school, we moved to New York where I started at MSK by working as a “traveling physicist” for the Northeast Center for Radiological Physics— we went all over the northeast and did QA measurements on linacs and cobalt units at hospitals participating in clinical trials—it was loads of fun but ultimately I moved into the external beam treatment planning section at MSK because I really missed working directly with patients. I left MSK in 1990 when my son was born to work at Fox Chase Cancer Center under the excellent leadership of Tim Schultheiss and the late Gerald Hanks. It was there that I was given opportunities to take on some leadership projects. In 1996, I returned to MSK to become the head of the external beam treatment planning group. I've been at MSK ever since and have been fortunate enough to serve there in a variety of roles.

What project have you worked on that you are most proud of?

I'm proud of many things in my career but two really stand out. The scientific project that has meant the most to me was one I did way back in the 1980's where I studied breast cosmesis after external beam radiotherapy using a Moiré camera to photograph, quantify, and track long term changes to breast size and shape. It was very challenging technically at the time (think digitizing Moiré fringe patterns off of polaroid photos) but also very innovative in my opinion. Even though we were never able to get really solid results, the project has always had special importance to me (I still have a binder with all the data) because I loved getting to know the women and hearing their stories, and I came to very deeply admire their courage not only for choosing radiation over mastectomy at that time but also for being willing to participate in my study and allowing me to photograph them at each follow-up.

The other “project” in my career that I'm especially proud of is my role in building the external beam treatment planning section at MSK during the 1990's and 2000's. We were in the throes of early IMRT development, and it was incredibly exciting to lead that group through the development of clinical IMRT methods and protocols as well as through the hiring, training, and mentoring of so many incredibly talented dosimetrists and physicists who ended up working so well together as a team. I have very fond memories of those times and of the folks that shared them with me.

What is your favorite medical physics task?

My favorite medical physics tasks have always centered around treatment planning and direct patient care—to which I remain deeply committed. I love being called to the clinic by a radiation oncologist to see a patient with a particularly challenging situation. I like troubleshooting with the rest of the clinical team and coming up with really creative but practical approaches to plan and deliver radiotherapy. I also really like the focus and intensity of developing anything new. MSK is a unique environment for doing things like that both because of its resources and because there are so many like-minded people around. I don't get many chances to see patients anymore but there are still one or two MSK physicians who will call me time-to-time and when they do, I grab the lab coat I keep in my office for just those occasions and literally run to the exam room with a big smile on my face!

Who do you admire professionally?

I had the incredible privilege of working with Sam Hellman when he was Physician-in-Chief and a practicing radiation oncologist at MSK. His skills as a physician were superb but it was his charisma and leadership that really impressed me as a young medical physicist. Through his interactions with patients, residents, and everyone else, he was a tremendous role model and motivated everyone to be involved and do their best in a way that seemed almost second nature to him (although I'm sure it wasn't!) Working with him really impressed upon me that in addition to innate intelligence and technical expertise, there are other attributes needed for leadership and career success and how essential it is for us to work hard at cultivating those attributes in ourselves as an important part of life-long learning.

What has surprised you most about working in medical physics?

How dynamic it is and how valuable the contributions of people with non-medical physics backgrounds have been to our profession. Many years ago, I was told by a physicist at CERN that medical physics was not “real physics.” I thought to myself, “I'm not sure that's accurate but even if it is, I'm totally okay with that.” In my opinion, the incredible evolution of medical physics that we've witnessed over the years is due, in no small part, to the wonderful influx of ideas from physicists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and others who ultimately find their way into medical physics. It reinforces with me how important it is to foster a diverse profession so that we continue to be steered in a direction that is defined solely by the needs of patients.

What advice do you have for women entering the field of medical physics today?

I believe that there are some very specific positive perspectives and attributes brought to medical physics by many women (although by no means are they exclusive to women). In addition to scientific and technical ability, these include understanding others' perspectives, being able to hold in your mind and consider conflicting opinions at the same time, and seeing the big picture. My advice would be to develop awareness of your own strengths, be aware of your own limitations as well and trust in others to help you overcome those, and remember that cultural change is very slow to come. Another thing that I think is really valuable for anyone early in their career and which I myself never had, is a really good mentor. They are hard to find but worth their weight in gold. Lastly, I've found it professionally advantageous to be slow and steady, while also being very conscious about watching for and being ready to seize any good opportunity—I think of this as professional “watchful waiting.” And, of course, being willing to work really hard always helps!

Do you have any skills, hobbies or talents that most people do now know about?

Ha, as many people who work with me already know, I have a very intense work ethic and have little down time. However, I do try to keep my Saturdays sacred because I absolutely love to go to farmer's markets and spend as much of the day cooking and being with my family as possible. I also really enjoy any opportunity to be outdoors particularly in the American West to hike, cross country ski, and most recently I've started to learn to fly-fish!

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