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Heather Thompson, BEng. '96

(Engineering Physics) | Honing the healing powers of physics

With the end of her Engineering Physics degree in sight and no firm direction for her future, Heather Thompson got a little nudge that ended up making all the difference in her career.

The nudge came from a professor, who pulled her aside to encourage her to consider grad school, and it led her into the Medical Physics program at McGill University.

“I had always been fascinated by radiation, particularly how we can take a naturally-occurring phenomenon and apply it in so many different ways,” she says. “The field of Medical Physics uses radiation to image and treat the human body, so it was the perfect fusion of my areas of interest.”

Now a clinically-certified Medical Physicist specializing in Radiation Oncology Physics, Thompson had to follow up her graduate degree with a residency program, and then complete a professional certification exam.

Medical Physicists are responsible for ensuring the optimal operation of radiation equipment like linear accelerators and CT imaging systems, as well as overseeing the safe implementation of new technologies.

“We also play an active role in planning treatments for the patients,” she explains. “Sometimes this involves coming up with a standard treatment technique that can be used to treat a large percentage of the patients with a certain diagnosis, and sometimes this means coming up with a unique approach to treating an unusual case.

“That part of our job is really fun, because we get to work as part of an interdisciplinary team to come up with creative solutions to best treat our patients.”

Thompson is currently managing the residency program for Radiation Therapy Physics at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. She is also an associate clinical professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine.

“Every day is different and has a mix of clinical work, teaching, and research, which keeps things interesting,” she says. Between the new systems to learn, and the unusual situations that pop up on a daily basis when you are working in a hospital, it is impossible to get bored in this career.”