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Every breath they take, every move they make

Killam Pre-Doctoral Scholar Leigh Conroy researches the effect of respiratory motion on radiation dosimetry
December 8, 2014

Killam Pre-Doctoral Scholar Leigh Conroy, a medical physics PhD candidate in the Faculty of Science, is researching the effect of respiratory motion on radiation dosimetry. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

How does a graduate student enrolled in the Department of Physics and Astronomy spend the majority of her time, when she also has clinical research to do and responsibilities at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre? Well, that’s a typical day for Killam Pre-Doctoral Scholar Leigh Conroy, who is pursuing her PhD in medical physics.

“I sort of stumbled into the field of medical physics while I was an undergrad at McMaster University,” says Conroy. “A medical physicist gave a guest lecture in one of my classes and I was very interested in learning more, so I did a summer studentship at the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. I decided to do my PhD here in Calgary because of the strong clinically-oriented program offered.”

Medical physicists are health-care professionals with specialized training in the medical applications of physics. Their work often involves the use of X-rays, ultrasound, magnetic and electric fields, infra-red and ultraviolet light, heat and lasers in diagnosis and therapy. Radiation oncology physicists are medical physicists who apply the principles of physics to the processes and equipment used to delivery radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer. 

Conroy has clinical responsibilities as a project assistant with the radiation oncology physics group at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, which includes the technical aspects of radiotherapy delivery such as ensuring the quality assurance of the equipment delivering radiation and of the radiation plans that define the patient's treatment. In addition, she’s busy with her research program.

 Researching the impact of breath-holding on radiation treatment

“Most radiation treatments are delivered while the patient is breathing normally. I’m investigating the effect of this movement on the radiation dose, as well as the effect of having the patient hold their breath during treatment,” says Conroy. “It is exciting when I can see how my work and research impacts patients.”

One example of connecting research to patient impact was Conroy’s work with the clinical implementation of volumetric modulated arc therapy — a form of radiation therapy that delivers the treatment in multiple arcs. Leigh says that the therapy means some great things for patients: faster treatments that are more comfortable, and less time spent holding still to avoid movements that could compromise the accuracy of the treatment.

When Conroy isn’t working at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre or in the middle of classes and research, she still finds time to give back to the community. She’s an active gymnastics coach in the city.

Wendy Smith, Conroy’s graduate supervisor, is the director of Radiation Oncology Physics, an academic specialization of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Smith says Conroy is a great example of a well-rounded trainee.

“With her pursuits of a PhD and business classes, Leigh is developing all the skills she needs to be a productive scientist that will set her apart from her colleagues. She is able to take things further because she has all these other skills. She throws herself wholeheartedly into everything she wants to do,” she says.

Conroy was recently announced as a winner of the prestigious Killam Pre-Doctoral Scholarship which pays $33,000 for 12 months, along with a research allowance of $3,000. “Being named a Killam Laureate is an honour, says Conroy. "The Killam is a real benefit for my research. I really appreciate this — it makes a difference.”


Visit the Killam Awards for more information.