Case study

Clinical scientist, medical physics — Alisha Coates

After achieving the MSc Clinical Sciences (Imaging with Ionising Radiation) at Newcastle University, while part of the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP), Alisha secured a role as clinical scientist (nuclear medicine and PET physics) at Royal Stoke University Hospital

How did you get your job as a clinical scientist?

I initially studied A-levels in physics, maths, biology and dance, which led to me choosing the BSc Physics at Nottingham Trent University. During my degree, I did a couple of weeks work experience in the medical physics department in my local hospital. I then knew that this was an area I'd like to pursue.

After graduating I secured a post on the NHS STP specialising in imaging with ionising radiation, where I trained for three years on the job at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust while studying part time for a Masters degree at Newcastle University.

During the first year, I rotated around different areas of medical physics (radiation safety, nuclear medicine, diagnostic radiology, MRI, ultrasound, UV and lasers, and radiotherapy).

I then opted to specialise in 'imaging with ionising radiation' where I trained further in nuclear medicine and diagnostic radiology. After qualifying, I landed my current role as a clinical scientist (physicist) in nuclear medicine and PET (positron emission tomography)/CT (computerised tomography).

What does the role involve?

I work in nuclear medicine within an NHS hospital, which uses small amounts of radioactive materials as tracers to diagnose or treat disease. Radiation is detected by a special type of camera called a 'Gamma camera'. It provides visual information about the area of the body being imaged, by looking at the pattern of tracer-uptake, often identifying abnormalities in the early stages.

My role covers many areas, including testing of the cameras and equipment, ensuring the department is adhering to radiation safety legislation, implementation of methods for acquiring images, and carrying out research and development. I also work with molecular radionuclide therapies (for both benign and malignant treatment), which include calculating the activity and assessment of radiation dose to the target and critical organs.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It's using science to benefit patients - whether that's from diagnosing underlying health problems or treating diseases using radiation. I may not always be directly involved with patient care, but my work will have an effect.

Healthcare scientists are involved in around 80% of clinical decisions. STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is a constantly changing field with new research and technology being introduced all the time, so I love the fact my job is so varied with every day bringing new challenges.

Tell us about three challenges facing the healthcare sector today.

  • Access to advanced equipment - nuclear medicine relies heavily on sophisticated equipment and technologies for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. However, the best equipment is not easily accessible for patients as they're often expensive and there's a continuous need for upgrades to keep pace with advancements, which can put a strain on budgets.
  • Shortage of trained physicists - working with radiation requires a specialised workforce. However, there's a growing shortage of skilled professionals in this area.
  • Effective communication and collaboration among multidisciplinary teams is essential to achieving optimal patient outcomes. However, collaboration can be challenging due to differences in terminology, workflows, and priorities among various disciplines. Bridging these gaps and fostering effective teamwork requires strong interpersonal skills and a willingness to collaborate across professional boundaries.

In what ways are your Bachelors and Masters degrees relevant?

My degrees have taught me a great understanding of the principles of physics - something I continuously use in my role every day.

In my undergraduate degree, I undertook a module on medical imaging, which confirmed that this was an area of work I'd enjoy. I undertook a related project/dissertation on x-ray imaging, which helped kick-start my career.

I learned a great amount from working independently as well as within a team, but also how to manage intense workloads, which I've taken with me in my career.

How has your role developed and what workplace issues are you most passionate about?

My role is constantly developing as new technology and medicines are being introduced.

I'm very passionate about optimising imaging scans in the sense of getting the balance right in reducing the radiation dose to patients while ensuring good image quality and a quick processing time. I also have a strong interest in up-and-coming radionuclide therapy treatments that can help patients overcome their illnesses.

What are your career ambitions?

I would like to work towards becoming a 'medical physics expert' in my field - a role that's a legal requirement - and perhaps undertake a PhD, as working on a research project keeps me motivated.

What advice do you have for others interested in becoming a clinical scientist in this field?

  • Get as much experience in the healthcare industry as possible - whether that's through work experience, a weekend job as a healthcare assistant or volunteering. You can have all the physics knowledge in the world, but this role is designed for those who understand how science benefits patients and how healthcare works.
  • Develop a strong foundation on the physics of radiation - focus on mastering the basics of the interactions of radiation, as this will be carried forward in the role.
  • Choose medical imaging/physics modules at A-level and university - if possible, undertake a project related to the field.
  • Don't give up - it can be very competitive getting into the field, but once you're qualified, you have a job for life.
  • Stay curious - ask questions (there's no stupid question), network, attend conferences and read scientific journals. There are also some great physicists on social media who share insights into their roles.

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