Meet Jacinta Yap, a particle accelerator scientist working on proton beam therapy!

What is your scientific background? Do you come from an academic family?

I think my past is quite unconventional. Growing up I had an interest in maths and science but I didn´t really know what I wanted to do at university. Initially, I wanted to do a science degree, but given my dad and brother´s background in mechanical engineering, my parents advised me to pursue something more practical and so I did a major in mechanical engineering.

After that I thought maybe medicine, radiology or radiation oncology. That’s when I came across medical physics, and it’s got everything that I’m interested in and what motivates me: science, medicine, physics and all the technical aspects of engineering.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

There are still a lot of unanswered questions in proton therapy, which is used as a new way of treating certain cancers; it is not fully understood or substantially proven why it is better than using conventional radiotherapy. My project with the Optimisation of Medical Accelerators network is looking at both beam diagnostics and radiobiology.

We are trying to figure out why proton therapy does more cluster damage, why this makes it harder to repair, or if it creates more strand breaks… basically pairing up the physics with the biology.

We are developing a detector that would measure the proton beam in real time, without interfering with it, and that can be installed in a hospital therapy room. With proton therapy, you need a very precise beam to ensure that the dose is delivered very accurately.

Currently, the beam is measured by going through ionisation chambers: this degrades the beam and makes it spread. Our device aims to provide the same information with minimal interference to the beam.

Did you have a role-model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

There are quite a lot of women who are prominent in medical physics, so that’s been really cool. I always find it inspiring when I see women who have done so much for their particular field.

There are quite a few women in proton therapy itself who publish in a lot of prominent journals, as well as those who have higher up roles. Within the OMA project, Katia Parodi comes to mind: she heads one of the partner institutions.

In my master’s a couple of my lecturers were female, and they had done impactful work in their field. One of them is the collaborator for the software that I use – there are a handful of people around the world who manage the software and she is one of them.

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I want to use my technical expertise but also to do something that would impact people’s lives directly. As a medical physicist, I will work in a hospital and interact with patients, doctors and machines, seeing first-hand the difference I am making.

A clinic is a very dynamic environment – lots of things were happening all the time, people walking in and out. There was a lot of interaction with patients and with other staff – it was really cool to see what happens. Without a medical physicist they wouldn’t have the technical expertise they need to treat these patients. They are right at the forefront. I think that’s the type of role I would like to have.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Coming from engineering I’ve always been one of the few women. Although I’m lucky – I haven’t really experienced much discrimination in the field. I think it’s a good challenge and when you work with other women there is a bond.

Being a woman in this field can be quite valuable. I find that sometimes I can think of different areas or different ideas that other people have not thought of before. It brings another perspective to a lot of things.