In this edition of The Focal Spot, I interview Ehsan Samei, PhD. Ehsan is a Professor of Medical Physics at Duke University.
The Focal Spot: Jessica Fagerstrom
In this edition of the Focal Spot, Tyler Blackwell interviews Jessica Fagerstrom, PhD, MEd.
Featuring Jessica Fagerstrom
“If I weren’t a medical physicist, I would love to be a lifelong student. I really love learning. There is probably such a thing as too much school, but I don’t think I’ve hit it yet. ”
Jess: I was a pretty nerdy kid in a big family. I have an older sister, a younger brother, and a twin brother. We grew up in the Seattle area. As far as big-city things, I went to Mariner games in the old Kingdom, and I remember going to the Pacific Science Center quite a bit. Now I volunteer there, so it’s neat to see that come full circle. I have memories as a kid of going to Pike Place Market and the pier with my family and grandparents. It was always an event.
Tyler: Nerdy kid. Got it. What did that mean in terms of the activities you did in school?
Jess: I tried hard at school and extracurricular-type stuff. I played in band and orchestra—I played clarinet. And I was also in track and cross country through school.
Tyler: You went to Claremont McKenna College for undergrad. Why there?
Jess: I actually was intending to go to West Point but I withdrew pretty close to their deadline. It’s a big commitment for an 18-year-old given not only the schooling but also the active/inactive commitment following graduation.
Tyler: That certainly is a difficult decision to make at 18 years old. When did you discover that the sciences were the thing for you?
Jess: I was fortunate to have this excellent physics teacher in high school—he was a phenomenal educator. In college, I was somewhat interested in physics and so I took a number of classes and had really good experiences. So I decided to major in it.
As far as medical physics goes, during my junior year, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer research program at a proton center. Later, I visited an open house for the program at the University of Wisconsin and that sealed the deal for me.
Tyler: Now you’re at Northwest Medical Physics Center, a consulting group in the Seattle area. There were some life events in between? How did you land there, and what’s your role?
Jess: After my master’s degree at UW, I spent several years in Honolulu, Hawaii, which was an amazing experience. I went back to Wisconsin for a PhD, and now work full time with NMPC at a clinic in Seattle at Kaiser Capitol Hill.
I contribute to NMPC as part of their education research group, for which we regularly bring on interns, assistants, and residents. And, new for 2022, I’ll be taking on a new role as the assistant director for the residency program.
Tyler: You said that after your first clinical stint you went back to do your PhD. Are there unique skills that you can now bring to the clinic that maybe you didn’t have before?
Jess: I do think that it was helpful for me to know that I was capable of completing a major project. But I’d say that really nothing is a substitute for clinic work.
Tyler: Recently, you’ve been focusing a lot on science education, and even went back to school to get a degree (MEd) in education. What is the next step there?
Jess: There is an assumption in higher education that if a faculty member excels at some area, they can properly teach it as part of their service obligations. But discipline expertise doesn’t imply proficiency in teaching. There’s a lot of value in being intentional about improving as an educator.
Tyler: Have there been any interesting projects that have sprung from your passion for education?
Jess: I was fortunate to receive a grant through the AAAS and Lyda Hill Philanthropies to increase interest in STEM, specifically for middle school girls. I partnered with the Burke Museum in Seattle to put together a pretty major virtual event this last summer that featured four local women with careers in STEM. We had recorded activities, interactive online content, as well as free activity kits for those that participated.
I felt fortunate to work with not only the other women, who acted as wonderful role models, but the Burke education staff, who put together a great program.
Tyler: It’s a positive thing to be encouraging young girls to be in sciences, where historically there have been social/societal cues that have resulted in lower female participation.
I’m curious if you have any interesting anecdotes or any touching moments from working with them.
Jess: Pre-COVID, I participated in regular Meet-a-Scientist events where the average age was quite young. It was a little chaotic, but lovely. I liked to start off by asking kids if they have any favorite superheroes. Once I know that I can relate that back to science or radiation somehow.
I asked this kid if he knew any superheroes and he said no. His mom was with him, and she said, “I think you know some superheroes. What about like Superman or Batman or Iron Man?” And then he thought of his favorite superhero. “Oh, yeah. My mom!” It was just too sweet.
Tyler: Do you have any encouragement or advice that you offer to young people interested in science?
Jess: Some good advice that I have received in the past—which I share now—is that failure is part of life. Sometimes younger students think that if they fail at something, it must mean they’re not good at it or that it’s not for them. That’s a totally normal reaction, but it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world if you fail a test, or if your experiment doesn’t go as planned. Everybody experiences speed bumps, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out for something.
Tyler: Speaking of role models, who has had an influence on you?
Jess: Radiation therapy is a team sport. I owe a big debt in my education to engineers, therapists, dosimetrists, and nursing staff that I’ve worked with. On the personal side, I do have some pretty smart folks in my family. My grandfather was a mathematician and a physicist in his spare time. My sister is my very favorite applied mathematician. My husband is pretty great, too.
Tyler: You’ve recently had a foray into art, I’ve heard?
Jess: I want to start by saying that, as an artist, I’m absolutely awful. But during my education classes at the University of Washington, I was introduced to something called an art-science framework in which science inspires art, and then art is used to explore concepts in science.
I helped facilitate a project for some amazing students from Franklin High School in Seattle. We talked about what radiation is and what kinds of careers might be open to them in STEM. We discussed radiation therapy and experiences some of their community might have if they were receiving treatment for cancer. Our patients show a lot of strength in the face of those daunting treatments. On top of that, undergoing the process during COVID is even worse.
A therapist I work with helped collect H&N masks from patients after they finished treatment. We provided these masks to students, who gathered virtually to create art using supplies donated by NMPC. We had the pieces displayed at the Columbia City Gallery, a historic art collective near the school. We ended up calling the project Resilience.
Tyler: I’m both very impressed and thankful for the work you’ve been doing. What do you like about being a physicist?
Jess: There’s a lot of cool things in clinical physics! I had the opportunity to be the physics lead as we launched an MR-based HDR program. That was a big project, and I think it’s a wonderful service that we can offer patients.
Projects aside, both of us would probably agree that the two best things about clinical physicist jobs are you have the opportunity to make a difference in patients’ care and then also to work with some great team members.
Tyler: What are you doing these days on the weekends? Especially during COVID, what are you doing for fun?
Jess: COVID has changed things a bit. We’ve been trying some great hikes in the area. We did Little Si a couple of weekends ago. I enjoy cooking, so we do a lot of that during COVID.
Tyler: What’s your favorite type of cookie?
Jess: Ginger molasses.
Tyler: Do you have any New Year’s resolutions you’re willing to share with us?
Jess: New Year’s resolutions aren’t my thing. But I admire all the people who commit to healthy eating and going to the gym!
Tyler: You said you enjoy cooking. What’s your favorite thing to prepare?
Jess: My signature—both preparing and eating—is pie. For Thanksgiving, I met up with some family, and we made a quince pear pie that was totally worth it.
Tyler: Is there something you’ve wanted to do for a long time and still haven’t?
Jess: Maybe I shouldn’t make this public, but I’ve always wanted to do an Ironman. Not sure if I’ll ever actually do one, but it’s something to aspire to.
Tyler: If you won the lottery, what would you do?
Jess: I want to get back to traveling. It’s been a while since a big international trip—and it’ll probably be a while still with COVID—but I would probably book somewhere really cool.
Written by Tyler Blackwell
Tyler is a board-certified medical physicist with extensive clinical experience in radiation therapy. He is active in the medphys community including several AAPM committees, the AAPM Board of Directors, and as an ABR orals examiner. Tyler dabbles in real estate investing, loves preparing breakfast for his three kiddos, and enjoys playing adult coed soccer.