In this edition of the Focal Spot, Tyler Blackwell interviews Nataliya Kovalchuk, PhD, DABR.
The Focal Spot: Taroan Li
In this edition of the Focal Spot, Tyler Blackwell interviews Taoran Li, PhD.
Featuring Taoran Li
"My role at UPenn includes a focus on education, and my favorite part of that is working hands-on with trainees, involving them in clinical problem-solving. It’s refreshing because I’m continually learning from their perspectives and discussion."
Tyler: Your resume features experience as a filmmaker and photographer. Explain.
Taoran: You’re interviewing ME now, but I have been the interviewer for many Medical Physics 3.0 videos. The committee charged me to create a series of videos introducing the different aspects of medical physics. I’ve come to enjoy the use the visuals to tell stories.
Tyler: Did you have that skillset before the committee work? What skills did you have to learn for that?
Taoran: I started doing this in grad school at Duke when they jumpstarted a lot of recruitment and marketing efforts. I started learning how to cut videos, and I watched a few documentaries by freelance videographers. I got inspired by that, so I began to craft my own. I was fortunate that the program was very generous in supporting me with equipment, software, and everything I needed to do it well.
Tyler: I'm glad we covered that base, but we should probably rewind. Tell me what little Taoran was like as a kid.
Taoran: I grew up in China. I did all my schooling there up until graduate school. Growing up, I had one goal: study hard, get good scores, and then go to university—quite a normal Chinese childhood. Fortunately, I did well during those years and didn’t have to work too hard to get into a good university. But looking back, nothing much really happened; it was a boring, straightforward childhood.
Tyler: There has to be more to it. Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Taoran: No, both my wife and I were only children. But now as parents, we have kids who play together and enjoy each other.
Tyler: Two kids?
Taoran: I have two boys, yes. They're six and nine.
Tyler: It sounds like the objective as a kid in China was to do well in school and prove yourself so you can get into a good university. Were there any extracurricular activities? Did you get into any trouble?
Taoran: At that point, I liked building small model cars or planes. At that point, Lego wasn't a thing in China. I was generally attracted to things that moved or required some engineering. Now my kings get to build pretty amazing things with robotics and Lego. It’s an excellent opportunity for them to learn about coding and engineering and all of that.
But otherwise, I was quite a boring kid; I didn’t do sports. I enjoyed playing table tennis or ping pong in middle school, and I remember we would occasionally end up in trouble because we were late for class.
Tyler: So, did you do equally well in the humanities as in the sciences?
Taoran: That is a lovely assumption there, but no.
Tyler: You went to the university in Nanjing? Is that where you grew up?
Taoran: No, I grew up in Shandong province, where Confucius lived his days.
Tyler: How did you choose Nanjing?
Taoran: I chose that school because of its strong science background. I read some Steven Hawking during high school and found it quite fascinating. But after some undergrad physics classes, I discovered that I wanted to do something more applied.
Tyler: Is that how you discovered medical physics?
Taoran: I looked into several options: audio or electrical engineering and acoustics. I had also read about some medical physics topics and thought that might be worth looking into.
It was very fortunate that I got into an exchange program at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where I was exposed to more medical physics topics. That’s when it clicked.
Tyler: So then Duke for graduate school and residency?
Taoran: My class was probably the first or second to be required to go through residency. And I knew I’d be getting great hands-on clinical experience, but what surprised me was the professional aspect that residency involves in addition to just measurements and QA and the technical side.
Tyler: You’re a residency director now. Does your experience affect what you look for in a resident or how you approach the training?
Taoran: Soft skills are essential, given our role in radiation oncology. The technical aspect is critical, and the residency provides that clinical experience. But what makes an applicant stand out is the ability to work as a healthcare professional in a highly dynamic team. With so many relying on you, it’s no simple task to transition from a graduate student to a productive member of a very complex workflow.
Some people are naturally better at this, but residency is a good time to raise the bar for professionalism so physicists better understand how to work with people with different backgrounds and personalities.
Tyler: Based on my narrow experience, residents nowadays have a more intuitive feel for it. Have you seen a change in the characteristics of a typical resident over the years?
Taoran: Definitely. This is a product of higher standards set and enforced by CAMPEP driven by AAPM and ABR.
Tyler: You presented a virtual brachytherapy educational experience at this year’s AAPM Spring Clinical meeting. Can you describe that offering?
Taoran: We’ve expanded this now from just brachytherapy. Essentially, we’re looking into creating a series of videos—using VR if possible—for anything procedural. We started with brachytherapy, but now we're doing physics QA processes for protons. We’ve found that VR allows the viewer to fully immerse in the process, having control over where they look or what they want to see. For an OR procedure, the VR approach feels very natural because there is so much going on at any time. The ability to choose whether to watch a surgeon's hand movement or view multiple screens showing different information is a neat feature of the VR experience. You catch things that you might otherwise miss with just one camera angle or video.
The American Brachytherapy Society sponsored all the brachytherapy videos we did in the past, so all the videos are available on a YouTube Playlist.
We want to start engaging other institutions with this and eventually use this on a global scale to provide resources to those that don’t otherwise have access to this type of thing. We have international partnerships in Africa, for example, through our department's global health initiatives.
Tyler: The AAPM professional survey would have me believe, given your employment at a university hospital, that you likely work many hours. How do you balance your personal and professional life?
Taoran: It's a challenging balance, and every day is highly dynamic. The clinic can get busy, and administratively, all new initiatives require effort. I have kids, and they grow up fast. I don’t think I have any great tips here. Candidly, I’m not sure I’m keeping the balance all that well.
Tyler: What's something you have a lot of experience or knowledge in, outside of medical physics, that you could teach others?
Taoran: I think probably videography and photography-related skills. I’ve translated what I’ve learned from work projects into a couple of private events. It’s been a gratifying hobby. I’ve realized that I can capture moments that people may cherish for the rest of their lives. That’s a good feeling.
Tyler: Do you have any habits you've developed that have improved your quality of life or efficiency in any meaningful way?
Taoran: I’m not sure; I’m still trying to get rid of a lot of bad habits!
Tyler: Based on what you’ve told me about your childhood, the answer to this next question is probably no, but did you work any jobs growing up?
Taoran: Nice prediction. No. So again, pretty dull student life.
Tyler: Typical American question: what would be the first thing you'd do if you won a big jackpot?
Taoran: I mentioned I listen to podcasts. I often listen to Planet Money or other economy-related shows, so I’d be finding good ways to invest. You could probably live off just the interest. Maybe I’d blow a little bit of it.
Tyler: What excites you about the current state of our field right now?
Taoran: On one hand, there are a lot of new tools that have translated very quickly from development to clinical use. Radformation has one of them—well, several of them. Many vendors are now pushing AI-based autosegmentation, which is changing the pre-treatment landscape. On the hardware side, vendors are making machines that are simpler to use, with better image quality and more flexibility to personalize treatment options further. These new toys are what really get me excited.
I also see this trend for medical physicists to be involved in things outside of cancer care. I know there is some skepticism, but we must do that. Expanding into other diseases and treatments is quite exciting.
Tyler: Growing up, who was your hero?
Taoran: Michael Schumacher. The Formula One legend.
Tyler: What kind of vehicle do you drive right now?
Taoran: I drive a Tesla Model 3.
Tyler: Okay, so you don't take the train like your colleague Dimitris Mihailidis?
Tyler: Okay, so seasonal question. Winter, spring, summer, or fall?
Taoran: Fall. It’s pretty pleasant right now.
Tyler: You have a pretty good set of options for professional sports in Philadelphia. Do you follow any teams or go to any games?
Taoran: I was a Formula One person growing up, so I still follow that closely. More locally, I go to the Union soccer games every once in a while.
Yes, Taoran may be driving autopilot to and from work in his Model 3, but he has been taking full control of the clinical projects he’s been working on, revving up virtual reality for clinical adoption, implementing and optimizing new technologies, and being fully present and open for students.
If you have a question or comment for Taoran, drop it below or participate in the discussion on LinkedIn or Twitter!
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.