Recently I had the privilege of interviewing some staff members from the Medical Technology and Physics Department at Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. The aim of these interviews is to provide an insight into the areas of Radiochemistry and Medical Physics, particularly for the benefit of those interested in getting into the area.
This first article will be on radiochemist Peter Gibbons.
Peter has a double degree in biophysics and pharmacology with honours in pharmacology from The University of Western Australia. He has just submitted his thesis for a Doctorate in Pharmacology at Curtin University. His research was concerning the use of drugs to treat malaria.
Though he always knew he wanted to do science, Peter never planned to get into radiochemistry, he just “got lucky”.
“I hadn’t even known about radiochemistry before I started working… I thought I was going to be an academic.”
Though Peter enjoyed lecturing and tutoring at Curtin and The University of Western Australia, he didn’t enjoy the academic lifestyle. The “nail in the coffin” for his desire to be an academic was when a research group he was working with had a grant knocked back, and they subsequently had to let go of lab assistants that had been with the group for a decade. Though these research assistants were provided with work in other labs, he did not enjoy the prospect of losing people that were “like family” based on grant outcomes.
He then became a chemical and radiation safety officer at The University of Western Australia with OSH. This involved inspecting and auditing UWA Schools and ensuring that radiation safety was observed. This, and the pharmacology degree, provided him with pertinent experience for his current position in radiochemistry.
Gibbon’s work is a mix between individual and team work. One aspect of his work is to synthesise radiotracers which are used in PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans, a form of imaging that determine how an organ or bodily system is functioning. The radiotracers are synthesised in cleanrooms, so this aspect of the work requires isolation in order to keep the process contaminant free. There is a lot of communication amongst the small group of radiochemists as they are responsible for preparing the radioactive materials for patients. He also has the opportunity to do his own research and is encouraged to do so by the hospital. Peter says that “it’s important to change it up” and to do a mix of clinical and research work.
He also identified some important personal attributes that have helped him with his job.
“It’s important to be inquisitive, but that’s a standard for science. You have to be interested in looking for problems and solutions and enjoy problem solving. You also have to have the ability to self-motivate and work independently, even [when working under] managers.”
Most crucial though, of course, is to “enjoy the job”.
“You’ll enjoy yourself if you work with good people”
Peter also enjoys the diversity in his work environment, both in terms of the types of people and educational backgrounds, and the practical aspect of working in a public hospital.
Most rewarding though, is the contribution to society. He likes that science, even “science for the sake of science” benefits the community. He believes that we need “more people who are interested and curious to contribute and make a difference.”
Volunteering his time for the Hospital Social Club is another way that Peter contributes to the community. It’s a great opportunity to “get out of the labs”, meet new people and socialise. The club does everything from fundraise for the hospital, to running a bar, to putting on yoga and pilates classes.
“The club is important for morale… it’s important that people can socialise.”
It’s a volunteer-run committee and “doesn’t take much effort to be involved”, so it’s a worthwhile addition to his already busy schedule.
Knowing what he knows now with his years of experience, Peter says that he wouldn’t have done anything different.
“There were a few times when coming to the end of my thesis work that I cursed doing science and thought that I should have done accounting. I almost went back to uni.”
Though he could possibly have studied some additional areas to reinforce his area of study, it has all worked out well and he wouldn’t change anything.
When asked for advice to give to students, he said that the most important thing was to “enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy”. Beyond that, it’s also crucial to try different things, like tutoring and lecturing, and to be involved in work experience and projects.
“Whenever opportunities came up for work experience and projects, I took them… It’s more fun and it makes you more employable. The first time I put my CV together for [this current] job I was amazed how much I had done.”
Peter also says that, when conducting job interviews, he is “impressed by additional activities” and finds them, and enthusiasm, more important than grades.
“It’s more to do with what people have done.”
He was then asked how he would get people interested in radiochemistry.
“You get to play with antimatter all day!… You can use PET to fairly accurately predict Alzheimer’s fifteen to twenty years before symptoms appear, and this will hopefully lead to a blood test. You’re also making radioactive drugs that tell you if people have cancer, where it is and how bad it is.”
Most importantly, is the “potential for positively affecting people’s lives”. With issues such as cancer and Alzheimer’s becoming ever more important to society, disciplines such as radiochemistry are crucial for finding answers and developing cures.
A big thanks to Peter Gibbons for taking the time to sit down for an interview.