Here’s a word of advice: Never underestimate the power of taking initiative and creating your own opportunities. It’s something Michelle Böck, an industry-sponsored PhD student in applied mathematics at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, strongly believes. If she hadn’t been proactive, she might never have landed her dream PhD position. “I think it’s very important to take initiative because I actually took initiative for everything I have in my CV,” she says. “I really believe this. You have to look into where the people that do the kind of work you’re interested in are because they don’t that know you exist.” Michelle’s perfect PhD program is a unique collaboration between the KTH Department of Mathematics and RaySearch Laboratories, a medical technology company that develops software for radiation therapy treatment planning.
Michelle became interested in medical physics as an undergraduate at the Vienna University of Technology. She spent a summer at Vienna Medical University evaluating different radiation treatment planning systems. She spent another academic year at ETH Zurich where she worked as a student researcher at the Proton Therapy Center at PSI, the leaders in proton therapy. After graduation, she continued in the medical physics field as a research fellow in medical imaging in Norway and then as an application physicist for a medical imaging company in Sweden. She read research papers in her free time, and a couple by a professor of mathematics at KTH caught her eye. She sent him an email inquiring if he had any available PhD positions and, after a week with no response, decided to give him a call. Taking initiative paid off. It just turned out that two of his PhD students were about to finish up and he was looking for a new one. They started talking in late spring and in the fall Michelle started her PhD.
Her project is on adaptive radiation therapy, an interdisciplinary subject involving physics, medicine, biology, and mathematics. Radiation therapy isn’t as simple as pointing the machine at the tumor and pressing “start”. The tumor cells are surrounded by healthy tissue, so the radiation needs to be optimized in such a way that it kills the tumor cells without harming the healthy tissue. In mathematical terms, optimization means to minimize or maximize a function with respect to certain constraints. In the case of radiation therapy, you want to maximize dose of radiation to the tumor while ensuring that healthy tissues get no more than a certain amount of radiation. However, patient-specific changes throughout the process mean that the dosage isn’t the same every time. Michelle creates mathematical models to adapt treatments plans to these changes. Her models use robust optimization, probability theory, and dynamic programming to proactively address patient-specific changes and allows clinicians to be more agile.
Since RaySearch has their own treatment planning software, there is a very real possibility that Michelle’s work could end up being used by people treating actual cancer patients, as has happened with the previous PhD students at RaySearch. She enjoys going to conferences where she gets the chance to talk to current RaySearch customers—and they are eager to talk to her too! They want to find out what she is researching to get a sneak peek at what capabilities the software might be enhanced with in the future. After all, being able to help cancer patients is the reason Michelle was interested in the industry sponsored PhD program in the first place. “That was really the big draw,” she explains. “My work isn’t just going to end up in a thesis that someone might look at, it’s an opportunity that can actually make a difference.”