Dr Heather Ann Williams
Principal Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at the The Christie hospital
And - Director, ScienceGrrl. Photo credit - Medical Illustration at The Christie
Discovering all the different things you have to offer is a lifetime's endeavour and you don't have to do all of those things for a living.
What do you do?
Medical Physicists work supporting a wide range of healthcare technology, ensuring it is used safely and as effectively as possible. I specialise in Nuclear Medicine imaging, which involves studying the body's functions by giving radioactive injections that follow these biological processes and taking pictures of where they end up. I have a particular interest in Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and spend some of my time making sure our PET scanner is working well and working on bringing in new ways of scanning.
The rest of my time is spent teaching and training physicists, radiographers, and radiologists in imaging science, both at The Christie and as part of postgraduate courses at the Universities Manchester, Salford and Cumbria. I also have a couple of ongoing research projects looking at improving image quality and looking at the link between imaging data and how our patients do afterwards. I spend 1-2 days a week on research, depending on my other commitments.
Why did you choose this field?
I enjoyed a lot of different subjects at school, I wouldn't say I had a favourite. When I was 15 I was taught about the different types of radioactive decay and that you could use gamma radiation to image people's insides because it could get through bone, skin and muscle to be detected. I told my Mum about this and she said "I think your Dad's friend Viv does something like that" - it turned out Viv was head of the local Medical Physics department. I did work experience with him at the age of 16 and decided then that I wanted to be a Medical Physicist specialising in Nuclear Medicine.
I am one of only a handful of people I have ever met who knew what they wanted to do at such a young age and are now doing it, but it does feel like a remarkable achievement to finally be doing what I set out to do in my teens. I made A level and degree choices with this in mind, and got lots of work experience in hospitals, secured a place on the NHS scientist training programme, got a PhD in Positron Emission Tomography, and it's all paid off.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I think I always expected I could do the job I am doing, I had worked towards it for a such a long time. I don't think I realised back then how strong and brave I was, how I could handle so much more besides and hold on to what I'd worked for. Right now, I work full-time, I'm parenting two wonderful sons, I run my own house and car, and I'm director of a non-profit supporting women in STEM (ScienceGrrl). It's a lot, and I've kept it all going despite facing disappointment and failure at work, and heartbreak and financial difficulties at home.
At my lowest, I had counselling and was asked, "How do you get up every day?"
I replied, "I didn't realise there was an option not to."
I didn't know I had that in me when I was younger.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love learning new things, discovering how the world works, and applying that knowledge to make a difference to people. Ultimately, better scans mean more accurate information about a patient's condition, which should lead to better care, and it's incredibly satisfying to know that I have contributed to that.
I also really enjoy coming to work at The Christie. It's a very special place, focussed on the specific needs of each and every patient, and the team I work with is no exception. I share a big open plan office with about 20 other scientists and really enjoy being with them every day.
Best advice for next generation?
Get to know yourself and what you want. Everyone's different and has something to offer the world that no-one else can, but discovering all the different things you have to offer is a lifetime's endeavour and you don't have to do all of those things for a living. You can and should have interests outside of work, too.
I draw, paint, and play the cello and piano. I had thought about being a graphic designer, journalist or a musician before deciding to pursue medical physics. I think part of what decided it for me was the security of a career in physics, particularly in healthcare - I have a permanent, well-paid job now and that has given me a foundation on which I can build the rest of my life. I still enjoy art, writing and music, but I'm not relying on them to pay the bills. I have friends in the arts who are comfortable with moving from one contract to another, but I feel much more settled in permanent work and a STEM career has opened that door to me. And best of all, the work I get paid to do is really valuable and interesting!
But everyone is so different. Your choices will not be the same as mine, and neither should they be. These questions may help you in finding jobs that you actually want to get out of bed in the morning to go and do:
What do you enjoy doing? What are you good at? What situations and places make you happiest? Try and get more of all that in your life when you choose which career to aim for.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
“The next big thing will be a lot of small things,” Lien De Ruyck