Ever been to the hospital for a nuclear medicine scan or therapy? Many of the materials we need to do these critical tests are made right here in Australia
ANSTO – Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is home to the Open Pool Australian Lightwater nuclear reactor aka OPAL, which is a state-of-the-art multipurpose reactor producing 75 to 80 per cent of the radioactive isotopes used in 700,000 lifesaving patient procedures in Australia every year.
“Nuclear medicine is a critical part of modern health systems, and is delivered in hospitals and medical centres to diagnose and treat a vast array of illnesses, including cancer and heart, lung, muscular, neurological and skeletal conditions,” explains Dr Geoff Currie, a nuclear medicine professor at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. Geoff says demand for nuclear medicine is growing, and the job opportunities are diverse.
“A career in nuclear medicine could take the shape of a physician, medical physicist, radiopharmacist or, the largest professional group, a nuclear medicine technologist or scientist.”
Here, we chat to four people working in exciting roles in nuclear medicine.
1. Nigel Lengkeek, Senior Radiochemist, ANSTO
Nigel Lengkeek was always interested in “how things work”, and chose a double degree in engineering and science at the University of Western Australia (UWA) after high school, followed by a PhD in chemistry.
Nigel spent some time as a researcher still at UWA, before moving to Sydney and kicking off his career at ANSTO, where he has worked for over a decade. His current role is as a senior radiochemist in the biosciences team.
“I lead a team of radiochemists making radioactive molecules to detect and treat human disease, primarily cancer, but also cardiovascular disease and neurological disease,” he explains.
Nigel and his team are currently working on two therapeutic radiopharmaceutical products – one to treat prostate cancer, and one to treat another rare type of cancer called neuroendocrine tumours.
Nigel says nuclear medicine is an exciting space to be in, with lots of opportunity. “Over the last five years we have seen explosive growth in the nuclear medicine field,” he says.
“This growth requires people as much as it does facilities, equipment and funding, so there are growing gaps in the workforce,” he adds.
- Bachelor of Science (Chemistry) / Bachelor of Engineering (Materials Engineering), University of Western Australia
- PhD (Chemistry), University of Western Australia
- Organic Chemist, ANSTO
- Senior Radiochemist, ANSTO
2. Leena Hogan, Radioisotopes & Irradiations Manager, ANSTO
In high school, Leena Hogan loved maths and problem-solving and wanted to be an engineer or a doctor. She enrolled in a medicinal chemistry degree with plans to study postgraduate medicine but found she “loved chemistry and didn’t want to leave,” she says.
Leena went on to work at a company that had spun out of biotechnology developed at ANSTO, before ending up working at ANSTO where she has now been for more than 10 years. Leena will also soon complete her PhD in chemistry, which she has been undertaking part-time whilst working.
In her current role, Leena manages a team working on producing different types of radioactive molecules called radioisotopes, which can be used by Australian scientists and industry not just in medicine, but also in environmental and agricultural research.
Leena says nuclear medicine is a really exciting space to be working in because “we have only scratched the surface of what is possible, this means there is plenty of opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of patients”.
A highlight of Leena’s career, she says, was last year when she was involved in producing a particular radioactive isotope for the first time in Australia, which has the potential to be used to both diagnose and treat disease.
“What could be more meaningful than having a part in extending someone’s life?” she says.
- Bachelor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Wollongong
- PhD (Chemistry), University of Sydney
- Chemist, Ceramisphere
- Radiochemist, ANSTO
- Radioisotopes & Irradiations Manager, ANSTO
3. Jessica Whitehouse, Nuclear Medical Technologist, I-MED Radiology Network, Tasmania
Jessica Whitehouse first found out about nuclear medicine as a career option when she was in Year 12 and researching for an assignment about careers. Her research led her to discover the Bachelor of Health Science majoring in Medical Radiation Science that is offered by the University of Tasmania and Charles Sturt University simultaneously, and she was fascinated.
Jessica decided to move to NSW to study at Charles Sturt, from which she recently graduated. Now she’s returned home and landed work with Tasmania’s I-MED Radiation Network as a nuclear medicine technologist, using her skills and qualifications to run diagnostic scans on patients.
She has also enrolled in a Master’s degree in Advanced Medical Radiation Practice through Charles Sturt, which she will do part-time while working full-time in her current job.
Jessica says she believes “nuclear medicine is the way of the future” and is particularly excited about the potential for ‘theranostics’ – the use of paired nuclear medicines, one for identifying (diagnosis), and another chemically similar one to provide treatment (therapy)
Just like Jessica only discovered nuclear medicine by chance, she says the career doesn’t have the profile it needs or deserves as a career option.
“Nuclear medicine technologists are highly sought after, because there are not many of us and there are a multitude of job opportunities, which is great for new graduates,” she says.
- Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science (Nuclear Medicine), Charles Sturt University
- Nuclear Medical Technologist, I-MED Radiology Network, Tasmania
4. Stephanie Sanchez, Nuclear Medicine Technologist, Queensland X-Ray
In high school, Stephanie Sanchez loved sport and science but didn’t consider herself to be “very academic”. She finished up in Year 10 to pursue a career playing tennis, but when this fell through, she completed a diploma to get into uni.
“When it came time to decide on a career path, the medical radiation science degree appealed to me and seemed pretty cool. Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical radiation science that has a good balance between science (working in a lab) and patient interaction and care,” says Stephanie.
“This allows me to use my brain everyday whilst being able to look after and care for people. I wasn’t sure if I would be smart enough to study nuclear medicine but I thought I should give it a try and it was the best decision I have made.”
During her uni course, Stephanie attended a winter school program run by AINSE (the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering), which involved spending a week at ANSTO in Sydney. “It was an amazing experience to tour the facilities within the ANSTO site, especially the OPAL nuclear reactor and learn about its purpose,” she says.
Now a nuclear medicine technologist with Queensland X-Ray, Stephanie has come a long way since battling ‘imposter syndrome’ about her ability to go to uni. She now hopes to one day pursue a PhD in nuclear medicine “and to teach others at university the ins and outs of nuclear medicine”.
“There are amazing careers that are available within the nuclear medicine industry,” she says. “Don’t feel like you have to follow the same path that is considered ‘normal’ because there are so many different ways to get to where you want to go.”
- Diploma of Tertiary Preparation
- Bachelor of Health (Medical Radiation Science), Charles Sturt University
- Nuclear Medicine Technologist, Queensland X-Ray
So, you want a job in nuclear medicine?
There are so many roles in the nuclear medicine arena! Find one that suits you.
If you’re into guiding people:
- Asset Manager
- Capability and Training Leader
- Compliance and Quality Manager
- Development Manager (Scientists)
- General Manager
- Microbiology Manager
If you’re a planner/thinker/creator:
- Process Engineer
- Process Specialist
- Product Specialist
- Research Scientists
- Systems Engineer
If you’re all about the details:
- Quality Assurance Manager
- Quality Control Manager
- Regulatory Affairs Manager
- Senior Technical
- Validation Manager
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Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma is the Managing Editor of Careers with STEM magazine. She has previously worked as Digital Managing Editor at Australian Geographic and a staff writer at Cosmos science magazine.