For East Central University physics professor Karen Williams, her field of study is more than just an academic pursuit. It’s personal.
Williams is a cancer survivor who currently teaches courses in a medical physics program she helped develop, at least in part because she wanted to learn more about the tests being used to diagnose and treat her own illness.
After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and teaching there as a grad student, Williams took a full-time faculty position at ECU in 1988 to be closer to her family. When diagnosed with a form of cancer, she put her professional knowledge and research skills to work, trying to learn more about the tools that would be used in her treatment.
“During the 2000 or 2001 ice storm, I took a backpack full of books home that I had purchased at the University of Oklahoma, because they have a master’s in medical physics and I couldn’t find anyplace else in the state that taught it,” Williams said.
As she navigated her way through the learning process, she saw growth potential in medical physics and realized ECU already offered many of the basic physics, math and science courses needed to put a program together. But she still needed help designing the curriculum.
“At the time, I was the national president of the Society of Physics Students and at a conference during my first year, they had a medical physicist speak,” she said. “It just so happened he had no place to sit for lunch, so I pulled a chair over and he sat next to me. I kind of picked his brain over lunch and asked what courses he would want included in an undergraduate degree.
“(At another meeting) I happened to be seated next to two medical physicists, and I asked them what courses should be included in a program. So, I had some help in designing and building the program so the kids would be successful.”
There are under 10 medical physics students currently working their way through ECU’s program. If that seems like a small number, it is because it is.
“There’s not a great number of physicists being graduated anywhere,” Williams said. “We’re graduating nine in May, and we graduated three last December. If you look at the numbers over the last several years, the biggest number of (physics) grads in Oklahoma since 2010 was seven last year, and that was by us. We’re beating OU and OSU.”
For now, Williams said, the number of students enrolled in the program is kept intentionally small.
“We can’t overload the medical physics program because there are only so many slots available for graduate students at OU and OSU,” she said, adding that those graduate programs are more or less required to pursue most careers in medical physics.
The program has included former Nigh Scholars, at least one of whom is undergoing a residency program in Chicago.
Williams speaks fondly of her students, recalling personal facts and details about nearly every medical physics major she has had pass through the program.
She also has high hopes for the impact of medical technologies originating within the field, like proton beam therapy — a highly targeted form of radiation therapy being used to treat children who cannot undergo traditional radiation therapy because of the damage it causes to their still-developing bodies.
“They say that medical physicists are the only ones who, if they’re successful — if they cure cancer — they’ll work themselves out of a career,” she said.