Sunday, February 11, 2024, marks the 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year, the UN has chosen the theme "Women in Science Leadership: A New Era for Sustainability."
To commemorate this event, ESTRO has decided to feature a series of interviews with exceptional women who have played a key role in steering the Society and are shaping the future of Radiation Oncology. Today, we hear from Catharine Clark, Chair of the ESTRO Professions & Partnerships Council.
What inspired your decision to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology? Were there specific experiences or individuals that influenced your choice?
Actually, I discovered Medical Physics before I discovered Radiation Oncology. I was still at school and wondering what to do at university. I liked Physics but was also considering Medicine. One day I found a book in the school library called ‘Medical Physics’. I had no idea that such a thing existed, but having sat down to read it, I knew what my calling was and went to look for universities that offered it. Luckily, one of them was University College London and I thought it would be very exciting to go to university in London!
I also came across Radiation Oncology by accident. After our PhDs, my husband and I moved to Paris as he had a Postdoc position lined up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, so I went along for the ride (who wouldn’t want to live in Paris!). I visited the Proton therapy Unit in Orsay out of curiosity, and there I met Prof Jean Louis Habrand. He invited me to visit the Institut Gustave Roussy, and by luck, the in house TPS (Dosigray) were looking for a physicist who could speak English to help them attend the ESTRO congress in Edinburgh. As these were two things I could do, they hired me. I loved the multidisciplinary and team nature of Radiation Oncology and I have never looked back!
Do you anticipate that young women aspiring to follow a similar path will encounter the same challenges? How might their experiences differ, and what positive changes do you foresee for them?
When I started in Radiation Oncology, there were fewer women in leadership roles. However, there were some amazing ones. Madame Dutreix’s influence was still felt at Gustave Roussy, long after she had left. When I worked at Stanford, there were several female leading clinicians, but no female physics leaders. However, that was different at the Royal Marsden where I was lucky to work with Margaret Bidmead, who has inspired many female physicists and has always led a department full of strong female role models. Now, RO leadership feels more balanced. There is better leadership training generally, and we have the fabulous Foundations of Leadership in Radiation Oncology -FLiRO course (led by some amazing women). At ESTRO, we now have an excellent gender balance across the leadership.
I also think it is getting easier to integrate research and clinical roles. For example, in the UK, we have fellowships funded by the National Institute for Health Research which are always offered with flexibility for part time either overall or combined with a clinical role. This integration allows better opportunities on both sides as well as the possibility to explore where your strengths might lie. It is finding these strengths and pursuing them that lead to a rewarding career.
The challenges for the future generations will have differences. On one hand, the world is becoming better at including diversity in general, and technology now touches everyone’s lives so it’s cool to be into science. However, the genders are different, and we still have a way to go in fully embracing that. I particularly see that in leadership styles where there are often still expectations of how a person should be in certain roles.
If you could offer advice to young women aspiring to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology, what key insights or recommendations would you share based on your own experiences?
Seize opportunities - don’t wait until you’re 100% ready; you can grow into a role. Don’t be afraid to make a role your own. No-one is good at everything, but we all have our strengths.
Find a mentor - talking through opportunities, goals and challenges is a great way to get them into perspective and work out what your priorities are. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor; it’s actually very flattering to be asked.
Be more like a sports player – I am writing this whilst watching my daughter play a volleyball tournament. Each match she learns something new. My advice would be to learn to approach work like a sports player. We celebrate the wins and learn from the challenges. When we lose, we reflect, but then move on and then go again. Something else will always be around the corner.
Catharine Clark, Chair of the ESTRO Professions & Partnerships Council
Consultant Clinical Scientist, Radiotherapy Physics, University College Hospital London, United Kingdom; Honorary Professor, Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, University College London, United Kingdom; Principal Scientist, National Physical Laboratory, United Kingdom; Consultant Clinical Scientist, Radiotherapy Trials Quality Assurance Group, United Kingdom