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Two scientists who have found their place

by Bärbel Broer

She was never a common garden biologist - Ulla Schmitt always wanted to work apply her knowledge to practical means. The biologist whose highest qualification is a Diplom (a German qualification approximately equivalent to a master's degree) works as a key account manager in technical sales for an American small business. Her workplace: a home office in a small town in the Rhineland. This couldn't be more different from where Dr. Ioannis Simiantonakis works. High-tech radiation therapy products are the medical physicist's bread and butter at University Hospital Düsseldorf. The careers of these two scientists could hardly be more different, but what's important to them is that they have both found their place.

Two scientists who have found their place@ Israel Hervás - iStockphoto.comAchieve your goals: careers for natural scientists
Phone, laptop, computer - that's pretty much all Ulla Schmitt needs for her job. But what she sells is "pure biology": membranes used for sterile filtration in a wide range of applications. Infusions in neonatal ICUs or in anaesthetics, pharmaceutical and chemical products, ventilation, beverage and respiratory filters - they all have to be germ-, dust- and bacteria-free. "Without my specialist knowledge I couldn't do this job", says Schmitt. Her biology degree, but also her basic knowledge of physics, mathematics and chemistry are fundamental to her daily work, explains the 46-year-old: "Otherwise I wouldn't understand some of the requirements of our customers".

A rejected scholarship application

Schmitt was born in Frankfurt and studied biology at the University of Gießen. She spent almost ten months in Athens doing practical research for her Diplom thesis, and conducted experiments in the field of biological pest control at the Institute for Plant Protection there. "After completing my Diplom, I wanted to do a doctorate in the UK", says Ulla Schmitt. But her application for a scholarship was rejected. "I had to change my plans - I couldn't have afforded the stay abroad without a scholarship."

She initially provided maternity cover at the phytosanitary service in Frankfurt. But there were no prospects for advancing her career: "I would have needed an agriculture degree for that." In 1993 she moved to Halle (Saale) to take up a postgraduate research post at the university, but her research proved to be a "bottomless pit": "I'd still have been working on my doctorate six years later." She also began to doubt whether academia was the right place for her. It was time to take action. "I didn't want to become unemployable in the private sector because I had worked at universities for too long", says Schmitt. After three years at university she transferred to the private sector, went first to Frankfurt, where her employer's German subsidiary was located, and later to Düsseldorf.

Two scientists who have found their place Ulla Schmitt

Home office sales

After the birth of her son in 2001 she initially worked part-time; she now works 90% of a full-time job. She rarely makes traditional sales calls; most of her work is done by e-mail or telephone. "But I do sometimes have to visit customers on site", she says. Occasionally she flies to the USA to see her employer. Schmitt is happy with her job, feels she has found her place: "My work is incredibly varied. I have a lot of personal contact, and I also enjoy the sales aspect of my work [...] Working from home means I can easily combine work and family life".

The perfect combination of physics and technology

Ioannis Simiantonakis is also happy in his job as deputy head of medical physics at the University Hospital Düsseldorf. "My job offers the perfect combination of physics and technological work", says Simiantonakis, who was born in Greece and was just a year old when his parents moved from Crete to Ludwigshafen. "On the other hand I see how meaningful my work is every day." Bold words - but no exaggeration. As a medical physicist, he works with doctors to plan optimal radiation treatments for sometimes critically ill patients. "Our function is similar to that of pharmacists", explains his boss Burkhardt Bannach, head medical physicist. "Doctors order treatments and we implement them in terms of dosage specifications."

The qualification level for medical physics experts is regulated by the German government's "Guideline on Radiation Protection in Medicine 2011": in addition to basic knowledge of, among other things, anatomy, biochemistry, radiation biology and x-ray diagnostics, they must have "in-depth expertise" in the application of nuclear medicine and radiation therapy. This includes, for example, the biokinetics of radioactively tagged substances, emission tomography using gamma rays (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET) and radiometry as well as dosimetry, but also procedures for tumour localisation and how to plan and set up radiation therapy facilities. All in all, a whole lot of physics as well as technical knowledge.

Two scientists who have found their place Dr. Ioannis Simiantonakis

"Never forget the patient"

"As a medical physicist, it's important not to forget that, despite the complexity of our work, we work for patients who are afraid and in pain", says Simiantonakis. Bannach agrees: "The best technology is useless if we don't consider the patient's well-being." Many of those requiring treatment are restless, feel pain or pressure if they have to stay still for too long during radiation therapy. "These are all things we have to take into account", says Bannach.

Simiantonakis didn't start working directly with patients until after his doctorate. He had previously studied physics at the University of Heidelberg and completed his doctorate at the German Cancer Research Centre on the subject of "The use of high-energy ultrasound to treat breast cancer". Then he worked in radiation therapy at Heidelberg University Hospital for two years. "That's when I was introduced to the actual clinical work", says Simiantonakis. Despite his qualifications, Simiantonakis had to leave the hospital: "After five years, my contract wasn't extended."

Fixed-term MPE contracts don't make sense

He then worked for two years at the municipal hospital in Heilbronn, during which time he also gained an MPE - certification as an expert in medical physics. The certificate confirms that its bearer has the required expertise according to the updated radiation protection guidelines, and confirms that the holder is qualified to become a physical and technical radiation protection officer. This certificate is important, because legal regulations require that at least one expert in medical physics must be involved when radiation therapy or nuclear medical treatments are planned and carried out - whether at hospitals or in private radiation therapy.

But Simiantonakis still wanted to learn. "I transferred to the Hahn-Meitner Institute in Berlin in order to train in proton therapy for ocular tumours." When an MPE post became available in Düsseldorf, he transferred again - to his first permanent contract. In jobs like this, fixed-term contracts don't make sense, says his boss. "Some large-scale devices for which we require official permits are tied to the name of an individual", explains Bannach. And something else is playing on his mind in five years, the 60-year-old will retire from radiation therapy. "So I have a significant interest in training up my deputy to ensure that he has the same qualifications."

Simiantonakis likes it in Düsseldorf, enjoys the teamwork in radiation therapy and values the symbiosis of technical expertise and working with patients. His extensive further training has been worthwhile. This physicist has found his place - just like the biologist, Ulla Schmitt.

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academics :: March 2013