Charlie Kirkby has always loved to solve problems. As a young boy, he dreamed of driving a Buick Grand National – as a private investigator, he’d help people solve problems big and small. Maybe it was a P.I.’s gadgets that appealed to him.
Kirkby and his friends played with radio-controlled cars and solved mechanical problems. They’d sit down and examine their cars, trying to figure out which one had a better suspension system. In high school, Kirkby loved physics class. “When you’re a high-school kid,” Kirkby says, “you think you’re going to be the next Einstein and solve all the great mysteries of the universe.”
Kirkby may not be the next Einstein, but the 36-year-old has translated a lifelong love for solving problems into a fulfilling career as a medical physicist. It’s a demanding job that often involves long hours and a career where no two days are alike. “Medical physicists are master’s degree or PhD-level physicists who are involved in the radiation therapy treatment of patients,” Kirkby says. He is one of two medical physicists at the Jack Ady Cancer Centre in Lethbridge, and one of an estimated 40 medical physicists in Alberta.
It was during his master’s degree in physics at the University of Alberta that Kirkby realized he didn’t want to be an astrophysicist. “I felt essentially locked in a closet solving equations and not really having an impact on anything immediately practical,” Kirkby says. “Medical physics is a field where you have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives every day.” Kirkby and his partner Dr. Esmaeel Ghasroddashti, or Dr. Essie as he’s known by colleagues, spend their days solving problems, often working in concert.
Ghasroddashti, who has worked alongside Kirkby for two years, describes him as incredibly knowledgeable in the field of medical physics and exceptionally easy to get along with. “Charlie, to me, is the best colleague that I could ask for,” says Ghasroddashti.
Treating patients with radiation is an extremely precise process that involves careful physics and calculations. That’s where medical physicists such as Ghasroddashti and Kirkby come in. They are involved in end-to-end treatment planning and the job includes clinical support and making sure that a patient’s radiation treatment goes as planned. It’s complicated work that has an immediate application to cancer patients.
And while his childhood dream of driving a Buick Grand National has not yet come true, Kirkby does get to work inside a radiation therapy vault. It’s a place that seems more like a lair for a super sleuth than a clinical setting in Southern Alberta. (Kirkby moved to Lethbridge in the summer of 2009 to work at the Jack Ady Cancer Centre.) “Imagine a room that’s surrounded by concrete, that in some cases could be over one metre thick,” Kirkby says. The thickness is to block radiation from getting out. “You have to wind through a bit of a maze in order to get inside. That’s where we do a fair amount of our work.” Kirkby works in the radiation therapy vault as well as in a physics lab, and he spends part of his time in front of a computer in a decidedly more ordinary office using a treatment planning software system.
An Oshawa, Ontario native and PhD graduate, Kirkby holds an adjunct assistant professor position with the University of Calgary and teaches graduate students, medical physics residents and radiation therapists and radiation oncology residents. He’s currently working on two different research projects that study how radiation is delivered to cancer patients. “In radiation therapy, your goal is to place a very precise amount of radiation into the cancerous area, but limit the side effects that result from irradiating healthy tissues,” he says, noting it’s a difficult task because patients change over time. “The cancer can grow or shrink, patients can lose weight, and even factors like how much one eats the day before can shift things around.”
The first research project, which will be implemented over the next year or so at the Jack Ady Cancer Centre, is specific to prostate cancer patients. The project uses new cone beam computed tomography technology that allows researchers to calculate how much radiation actually went into the targeted cancerous area on treatment day. To improve the treatment process, Kirkby hopes to identify systematic differences between what radiation was planned and what was delivered to the site. The second research project supports work being done at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton and will evolve over several years. It involves studying how the magnetic field from an MRI unit mounted on a linear accelerator changes where radiation goes.
Now a married father with a young son, Kirkby was influenced by his grandfather, a printer. “He hated going to work and he did it because it was what he had to do to raise his family and support himself,” says Kirkby. Kirkby knew early on he wanted more out of a job. “I do something that I enjoy, but I’m also in a spot where I’m helping people and making a difference,” Kirkby says, “I make other people live out their lives in a longer and happier way.”
Neither a gumshoe with gadgets nor the next Einstein, today it’s a love of solving problems that have practical impacts on patients that keeps Kirkby engaged. “It’s demanding but the rewards are worth it,” says Kirkby, who knows that almost everyone has a connection to someone who’s been affected by cancer. Kirkby’s grandmother is a breast cancer survivor, and one of his aunts died from liver cancer. “Cancer research is an area where all of the strengths that I have and the interests that I have in physics can be applied in a way that really helps people.”