In a family full of engineers, it had never occurred to Sammie Hedrick that she could be one too.
“I wanted to be a doctor, but I couldn’t do blood,” she says. “I was thinking about graphic design.”
But a female math teacher encouraged her to attend a math and science camp. There, boys outnumbered girls 10 to one, but Hedrick felt right at home. Each day, one of the participants was awarded for the best project of the day.
“By the end of the seven days, I had won four of the seven awards,” she says.
Today, Hedrick is one of five full-time medical physicists at Provision Center for Proton Therapy. And she was invited to speak at the U.S. Women in Nuclear National Conference, held this week in Charlotte. She was one of three presenters discussing “Non-Power Applications of Nuclear,” or, as Hedrick puts it, “the other half of the nucleus.”
“Sammie was fabulous at the conference. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She received many complements on her passion,” said Julie Ezold, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is on Women in Nuclear’s steering committee. “I first heard Sammie at a Pint of Science Talk in Knoxville last January. As the facilitator of the Non Power Applications session at the U.S. WIN conference I knew I wanted her to come present.”
The direction of Hedrick’s career, however, wasn’t clear at first. After deciding on a nuclear engineering career, she worked at the nuclear power plant where her father was employed. It was there she decided that nuclear power would not be in her future.
The work didn’t interest her, and “I did not want to spend my career doing corrective action plans in a cubicle,” she says.
She went to the University of Missouri for undergraduate and graduate degrees in nuclear engineering with an emphasis in medical physics, then completed a medical physics residency at Washington University School of Medicine. Her husband, also a nuclear engineer, landed at job in nearby Oak Ridge just as Provision was opening its doors.
It was an extraordinary stroke of luck, she says. Medical physics job are difficult to find in a market flooded with candidates. The Provision job, she says, gives her an opportunity to interact with medical staff and patients even as she solves the difficult physics problems she was trained to tackle.
At Provision, physicists work with dosimetrists to create treatment plans—particularly in the most difficult cancer cases—and Hedrick has taken on larger challenges as well. For instance, she is working on a “scripting” process that automates basic set-up functions for patient treatment, helping eliminate the chance for human error. Another project is to use patient data in cases in which treatment approach is very similar, such as prostate cancer, to create “knowledge-based planning … to make sure you’re always reaching your standard of care,” she says.
As at science camp, and later in college, Hedrick is in the minority—she is the only woman in her department at Provision and the only PhD. At the conference she planned to speak about Provision’s work as well as her career path to proton therapy. In addition to networking with fellow women in the field, she hopes to encourage other young women to consider a future in science, just like her math teacher had.
“I love the work I do,” Hedrick says. “I think it’s the fact that everything is constantly moving forward. We are developing things now that will improve patient treatment tomorrow.”
Oh and, by the way, when she’s not making a phantom—used to test a treatment plan prior to proton therapy—or coming up with the best plan of attack for a challenging tumor, you can find Hedrick involved in another kind of science.
An amateur baker, she’s known for bringing her creations to work, and she recently debuted her first wedding cake. As a second career she envisions owning her own establishment for which she has already thought of a name: “Smart Cookie.”