Thinh “Bill” Pham ’20 never expected to save someone’s life. But last summer, that’s just what happened.
While an intern at Riverside Radiation Oncology in Newport News, Virginia, Pham regularly performed quality assurance checks on linear accelerator machinery. The technology produces high energy x-rays or electron beams that conform to a tumor’s shape and destroy cancer cells. One day, as he examined the machine before a procedure, he discovered a critical configuration error.
“The patient was going to receive three times the dose of radiation he was supposed to, so if everything had moved forward, there would have been a hole in his bladder,” Pham said. “When my colleagues told me my discovery had potentially saved his life, it was such a good feeling and really affirmed my goal to become a medical physicist.”
Pham was recruited for the internship by D. Jay Freedman, a medical physicist for Medical Radiation Physics, Inc. and father of Pham’s classmate, Isaiah Freedman ’20. The two initially met in the spring of 2018, when Freedman spoke at Randolph about careers in medical physics. After talking with Pham, Freedman began the long process required to make an internship happen.
“Bill’s excitement over the idea of becoming a medical physicist was invigorating,” Freedman said. “As a member of the Randolph Parents’ Council, I wanted to help in any manner I could. I love what I do for a living, and I had wonderful mentors who helped me get started in my career, so it was easy for me to get excited about having an opportunity to share that with a student who wanted so much to learn about it.”
In addition to quality assurance and his work with Freedman, Pham shadowed treatment planning specialists, radiation technology therapists, diagnostic radiology physicists, radiosurgery physicists, and brachytherapy physicists to gain a broader understanding of how the practice operates.
Since completing the 10-week internship, Pham has continued his work to address potential programming problems with LINAC machines as part of a senior honors research project. Though they no longer work together in person, Freedman continues to serve as a mentor from afar.
“I joke with him and call him ‘The Master,’” Pham said. “He’s taught me so much, not just about the technical and scientific side of things, but also how to be a good, responsible physician. You’re treating living people, and it’s a matter of life and death, so it’s something that requires a lot of confidence and different skills.”
Pham wants to become a medical physicist specializing in radiation therapy. Getting into a graduate program will be highly competitive, but he is confident that his internship and other research experience at Randolph will give him a leg up over other applicants.
“The internship last summer was a life-changing opportunity, and the research I’ve gotten to do at Randolph has been really helpful and important,” Pham said. “We learn a lot in classes, but internships like this help you apply what you’ve learned and really specialize in a particular area of physics.”