Mayo Graduate School student inspired by future proton beam facilities
Intersection of science and education
Where does a student focused on medical physics and proton beam therapy decide to attend graduate school? For John Mullins, the new proton beam therapy facilities in Minnesota and Arizona, part of a Mayo's five-year project to expand capabilities in radiation therapy, clinched the decision.
"My thesis project involves the use of proton beam CT [computed tomography] for accurate proton therapy treatment planning," says Mullins. "The unique opportunities of a new proton beam therapy facility at Mayo are unparalleled."
"Proton beam therapy is cutting-edge technology for which much exciting research remains," says Mullins. "Mayo also offers an accredited residency in medical physics, which was an important factor in my graduate program decision."
Direct links to clinical application
From the time he was young, Mullins dreamed of attending Mayo Medical School. "My aunt was a Mayo dietician, and I have memories of visiting Rochester and the beautiful Mayo campus," says Mullins.
Mullins eventually realized that he wanted to be a scientist more than a physician and was pleased to discover that Mayo had a graduate school where he could pursue medical physics research. "When the time came to apply and interview, I was impressed by everything Mayo had to offer — the format of the graduate program, the caliber of faculty and resources, and the direct links to clinical application."
Translating research to patient care
Mullins, now in the fourth year of his five-year graduate school program, says he appreciates the almost immediate translation of research to patient care at Mayo Clinic.
"I am motivated by knowing that everything I am working on — computer simulations and mathematical approximations of the radiation effects of proton beam therapy — will help people in need both in the near-term and the longer-term future," he says.
"I keep the patient in the forefront of my mind. I walk past patients every day in the department, which instills in me reverence and compassion."
What level of improvement can proton beam therapy provide?
Mullins' research is directed toward making sure that the computer system used to plan treatments accurately calculates the amount of radiation that a patient will receive during their treatment.
"Using statistical research simulation, my research plans to develop a protocol for measuring proton energy loss directly by performing CT imaging with a proton beam," says Mullins. "I plan to compare differences in treatment dose calculations within the context of the commercial treatment planning system to quantify the level of improvement proton CT can provide."
As much as he enjoys exploring the future of radiation therapy, Mullins enjoys sharing his scientific knowledge and motivating others to learn and explore.
In his free time, Mullins works with Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Mayo Clinic, in the Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program. InSciEd Out is a collaboration among Mayo Clinic, Winona State University and Rochester Public Schools that has a vision to achieve excellence in science education in public schools. Mullins volunteers to mentor high school students interested in science.
"I'm impressed by the students' aptitude and how much they know," says Mullins. "I want to inspire them in the ways I've been inspired so they want to pursue careers in research and push the state-of-the-art to the next level.
"Proton beam therapy is the frontier of radiation oncology now, but there will be something novel after that. Nurturing others is what drives me."
Planning for the future
Once Mullins graduates with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the Mayo Graduate School, he hopes to stay in Rochester to participate in Mayo's accredited residency program.
"Someday, in the not-so-distant future, I hope to work as a medical physicist at an academic institution [that has] a proton therapy facility," says Mullins.