Meet the Chair
Since September 2nd, Dr. Edward F. Jackson has been the new chair of the Department of Medical Physics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Jackson joins the UW from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he was professor and deputy department chair in the department of imaging physics, as well as director of the medical physics graduate education program.
According to Dr. Robert Golden, dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, Dr. Jackson’s outstanding record of achievement as a scientist, educator, and academic leader fits perfectly with the traditions of this remarkable department and will help to lead the department forward into the future. In this interview, Ed shared his vision for medical physics and the challenges students have to face in their future career.
What attracted you to the field of Medical Physics?
I have always had a deep interest in both the physical and biological sciences. While pursuing my MS degree in physics, I became known as the “odd one” (as if physics graduate students are not already labeled as such) because, in addition to the standard graduate physics courses, I took courses in organic chemistry, biochemistry, and mammalian physiology. While in the library one day, I happened upon the stack volumes of Medical Physics, was excited about the articles contained therein, and started investigating graduate programs in medical physics. I ultimately ended up at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I obtained my PhD degree in biophysics.
What is your vision for the department?
The broadest vision is, of course, to not only maintain our status as the preeminent department of medical physics in the United States but to further raise the status such that the department is unquestionably recognized as the leader in medical physics research and education…period. This can only be accomplished if each of us in the department will commit to working closely with each other as well as with our collaborators and colleagues not only in the two typical partner departments, i.e., Radiology and Human Oncology, but with an ever-broadening circle of collaborators in multiple fields, including, but certainly not limited to, bioinformatics and computational biology, genomics, medical oncology, surgery, optics, engineering, physics, and material sciences. Some of these collaborations are already in place, but we must expand those collaborations and build entirely new ones.
What are the challenges of working in Medical Physics? What can students learn from these challenges?
Staying abreast of the subfield of medical physics in which one works is a challenge given the rapid advancements. However, such rapid advancements keeps one’s work interesting doesn’t it? Clearly a current challenge is funding. Extramural funding levels from typical sources are at a low point in what has always been a cyclical funding pattern. Unfortunately, the period of this current cycle seems to be quite long. Students (and all of us), however, should remember that challenges typically can be translated into opportunities and should always be viewed as such. Don’t ever give up! (Remember the cartoon of the frog choking the pelican as the pelican tries to swallow it?)
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give to students?
The best advice was given to me very early in life by my mother who often said “All you can do is do your best, but always do your best.” Another favorite piece of advice came to me in the form of a short poem by Stephen Crane that I read early in high school and which concisely reinforced the message to “be yourself and think for yourself” better than anything else I had come across:
“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad.”
And after I had thought of it,
I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”
Based on this poem, I have often been a toad…and I haven’t regretted it.
In addition to these little tidbits of advice, for students I encourage one, in his/her scientific/professional life, to find something interesting and challenging on which to work, something you love and to which you can be fully committed. The same holds for one’s personal life, which must not be ignored even though the balance can be a challenge. By doing both, you will not only really enjoy what you do and find it rewarding, but will have the ability to get through the really tough times that will undoubtedly arise, whether completing that MS or PhD degree or getting through other challenges that life inevitably presents.
What do you think is the future of Medical Physics?
In a single word, exciting. There are so many exciting research areas for individuals entering the field. The most general definition of medical physics is the application of physics to medicine and biology, so the opportunities are seemingly endless. The computational capabilities, multi-scale anatomic and functional imaging options, advancements in genomics and proteomics, and opportunities to collaborate with fellow researchers in a wide range of fields, are unmatched in the history of the field.
My wonderful wife has been married to me since 1986, has been my best friend since 1979, and has known me since we were in 1st grade. We have two truly excellent kids: our daughter is a junior at UT-Austin, and our son is a high senior in Texas where he and my wife still reside. It will be very good, indeed, when we are together again after his graduation from high school. In the meantime, phone, text, and Skype video sessions have to suffice in the times between commuting trips.
What other career could you see yourself in?
That’s an interesting question. I come from a family of K-12 educators and education has always been a high priority for me (and was one of the key factors that drew me to my current position at UW). So I could, after retirement, see myself educating students at levels below the graduate level and convincing them that not only is physics relevant to their everyday lives, it can also be fun! In terms of a field outside of physics, I find the field of computational biology to be truly fascinating.