Natalie West ('22)
Natalie West (’22) recently graduated from Loyola with a degree in Biophysics. Natalie is now a graduate student in the Medical Physics Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Do you have a fun memory to share from Loyola or from Loyola Physics? My favorite Loyola Physics memories are associated with the holiday parties. My favorite was from the holiday part in 2019, right before Cudahy closed for renovations, where my classmates and I were able to walk through the old building one last time (and see some cool places that are typically locked!).
How did you get interested in Medical Physics? I was always drawn to physics, but I knew I wanted experience in an interdisciplinary field. When I found biophysics, I enjoyed the intersections of biology and chemistry with physics. I still wanted to work in a hospital setting and treat patients, and after researching possible career paths, I found medical physics. I learned a lot during the application and interview process, and ultimately decided to attend a graduate program for medical physics.
How was the transition from Loyola to graduate school? Graduate school is fantastic! I have loved learning about a brand new field by using concepts taught to me in my biophysics major. It is very tough, but very productive and thought-provoking. My current department reminds me of Loyola’s physics department—while my current department is smaller, it shares the same closeness and connection that I felt with Loyola physics. The classes are much more difficult and more focused. The best help transitioning to graduate school was befriending my classmates early on. I was the only member of my cohort without prior medical physics experience so it was important to me to have people to go to for questions. My classmates have been the biggest resource to my success in classes.
Did anything at Loyola particularly prepare you for grad school? I think the intimacy of Loyola’s physics department prepared me the best. The size of our department allowed me to form close connections with my classmates and professors, allowing me to collaborate in classes and start research. The freshman project prepared me well for graduate school—starting a research project that early meant that I had time to see a full project to the end and explore a variety of research. Graduate schools look for research experience in the application process, and Loyola prepared me to list many on my CV. Research is not only a good CV builder, though—it is a fantastic way to challenge yourself outside of your classes and truly make an impact on your field.
What is a typical day like for graduate student? My days are currently filled with classes and my research tutorial. Because I am interested in radiation biology, I often go to the lab to perform research rather than working remotely, which is common with many medical physics projects. With my graduate research assistantship (how I’m funded), I am expected to be on campus or working on classwork like a full time job. I typically have about 2 classes per day, and time not spent in class is spent either in the lab or working on homework in the first year office. When classes are busy, I typically spend Saturdays and/or Sundays working in study groups.
What do you plan to do after finishing this program? I hope to attend a radiation therapy residency following graduation, which will take two years. Following residency, I would like to work clinically in a hospital, but also have academic duties, like teaching and research.
What advice would you give to a student just starting at Loyola that you wish that you knew at that point? If I were just entering Loyola, I would make connections with classmates and professors quickly and take full advantage of your freshman project. These connections will follow you through your Loyola experience and allow you to take advantage of your education. Something that I didn’t know when I started Loyola was that COVID-19 would force my sophomore and junior years to be online. Because of this, I wish I got to know more people within the department before being sent home. Don’t hesitate to connect with people early on, because you can’t predict what your years at Loyola will look like. Another piece of advice is to make sure to do research you’re interested in. When I first joined Loyola, I was drawn to Dr. Ramsey’s musical instrument research and I was able to combine my hobby of playing the French horn with physics—I worked with Dr. Ramsey for 3 years studying the physics of the French horn and it was an important part of my education. Finally, I would recommend to take advantage of the freedom you have when you graduate—you can move anywhere! For me, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and moved across the country. While I miss Chicago, this is one of the few times in my life where I won’t be attached to a permanent job. I enjoyed the experience of learning a new city when I moved to Chicago, and wanted to do it again.