LSU Medical Physics Student Elizabeth Hilliard Receives 1st Place at LSU Three Minute Thesis Competition

Meet Elizabeth Hilliard, a medical physics graduate from the LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, whose M.S. project was working to improve the efficiency and control of electron beam exposure in cancer patients needing radiation therapy. Elizabeth has undergraduate degrees in both physics and psychology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She recently won the LSU Three Minute Thesis (#3MT) competition by presenting a winning story about her research on stage for the LSU Graduate School, and moved on to compete in the regional 3MT competition in Fayetteville, AR.Hilliard

What do you love most about your science?

Elizabeth: “What I love most about medical physics is that it requires constant problem solving in order to improve cancer treatments. What excites me most about science is the real-world applications of the research we do at LSU. In my experience, there are mundane and frustrating aspects of any research project, so it’s important to remember the bigger picture to avoid feeling frustrated when things are boring or don’t work out the way I want them to.”

Could you tell us a bit about your research?

My research interests are in improving electron radiotherapy for the treatment of cancer. More specifically, my Master's Thesis project is validating a device that better controls the intensity of radiation at a given depth in the body. Controlling the intensity gives us the ability to irradiate the tumor as evenly as possible while avoiding irradiating surrounding healthy body tissue. The method to control the intensity using patient-specific intensity modulating devices has already been developed, so my project involves re-planning previously-treated patients using intensity modulation then testing these planned devices to make sure they deliver the expected dose (energy per unit mass) at specified depths in water.

Tell us about your 3 Minute Thesis experience! How did you condense and talk about your research in 3 minutes? What was your main message?

One thing that helped me was to think back to all the times I had explained my research to family members and friends who aren't familiar with the field of medical physics. While explaining about how electron radiotherapy is currently done, I would always gesture with my hands, wishing I had a whiteboard or a napkin to draw on. When it came time to make my slide, I included the graphics that I imagined drawing during all of those previous conversations. I have been lucky to make lots of friends outside of school who are interested in my studies, so I had already had some practice in narrowing down my thesis work to what is important and interesting. My main message was that the intensity modulating devices being studied in my project can improve cancer treatments by irradiating tumors more evenly while still avoiding surrounding healthy tissue. “The competition was a great experience not only to practice presenting my research to a non-specialist audience but also to learn about all of the different research going on at LSU! I loved seeing the research other students were participating in and all of their different approaches to explaining that research in just 3 minutes.” 

What inspired you to compete in the Three Minute Thesis Competition?

My motivation for competing in the Three Minute Thesis Competition came from the conversations I mentioned above. Most people I meet out in the world have understandably never heard of medical physics, but once I start talking to them about my field and specifically about my research then they often get excited and want to know more. The Three Minute Thesis Competition takes that enthusiasm that I think everyone has about learning new things and makes it into a fun competition for participants and audience members alike.

What was your experience like during the competition (both the first round and the finals)?

The first round was a little nerve-wrecking. I had never been in the Business Education Complex before and I wasn't sure what to expect. The judges and other faculty present were kind though, and at the end of each talk expressed a genuine interest in each person's project. The feedback offered in the first round was super helpful and appreciated. 

The finals were much more formal, and I was pleasantly surprised with a participation certificate and goodies from the LSU Graduate School. I enjoyed learning about the other finalists' research both during their presentations and in chatting with them before and after. Several people from my department and from my church came to the final competition. I very much appreciated their support even while their presence made me slightly more nervous. Overall, it was an excellent experience and I would recommend that everyone try it, or at least come watch the competition next year.

How did you prepare for the competition?

Before I started making my presentation, I spent some time watching previous 3 Minute Thesis talks (and especially winners!). I found that the best talks involved some sort of story, or a feeling like the presenter was taking the audience through a journey with them. I also found resources that suggested thinking about the purpose of the project, unexpected or surprising results, metaphors for the science aspects, and emotional/relational connections to the project. I brainstormed about all of these things before starting to make my slide. For me, it was easier to think about what I would say first then make my slide as a graphic representation of what I was saying.

What were you most excited about for competing in the Southern Regional Competition?

As passionate as I am about sharing my own research, I am also excited about seeing other students' presentations. The ability to explain complex research in easily understood but not empty or "dumbed down" ways is a skill that I have tried to hone in myself, and I hope to improve that skill by watching others compete.

What is one piece of advice that you would give students for competitions like this, including dissertation haiku and dissertation dance?

One piece of advice I would give is to talk about your research to as many people as will listen, especially to people you meet out in the "real world." I believe that if you can explain your research to your 12-year-old cousin and answer their questions then you will be able to easily answer any questions your Research Committee will come up with.

Could you share your slide with us and give us an even shorter description?

Electron radiotherapy is used to treat cancers that are close to the skin surface because electrons stop depositing dose (energy per unit mass) at certain known depths in a patient. We use bolus, a water-equivalent plastic, to conform (think "Saran wrap") dose to the tumor and avoid surrounding tissue. My project adds intensity modulation to make the dose in the tumor more evenly spread while still avoiding surrounding tissue. More specifically, I am measuring the dose in water from patient-specific intensity modulating devices to validate that they provide the radiation intensity calculated for each device.

What do you plan do after you complete your graduate degree in medical physics?

On July 1st, I started in my position as a medical physics resident at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. During the residency, I will complete clinical projects and be given clinical responsibilities so that by the end of the two years I am ready to independently practice as a medical physicist at a cancer center in a hospital.