- Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography
Kiran Pant ’18 says her Senior Capstone project was an unexpected gift combining two of her great passions—physics and cancer treatment—and illuminating a path to graduate school and a career.
“I’d always wanted to work in the medical field, but thought I had to do biology or chemistry,” says Pant, a physics major minoring in mathematics who has been accepted into Duke University’s master’s degree program in medical physics for the fall. “Now I get to incorporate medicine and physics, which until last year I had no idea was even a thing.”
For her capstone project, Pant has created an ambitious computer simulation of the impact of a beam of protons on a tumor and the healthy tissue around it. A vast improvement over standard radiation therapy, proton beam therapy allows higher doses of radiation to be delivered directly to the tumor, sparing the surrounding tissue.
“Protons (positively charged sub-atomic particles) are charged to a specific velocity and that velocity determines how deep into the body they’ll travel,” says Pant. “As a result, the optimal dose is deposited straight into the tumor. There’s a little bit of radiation scattering, but it’s not as significant, so there’s less harm to healthy tissue and fewer side effects.”
Pant is studying ways to minimize even that reduced amount of radiation scattering. “There are lots of equations,” she says. “I’m doing my own coding—most of my thesis is in computer code—to graphically demonstrate how energy is lost from the protons as they’re traveling through the body. The angle at which you deliver them is a big factor. My goal is to minimize the scattering as much as possible.”
Pant actually began her project during her junior year in a class called Scientific Modeling and Data Analysis, taught by Assistant Professor of Physics Colin Campbell, who is also her advisor.
“Dr. Campbell introduced me to the idea of medical physics,” she says. “And he suggested I try this for my final class project and I fell in love with it.”
She started with a very simple linear model, but spent hours working on the project for more than a year and ultimately created her three-dimensional simulation.
“Kiran is very bright and has a wonderful work ethic; it’s been a privilege working with her,” says Campbell. “She has taken full advantage of the Senior Capstone Experience, which is a wonderful opportunity for students to sharpen their expertise on a topic relevant to their intended career, by studying a subject on the cutting edge of both physics and medicine. I have no doubt that she will find success at Duke University and beyond.”
Pant, who is co-captain of the women’s tennis team and an officer in her sorority, says she realized during her interviews at Duke how well WC—with its attentive faculty and emphasis on a well-rounded liberal arts education—has prepared her for her chosen career as a clinical medical physicist.
“I noticed that a lot of the other applicants didn’t know anything but physics,” she says. “I’ve taken English and business classes and we have a class for seniors in physics where you learn different presentation skills, ways of talking about your research, that you’ll use in the real world. My professors have all been amazing. They will do anything to help you and they’ve given me a lot of confidence for what lies ahead.”