Who is radiation physicist Julianne Pollard-Larkin?
Julianne Pollard-Larkin, an assistant professor of Radiation Physics, always loved math and science. As a teen, she once signed herself up for summer school because she couldn’t wait to take her first physics class. In college, she majored in math and physics, and today she holds a Ph.D. in biomedical physics.
But she’s more than just a physicist with a white board full of equations. Like her enthusiasm for Zumba workouts, her exuberant shout-outs to colleagues as she strides through a quiet office suite and her willingness to dress up like Princess Leia or SpongeBob SquarePants for kids visiting the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School.
Pollard-Larkin may joke about being a “super nerd,” but she reserves for herself the right to set her own expectations for herself. And there’s a story behind that.
The daughter of a schoolteacher and an Army lieutenant colonel who saw tremendous potential in their children, Pollard-Larkin was taught early to go after what she wanted with everything she had.
“If you want it, then put the work behind it, and you can achieve it,” she says. “You don’t let anything sidetrack you.”
What she wanted growing up was to be like the astronaut she’d seen on the cover of a magazine: physician and scientist Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space.
“I knew I wanted to be a scientist right then,” Pollard-Larkin says.
But her next encounter with a woman in science was anything but inspiring.
She was 14 and revved up about the mysteries of the cosmos the summer she signed up for a physics course in Miami. On the first day of class, her teacher walked in, looked at all the faces of different colors and asked, “Why am I wasting my time?” The teacher walked out, and a shocked Pollard-Larkin headed out right behind her to track down another teacher and demand physics instruction.
“This was a moment for me,” she remembers. It galvanized her to ask herself, “Do I really want to be a scientist? Or do I let someone who doesn’t even know me – who doesn’t know my desires, goals and potential, who’s judging me based on what she sees on the outside – set the expectations for what I might become?”
In the end, the reluctant teacher was forced to teach the class, and Pollard-Larkin was forced to learn much of the material from her text book and the internet.
The most valuable lesson she took from that teacher: If this woman could understand physics, Pollard-Larkin certainly could.
“Nothing was going to stop me now.”
A personal grudge against cancer
Pollard-Larkin stayed on course, setting her sights on a career in astrophysics. But while pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, she learned her mother had breast cancer. During her treatment, Pollard-Larkin met physicists who weren’t aiming for the stars. Their goal required practical, applied physics: “Let’s kill that tumor.”
Pollard-Larkin switched her focus to biomedical physics, came to MD Anderson for a residency in 2008 and stayed on for a job that still excites her: keeping the hospital’s linear accelerators up to date, calibrated and in perfect working order. She and dozens of other physicists who grasp the science behind the machines must make sure the accelerators can deliver the precise amount of radiation therapy ordered by the physician to the precise parts of the patient’s body that need it.
“People don’t understand how I can work here,” she says. “They ask, ‘How can you work around cancer patients all the time?’ But what I wonder is ‘How can you not want to help people every day?’
“We’re here because cancer has touched us, and we just want to get back at it.”
Another motivation drives her as well: Her job offers many formal and informal mentoring opportunities.
She not only works with trainees, she also passes on the life lessons she’s learned to disadvantaged children who may not realize what they’re capable of achieving.
“I want every child I come across to know they have this innate potential,” she says.
She makes time to talk with schoolkids touring the hospital as part of MD Anderson’s Health Adventures Program. She talks up careers in medical physics when our graduate school opens its doors to local children each year on Science Night. And last fall she led the startup of a daylong career workshop for high school girls that she calls her life’s dream: “Smart, Strong and Bold: MD Anderson Women in Biomedical Research.”
She hopes to create a similar program for boys next. All kids, she says, need the kind of encouragement that her parents supplied when her first physics teacher didn’t.
“So many of us carry these experiences from childhood with us, and we never get to use them to a positive end,” Pollard-Larkin says. “I love that I can.”
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.