2018 Three Minute Thesis winner Andrew Robertson has always been interested in applied physics, in particular the ways science can benefit other people. That's what got him into the medical physics program, where he’s researching the production and applications of the radioactive isotope actinium-225 at TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator centre, located at UBC.
Drugs containing actinium-225 have shown remarkable potential for the treatment of aggressive cancers. In his 3MT competition presentation, Robertson explained how experimental treatment of advanced prostate cancer with a drug containing this isotope put the patient’s cancer into remission. This emerging type of cancer treatment is called targeted alpha therapy.
The problem is that the supply of actinium-225 is limited. “The big challenge with developing these drugs is the availability of actinium-225. When I started out as a master’s student, I was trying to work on applications of actinium-225 but every time that we tried to do the experiment we didn't have enough actinium to do it properly.”
Robertson’s doctoral work focuses on the production of this isotope, using TRIUMF’s particle accelerator. By creating an avenue for the production of actinium, he hopes that other researchers who are looking at the isotope’s application in treatment therapies can complete their projects.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I graduated with a physics degree from UVic and found a job working in radiation safety at TRIUMF. I was seeing all these interesting experiments happen around me. I wanted to be more involved! Working in radiation safety was cool, but I knew I wanted to challenge myself more intellectually and that graduate school would be the best place for me to explore the science that interests me so much. I also knew that for the type of career I wanted, a graduate degree would be necessary. It's a very PhD-heavy field.
Why did you decide to study at UBC?
I was already working at TRIUMF, and so the facility itself was a big draw. I was also lucky enough to get a sense of the facility, and I knew exactly which professors I wanted to work with ahead of time. Everyone told me that as a graduate student, your relationship with your supervisor was the most important thing. I really took that to heart. The calibre of faculty here is very high. It also didn't hurt that I love Vancouver. The city I study in matters less to me than the program itself, but those mountains certainly made the choice easier.
What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?
The UBC Medical Physics program seemed like the right choice to make, because I'm interested in applying science and physics to problems that directly affect people. The other major appeal was the NSERC CREATE program, called IsoSiM, that is jointly run by UBC and TRIUMF. IsoSIM provided me with funding and an incredible number of professional development opportunities. I've had the chance to go to summer schools in Germany and BC, do a part-time industrial internship with a local Vancouver partner and plan to return to Germany for an extended research exchange next year.
What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?
I spend a lot of time at the lab, so it's pretty great that the ocean is so close by, especially in the summer months. When I'm waiting for some lab results and have some downtime, I can head down to the beach and relax a little.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?
At a place like TRIUMF, I have access to unique facilities that provide me the opportunity to do things that I know no one else in the world is doing.
What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?
Taking some time after my undergrad to get some job experience that was related to my career really help me succeed in grad school. I got a lot of technical and professional skills and plus some confidence and perspective that helped me do better in grad school than I did during my undergrad.
What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?
I don't have a lot of free time lately, but I do try to make sure I have some fun now and then! Vancouver has a great ultimate frisbee league, and I play year round. I also love skiing, and being able to going skiing after work or on the weekend in the winter is pretty great.
What advice do you have for new graduate students?
Don't rush into graduate studies. Take the time to figure out who you want to work for and what project you want to work on. Even if this delays the start of grad school, it likely won't delay the end of it!