By EMI EASTMAN
There is one question that everyone hears as a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I was five, I wanted to be an artist and spent my days using children’s art kits to paint pictures of dogs. Then I wanted to be an actress, and I forced my brothers to make silly movies with me using an old camera and our vivid imaginations. Later I decided that I wanted to be a teacher, so I created homework assignments for my friends and pretended to teach them math lessons.
It has been 16 years since five-year-old me first thought she knew what she wanted to do with her life, but I think that I finally have the real answer. I want to be a medical physicist.
When I was younger, the world seemed limitless. I was afraid of nothing and excited about everything. However, the realities and responsibilities of adulthood set in as I grew older. Would I make enough money being an artist? The odds of becoming famous are so low. Would I make it as an actress?
My future appeared so clear just a few years prior, but I felt more lost than ever as I approached my high school graduation. Entering college as an undeclared major, I switched my major to physics, international business, physics again, and chemistry over my first two years. Everyone around me seemed to have big plans after college.
One of the first people I met in my first week of college told me his entire life plan up until he was 40, while I was still struggling just to choose a major.
Halfway through my college career, I finally realized that I loved physics. I loved being able to explain why the universe behaved as it did, it was challenging, and it was rewarding. I still had no idea what I was going to do after college, but studying something that I truly enjoyed made it okay.
It brought me relief that I had eliminated one aspect of uncertainty from my life, but there were countless questions with no answers ahead. Yet this time, I decided it was time to stop fixating on the end goal and start enjoying the journey of self-discovery. I stopped trying to plan out every detail of my life and trusted that my experiences would guide me in the right direction.
I was afraid of nothing and excited about everything again. Eventually, this approach led me to a research experience at the University of Notre Dame, where I was introduced to the field of medical physics.
Medical physics gives me the opportunity to combine my love of physics with my desire to help others. No one goes through life without the help of others — whether it’s from family, friends, or complete strangers — so I want to make sure that my profession would help the lives of others, the same way that so many others have helped me.
Almost everyone I know has been directly or indirectly affected by cancer. It is one of the most detrimental illnesses, and most treatments are almost as agonizing as cancer itself. One of the main goals of medical physics research is the improvement of these cancer treatments, and I want to be a part of it.
I spent my last semester of college researching the physics of radiation cancer therapy for my senior project, and I am beginning an internship at Loma Linda University Medical Center, where I will research proton therapy — a novel form of radiation therapy.
After graduate school, I hope to research novel radiation therapy techniques and make them more accessible to patients that need them. I can finally see the path that appeared so faint just two years ago, but it only became apparent when I accepted the uncertainty that we all experience.
From a young age, that question forces us to think about what we want to be before we have a change to figure out who we are and what we love. It leads us to think that we’re doing something wrong because we’re uncertain. But uncertainty is a reminder that there are a million paths we could go down — we just don’t know which one to take yet. It’s unavoidable, but it’s not permanent.
Emi Eastman is a 2019 graduate from Whittier College, where she majored in physics.