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Physics student makes nationals in 3-minute thesis competition

Cast your People’s Choice Award ballot in support of Elizabeth Watt's presentation
May 15, 2015

Elizabeth Watt, an MSc student specializing in radiation oncology physics, will compete in the national finals of the Three Minute Thesis competition. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Elizabeth Watt, MSc student, is the first University of Calgary student to compete in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) national finals.

It’s a journey she started early. She attended MyGradSkills workshops, which helped her make complex physics research understandable to those outside her field. So she came ready to deliver.

Watt, specializing in radiation oncology physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, won the 3MT Western Canadian finals held recently at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

You can cast a ballot for Watt to win the national 3MT People’s Choice award. The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies in Ottawa is posting all the competing national presentations — including Watt’s — until May 25. It’s a virtual competition, so the judges will review the videos and decide the winner.

Watt’s talk is entitled Permanent Breast Seed Implant: Improving Patient Experience in Early-Stage Breast Cancer. It's a subject that generates a lot of interest beyond the academic community.

Her research focuses on identifying and quantifying the uncertainties involved in the modality of Permanent Breast Seed Implant (PBSI)— the use of radioactive seeds in cancer treatment as an alternative to daily external beam radiation. PBSI can enable patients to spend less time in the hospital and it appears to cause a reduction in acute skin reactions.

Path to 3MT stage began early

While public speaking marks a new adventure in graduate school for Watt, 23, she’s always been driven to seek the truth and solve riddles, even when she was six years old.

With her mom and dad, she watched intently near the front row as a magician known as The Conjurer worked his magic during a performance at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. When the magician asked for an assistant to join him on stage, her hand shot up.

“I was probably the worst assistant ever, because I kept trying to investigate everything thoroughly, while asking, 'how did you do that?’ ” said Watt, laughing. “I kept asking to see his other hand, which was apparently key to the magic trick.”

Her curiosity to see how things really work, as well as her perseverance, helps to push her research ahead.

PBSI is offered at only a handful of health centres nationwide, including the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, as Watt explains in her 3MT talk. She said there is a vital need to explore uncertainties in the procedure and optimize the treatment to make it accessible to more women — points she’s addressing with her research.

“PBSI has the potential to play a significant role in the future of radiation therapy, meaning that such research is essential for continued progress and success of the treatment, and ultimately its ability to improve the lives of many women who bravely fight breast cancer every day,” said Watt.

Making the climb to success

Watt’s supervisor, Dr. Tyler Meyer, a medical physicist in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, says that Watt has the team of 12 physicists at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre happy, proud and excited.

“Elizabeth is great to work with and very collaborative,” he said. “She has taken control of her research and really pushed for things to move forward at a brisk pace with a lot of success.”

Aside from working, she loves to hike. She found the magnificent views after climbing Ha Ling peak, just south of Canmore, a payoff for all her work — similar to her experiences so far with the 3MT competition. She has competed against 50 other University of Calgary students to get to the Western finals and now sits among the best of the best in the nationals.

“I’m very excited to be going forward, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” she said.

Cancer treatment research hits close to home

In a way, her work brings her full circle after a medical crisis in her own family. Her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, chose surgery and has passed the 10-year cancer-free mark. Another procedure that was just gaining popularity at the time was brachytherapy, which involves the insertion of radioactive seeds to treat cancer.

“PBSI really started after the work begun with prostate brachytherapy,” said Watt. “I think a lot of people are interested in my research because almost everyone has a family member or friend who’s had breast cancer. Patients want to get back to their lives quicker. I want to help them do so.”

3MT national judges’ panel will be choosing a first and second place winner and awarding prizes of $1,500 and $1,000. The People’s Choice is awarded $500.

Winners will be announced the first week of June. Please share the 3MT link with your network and encourage people to vote.


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