Graduate Program Alumni Spotlight – Dr Marlene McKetty

Dr Marlene H P McKetty graduated from the UF Medical Physics Graduate Program with a MS in 1975 and a PhD in 1978. Dr McKetty’s legacy is unparalleled. Her accomplishments raised the bar for all medical physicists and serve as a framework for all who follow in her footsteps.

Dr McKetty attended St Hugh’s High School in Kingston, Jamaica, and then the University of the West Indies, from which she earned her BS degree in Zoology and Chemistry. Subsequent to graduation, she moved to the United States and attended Mt Sinai School of Radiotherapeutic Technology in New York City, where she became a Registered Radiation Therapy Technologist. She concurrently took Physics and calculus courses at Hunter College, which allowed her to meet the requirements to be admitted into the graduate program in Nuclear Engineering Sciences in the College of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she studied Medical Radiation Physics.

When Dr McKetty was admitted into the graduate program at UF, she was awarded financial assistance in the form of a graduate assistantship from the Nuclear Engineering Sciences Department. In her first semester, she did research with a professor working on dating of artifacts using radioactivity. Her demonstration of keen interest in the treatment of cancer patients led to her being selected as one of two graduate students to work half-time with the staff clinical medical physicist in the Radiation Therapy Division of the Radiology Department. This opportunity provided her with invaluable practical experience in training to be a clinical physicist.

During her graduate studies, Dr McKetty received several awards. This includes an academic award from the Society of Black Students in Engineering (SBSE); a graduate student award from the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE); and the Graduate School Fellowship for Women in Non-Traditional Fields. She also obtained a dissertation year award from the National Fellowships Fund.

After graduate school, Dr McKetty obtained a position as a Medical Physicist in the Radiation Therapy Department at Mt Sinai Hospital, where she worked for two and a half years. She then accepted a position at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC, as a Medical Physicist in Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine Physics, with an appointment as an Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine.

Although her clinical training was concentrated in Radiation Therapy Physics, she had the didactic and laboratory training to work in these other areas of Medical Physics. Despite limited clinical experience in those fields, she was diligent about learning those areas of medical physics and eventually spent the majority of her career working in Diagnostic Imaging and Nuclear Medicine physics. After a few years as a member, she was also appointed as Chair of the Howard University Radiation Safety Committee, where her duties and responsibilities included providing leadership and technical expertise for the committee, supervision of the Radiation Safety Officer, technical and administrative staff of the Radiation Safety Office, and advising senior management of resources needed and regulatory mandates and requirements for an effective Radiation Safety Program. The Radiation Safety Committee ensured that all sources of ionizing radiation at Howard University and Howard University Hospital were used safely and in a manner that complied with applicable Federal and District of Columbia regulations. As a clinical physicist, some of the responsibilities included: calibration of x-ray equipment used for diagnostic purposes and radioisotope assaying equipment; teaching radiation physics to medical residents and students, nurses, and technology students and physicians in other disciplines; establishment and supervision of a quality assurance program; and collaboration with radiologists, technologists, and service engineers to obtain high quality images with minimal radiation dose to patients.

Dr McKetty earned her certification from the American Board of Radiology (ABR) in Therapeutic Radiological Physics, and as her area of work concentration changed, also became certified by the ABR in Diagnostic Radiological Physics, thus becoming a diplomate in both areas of Medical Physics. She also became board certified by the American Board of Medical Physics in Diagnostic Imaging Physics. Dr McKetty was also awarded a fellowship in the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM).

During her career, Dr McKetty was a member of several professional and scientific organizations and had leadership roles in many of them, some at the board and some at the committee level. She is a member of the AAPM, Health Physics Society (HPS), American College of Radiology (ACR), Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Programs (CAMPEP), among others. Some of the committees on which she served were related to education and training of physicists, radiologists, and technologists; mammography physics; government and public relations; and minority recruitment of physicists into the profession. She was elected and served as a Board Member at Large for the AAPM, served on the boards of the local chapters of the HPS in New York and Baltimore/Washington, and was nominated and appointed to the board of CAMPEP.

Dr McKetty’s service activities included serving as a reviewer of mammography images and programs for the American College of Radiology Mammography Accreditation Program (ACR-MAP), and  serving on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Technical Electronic Products Radiation Safety Standards Committee (TEPRSSC). She also served the American Board of Radiology (ABR) as an oral examiner for candidates taking the examination to become certified by the ABR in diagnostic imaging physics. Although she is now retired from clinical medical physics activities, she continues to serve on a subcommittee of CAMPEP whose function is to accredit Medical Physics training programs and medical physics residency programs.

Dr McKetty is the epitome of a true trailblazer. She paved the way for future generations and continues to leave her mark on the field of medical physics. Despite her retirement, Dr McKetty’s light continues to shine bright. As one of our most esteemed alumni, she personifies the good of the Gator Nation and exemplifies the medical physics profession!

Q&A with Dr McKetty

Q. How did the University of Florida prepare you for a career in Medical Physics?

A. The prescribed curriculum gave me the didactic training that I could apply to different areas of Medical Physics. As students, we had academic training in Radiation Physics and Dosimetry, Environmental Engineering, Health Physics, Radiation Biology, Nuclear Reactor Physics, & Physics of Nuclear Medicine – many of which had laboratory components. We also had Computer Science and Statistics. The core courses provided enough basic information that would allow one to pursue any of the major branches of medical physics, namely Therapeutic Radiation Physics, Diagnostic Radiation Physics, or Nuclear Medicine Physics. However, the amount of clinical training was limited.

Prior to starting the graduate program, my plan and career goal was to be a physicist in a radiation therapy department. I was fortunate that after my first quarter at UF, the Radiation Therapy Department at Shands hired two graduate students to work 8 hours per day in the radiation physics section providing dosimetry support and learning clinical physics under the tutelage of the clinical physicist. I was chosen as one of the graduate students. Thus, for my assistantship, I was being trained as a clinical physicist. With this experience, I was exposed to much of the training that is now provided in a residency program. This experience was invaluable and very beneficial in my first position as a clinical physicist in a radiation therapy department after completing graduate school. I had enough confidence in my basic training in medical physics, and my ability to learn what I needed, so that I was able to make the transition to diagnostic medical physics where I became responsible for diagnostic medical physics, nuclear medicine physics, and radiation safety.

Q. How did you decide between therapeutic or diagnostic medical physics?

A. As a teenager in school, I aspired to work in the sciences and work with some aspect f cancer study. After an undergraduate degree in Zoology and Chemistry, I was introduced to the field of radiation therapy and the physics of radiation therapy. I completed additional courses in physics and calculus which were not a part of my study for my undergraduate degree and applied to graduate medical physics programs, having decided that my career goal was to be a medical physicist in a radiation therapy setting. After graduating, I worked as a clinical physicist, which included teaching radiation physics to radiation oncology residents and became involved in the local AAPM chapter (RAMPS) and the local Health Physics Society. I wanted to learn more about diagnostic medical physics. My interest was especially piqued when I became chair of the Raphex committee and had to convene a group of medical physicists in New York to prepare the examination for both Radiation Oncology and Diagnostic Radiology residents. The new chairman of the Department of Radiology at Howard University Hospital was interested in hiring a physicist for his department. He heard about me from one of the members of my Raphex committee and contacted me to apply for the position. I applied and got the position. My plan was to work in diagnostic physics for a short time and then return to therapeutic physics. I became ABR certified in Therapeutic Radiation physics and then a few years later became certified by the ABR in Diagnostic Imaging Physics. I ended up spending most of my career in Diagnostic Physics.

Q. What do you know now that you wish you had known as a graduate student?

A.  I know that one can pivot and change your focus and plans and still be successful, provided you put in the necessary work.

Q. What advice would you give to a graduate student in Medical Physics?

A. Be inquisitive. Develop good organizational skills. Learn from all sources in your environment, not only those you think are in authority.

Q. What was the most fulfilling aspect of your career?

A. It was being appointed Chair of the Radiation Safety Committee of Howard University Hospital – supervising the operation of the Radiation Safety Office, providing advice and recommendations to senior management of the university, and working in conjunction with the risk committees, namely the Institutional Review Board (IRB), the Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee (IACUC), the Hospital Safety Committee, and the Disaster Preparedness Committee. All these activities were performed while maintaining all the activities of a medical physicist in the Radiology department and Nuclear Medicine division.

Q. Why would you encourage an undergraduate student to go into Medical Physics?

A. Medical Physics provides a satisfying career which requires varied skill sets. While knowledge of the relevant sciences is important, one must have good communication skills to communicate not only with your peers but with physicians, varied health care workers, manufacturers, patients, medical and technology students, and hospital administrators, among others. It also allows a scientist to use the knowledge of science in a very practical manner and in a field that is constantly changing.