Khadija SheikhKhadija Sheikh credits the medical physics program with launching her career as a proton physicist.

Physics program leads grad to career treating cancer

As one of the first to graduate from the UWindsor medical physics program, Khadija Sheikh (BSc 2012) is quick to sing the praises of the niche program.

“I truly owe my success to Windsor; it was Because of Science at UWindsor,” says Dr. Sheikh. “It was one of the best four years of my life.”

And success has followed her. After graduating from the University of Windsor, she earned a doctorate in medical biophysics from the University of Western Ontario. From there she completed a residency in radiation oncology physics at Johns Hopkins University.

After residency, Sheikh took a proton medical physicist position, and more recently became assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is also associate program director of the Medical Physics Residency at Johns Hopkins University.

“In the residency program, I matched with Johns Hopkins and fell in love with proton therapy. Now I work as a proton physicist,” she says.

Conventional radiotherapy, Sheikh explains, uses X-rays to treat cancer, but with proton therapy tumours are treated using a charged particle.

“What is nice about charged particles is that they stop. So when irradiating tumours, you do not get dose spread out past the tumour, irradiating the normal tissue,” says Sheikh.

“I think that is fascinating and a huge advantage to treating pediatric cancers where you don’t want to radiate normal tissue in young children. That is what made me fall in love with this type of treatment.”

In addition to working as a proton physicist, she says it is exciting to also be part of the faculty.

“I love research, teaching, and talking with the younger generation, and it is nice to see everyone so enthusiastic about these techniques being able to share that enthusiasm as well,” she says.

“By teaching I’m learning myself because there are always new techniques coming out and I have to keep on top of that and be able to communicate with the students and colleagues.”

She says this love of medical physics started when recruiters from the University of Windsor came her to high school classroom.

“They explained this whole new field of medicine where you could merge physics and modelling with mathematics to help treat cancer. I always thought I wanted to go to medical school, and I was pleasantly surprised that you could pursue a career in medicine via physics. I thought that was exciting.”

During her undergrad studies, Sheikh pursued research opportunities in the labs of physics professors Steven Rehse and Chitra Rangan.

“The faculty took a huge role in our mentoring in third and fourth year, and Dr. Rehse and Dr. Rangan were phenomenal in teaching and research opportunities,” she says.

“I was also in the co-op program and did a semester at (the subatomic physics research laboratory) TRIUMF at UBC where I got to work at a particle accelerator and that’s really where I first learned about proton therapy.”

Beyond academics, Sheikh excelled in other ways: running varsity track and participating in the physics club and Let’s Talk Science.

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