Yesterday, we took a day trip into NYC to visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer research center for what was actually a phenomenally interesting tour. It started with a bunch of presentations by various program heads about their particular research, including recent/ongoing projects as well as historical accomplishments. (Side note: one thing that is fabulous about this program, which I think most people don’t realize, is the fact that the important people themselves are giving us our tours. When we visited Stony Brook University, it was the head of the Chem department, not some grad student, who showed us around. I’ll talk a bit more about who, what, where going forward, but it blows my mind every time someone gets introduced to us. It is increasingly clear to me that this program isn’t just about providing an interesting educational opportunity for students potentially interested in nuclear and radiochemistry; it really is about finding for each of us the subset of nuclear/radio-/isotopic chemistry that fascinates us and giving us all the connections we need to really get into the field.)
At MSK, the head of radiological research came to talk to us; the director of the cyclotron took us around and answered all our questions; the head researcher brought us into the small animal lab and showed us every single imaging machine (even the brand new C-13 magnetic imager that hasn’t even been used in more than a dozen experiments yet).
On the one hand, MSK wasn’t all that exciting for me, because I’m not interested in cancer research. Nearly everything we got told about was the application of radioisotopes to diagnostic imaging and cancer treatments. That said, the tour of the cyclotron and the isotope production labs was awesome. This is where nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, radiochemistry, and organic chemistry have all come together to create an incredible process. Radioactive nuclides are created in their cyclotron – mostly F-18 from enriched O-18 water. (Water with O-18, which is stable but rare, instead of the normally occurring O-16.) F-18 is used in a half dozen commonly used tracers, which are used by oncologists to find and track the growth of cancerous tumors in various imaging modalities. (PET, MR, etc.) Once the nuclide is produced, it gets sent to hot cubes, which are basically lead lined 3’x3′ hoods where the radioactive nuclide is isolated and the organic chemistry gets done to put the nuclide into the molecule. The thing is, since they’re so hot (radioactivity, not temperature), most of this work is done using robotics where possible or by operators controlling robotic arms. Once the molecule is made, it gets tested in quality control and then sent upstairs to the hospital and used. They’re currently working on obtaining FDA approval to make a certain F-18 compound that is used in approximately 50 images daily at MSK alone – once they have that approval, they anticipate making the compound and selling it to hospitals around NYC and up the eastern seaboard. The combination of research and business all to find, diagnose, and cure cancer is truly incredible. (MSK runs an annual profit upwards of $2b…) So I guess, while the actual medical application wasn’t all that interesting, the technology that underlies all of it (literally – the cyclotron and accompanying labs are all in the basement) was fascinating.
It was also amazing to recognize how much we’ve learned in just two weeks. I can only assume that a relatively constant level of complexity was maintained throughout their presentations, but when the presentation was about specific biological uptakes in cancer cells or the mechanisms of cancer in the (human or mouse) body, I had no idea what they were saying. BUT, when they talked about the processes of producing isotopes and using them to tag organic compounds, it felt like they were talking below us. Even though its only been a couple of weeks, I’ve got a pretty solid understanding of a wide base of nuclear and radiochemistry. I can’t wait for what the other three weeks of classes will hold.
Wait, Kathy! I thought this was a six week program? But only five weeks of classes? Huh?
This week – Week 3 – is all tours and experiences and guest lectures. First of all, Friday is July 3, which is a national holiday, so no class on Friday. Yesterday, we went to MSK. Today, we had two guest lectures given by two scientists who have worked here for 30+ years each. They are senior scientists working on the linear accelerator (BLIP – Brookhaven LINAC Isotope Producer) and the cyclotrons (technically, there are three…) They each talked about their respective machines: their histories, their construction, their functions, and the research they are currently being used for. This afternoon, we’ll be going on a tour of them. Unfortunately, BLIP is currently running, which means we’ll only get to see the outside and the control room, but if its anything like the time I toured ATLAS, it’ll still be really cool. And then we get to see the cyclotron too! Tomorrow, we’re heading out to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant for a tour of that, which may very well be the one thing I was most excited when we got our six-week schedule on Day 1. Then, on Thursday, we’ve got a lecture from two professors at the University of Notre Dame about nuclear forensics; I know the same process can be used in geological dating, anthropological dating (mostly on ancient ceramics), crime analysis (for example, gunshot residue differs from one shot to the next) and “detonation materials” (bombs – you can tell who supplied the material based on its fingerprint). I’m excited about that one too, since a lot of these techniques, and the research into facilitating faster forensic analysis, is being used and funded by the IAEA. And then next week we get back into hardcore classes with a professor from UNLV (I think…)
As we go into week three, I’m experiencing the 18-ish-day slump (whereby I get tired of being wherever I am somewhere in the middle of the third week). I’m a bit tired of living in a dorm again; tired of having to carry my shampoo to the shower every day and of having to carry my food from the mini-fridge in my room to the stovetop/microwave downstairs in the kitchen. As much as I love the people here with me, spending basically all day every day with them has made me a bit tired of them – some act young, some act out, sometimes I just want my space and my porch and my friends from school, or my farmer’s market and my street and my family. But I know it’ll pass; I’ve retreated into a book and I’m sure by the time I finish it I’ll be ready for another three weeks with ’em all.
For now, I’ve got a lab report and some research to finish up, not to mention a couple tours to go catch. More to come, I promise (I might even get around to our various trips into NYC on the weekends for fun…)