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Jeni Smilowitz

Jeni Smilowitz

Clinical Associate Professor of Medical Physics and Human Oncology "I see our department heading into some really innovative fields."


I have eight year old twins, Florencia and Logan, and a thirteen year old stepson named Cameron - he's actually named after John Cameron.

Hidden talents?

I can speak Spanish. My kids are actually all bilingual. I try to actively maintain my fluency - I meet with a native Spanish speaker once a week for lunch for some conversational practice. The upcoming teenage years are daunting enough; I can't imagine facing them with teenagers who can speak another language. So it behooves me to keep up with them.

Proudest accomplishments?

Maintaining a really awesome, professional career that's pretty demanding while being a single mom to my kids!

Books you're reading?

I just got the book Radioactive about Marie Curie. I'm a little late since it was the UW-Madison book to read a year or two ago, but I'm really enjoying it.

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In The Spotlight

When did you first realize you wanted to be in medical physics?

I started off at the University of Vermont as a math major, but then I switched to political science and French so that I could study abroad. After graduation, I moved out to Wyoming and worked in a ski shop for several years, thinking I would never go back to school. After 3 good winters, I returned to college, this time at the University of Wyoming, with the intent of finishing my math degree. There, I met a physics professor who was doing astrophysics, which was very interesting, so I switched my major to physics. I heard about Medical Physics from my differential equations professor who was a UW Medical Physics graduate (!) and whose wife at the time was the diagnostic medical physicist for most of Wyoming. They suggested I apply to the "other UW." I was a McNair scholar at the UW and with their assistance I took the GRE and applied to graduate school. Shortly thereafter I began my education and career in medical physics. I took a very circuitous path to get to a great career.

What appeals to you about teaching?

I find teaching really interesting and engaging. My favorite part is interacting with the students - they're all very smart and interesting, and it's really fun to teach them an application of something that they maybe knew the math for, but they didn't know how to apply it to anything. Before it might have been just a math equation, but when I explain it in terms of dose calculation or another application, it's really enlightening and students get very excited about that.

How do you think the medical physics field is changing?

It's changed a lot. Especially as a clinical medical physicist, there are a lot more requirements you need to get in order to become a medical physicist. I think there is value in this - there's a need for standardization and accountability, since we are dealing with patients and safety issues. On the same token, however, the certification process can hamper the academic paths and experiences of other students who do not want to go into clinical medical physics. It's harder for them to take a more diverse classload and explore different options. That can be frustrating, but on the other hand, at some point you need to decide what you want to do with your career, so you need to say, "Okay, if you want to specialize in clinical medical physics, you need to take these classes so you can be best trained for the job you want."

What directions do you see our department heading in the future?

I see our department heading into some really innovative fields and applications that combine imaging and therapy, and response to therapy. I think in the past our department had been divided into either imaging track or therapy track, but in the future, I think there will be some really interesting collaborations and overlap between fields.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?

It can be hard to be a single mom and maintain a busy professional career. I think it is possible to "have it all," but I had to define what "all" is for me. I can't work 80 hours a week (or travel a lot) because I have to (want to) be home for my kids. I have found a nice balance that works for me and enables me to have a fulfilling career and meaningful time with my kids.

What advice can you give to students?

You know, having taken this circuitous path, it taught me a lot. I had a great time working at the ski shop and doing other things for many years, but when I went back to school, I wanted a degree that would get me a job. Maybe that sounds a little too functional, but I think it's important at some point to think ahead and ask yourself, "What do I want to do and can I get a job doing that?" I knew early on I wanted to be in the clinic, so I spent a lot of time hanging around the therapists and dosimetrists and just tried to learn as much as I could about the clinic while still in graduate school. That is not really an option any longer with the number of students and increased clinic rules, however I encourage students to pursue as many clinical options as possible, like the DQA teams if they are interested in a clinical career.

What other career could you see yourself in?

I really like teaching, so I might be teaching something else. I enjoy traveling, so if I weren't working in the clinic, I could envision myself maybe teaching medical physics in different places. I like people and I like teaching.

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