My main research goal is to use tools and techniques from particle physics and apply them to cancer imaging and treatment. This work relies heavily on computer simulations using Geant4, a Monte Carlo toolkit based on the C++ programming language. I am also interested in curriculum development, innovative pedagogies, and testing whether my teaching approaches result in improved student learning.
I am currently part of two international collaborations working on the projects described below. I have had a number of students perform research in my lab, predominantly during the summer, for senior thesis, and for senior seminar projects.
One of my research projects is to develop biomedical applications of Cerenkov (also spelled Cherenkov) imaging. This technique uses sensitive cameras to image light produced through radioactive decay. The majority of the applications are related to cancer, and new technologies are still under development. Researchers are using Cerenkov imaging to facilitate radioactive therapeutic development in pre-clinical (mouse) models, as well as using it in the clinic.
My past projects have used Geant4 to model the radioactive decay of different isotopes and predict the resultant Cerenkov light production.
- “The potential for Cerenkov luminescence imaging of alpha-emitting radionuclides”, NL Ackerman and EE Graves. Physics in Medicine and Biology 2012 (PDF)
- “Cherenkov light production from the α-emitting decay chains of 223Ra, 212Pb, and 149Tb for Cherenkov Luminescence Imaging”, V Wood and NL Ackerman. Applied Radiation and Isotopes 2016
Microdosimetry and Targeted Radiotherapy
I’m interested in understanding how we can better design and test targeted radioactive therapeutics. Broadly speaking, these are drugs used for cancer therapy that have some sort of biological or chemical targeting aspect that is attached to a radioactive isotope. I think that Cerenkov imaging can help us better create and understand these treatments, but I also use Geant4 to understand how the radioactive decay leads to cell death.
While computational models are useful, the physics in the simulations must be combined with an understanding of the biological mechanisms that lead to cell death. Part of my PhD dissertation was performing cell studies to see if my physics simulations correctly modeled the biological result. Real progress requires collaboration between physicists, biologists, and medical professionals. I have one ongoing collaboration of this nature and look forward to future collaborations.
Curriculum Development and Education Research
While many of the physics topics that I teach have been around for decades (or centuries), we are still discovering new ways to present the ideas for better student learning. Students are always at the center of my approach to course development – since the students at Agnes are unlike what you find at most colleges, my courses also might look a little different. Where possible, I try to share my experiences with these courses and course components with the broader physics instructor community through conference presentations and publications.
I believe that one must carefully assess student learning to understand if courses are actually effective at helping students learn the core skills associated with the class. I have attended a number of workshops on assessment and different teaching techniques.