Sunday, February 11, 2024, marks the 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year, the UN has chosen the theme "Women in Science Leadership: A New Era for Sustainability."
To commemorate this event, ESTRO has decided to feature a series of interviews with exceptional women who have played a key role in steering the Society and are shaping the future of Radiation Oncology. Today, we hear from Elizabeth Forde, ESTRO Board Member.
What inspired your decision to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology? Were there specific experiences or individuals that influenced your choice?
I know many students and colleagues who were inspired to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology as a result of personal experiences with cancer; for example, a close relative may have received treatment for cancer. If I am completely honest, when I started my degree, I didn’t really have a solid understanding of what working as a Radiation Therapist involved. I knew I wanted a career in healthcare and was attracted to the technical aspects of the degree. My mother always said I answered some kind of “vocational calling”, but in reality, as a 17-year-old, I was just excited by the idea of caring for patients using cool technology. I made the decision to study Radiation Therapy over 25 years ago now, and I still can’t believe that gamble paid off!
Staff retention is a global challenge in Radiation Oncology, and as I see LinkedIn profiles change more and more frequently, I reflect on what has influenced me to stay, when so many others have left the profession. Although it is not practical for everyone, I really valued the experiences I gained from working in different departments and different countries. It was important to me that I expand my horizons and not feel institutionalised, particularly in the early stages of my career. By making a break and moving around early in my career, I met so many amazing people. Naturally, there were specific individuals who influenced my work and contributed to my professional satisfaction. I am purposefully not naming individuals here (that list is looooong), but I will highlight that they came from all disciplines in Radiation Oncology, not just fellow RTTs. These colleagues supported me through the daily stresses and chaos by sharing their sense of humour and sense of camaraderie, whether collaborating in research or working at the coalface.
So, looking back, whilst my decision to start a career in Radiation Oncology may sound more serendipitous and less “inspirational”, the colleagues I have worked with, the patients I have treated, and the students I have taught have certainly inspired me to continue my career in Radiation Oncology, which has been hugely rewarding.
Do you anticipate that young women aspiring to follow a similar path will encounter the same challenges? How might their experiences differ, and what positive changes do you foresee for them?
Foreseeing potential difficulties for others is not always easy as individual circumstances vary, and personal challenges often remain unseen or are purposefully hidden. In this regard, I have always felt relatively unchallenged.
My parents were highly educated and were amazing role models, both being so successful and happy in their respective fields. They were always supportive of my own aspirations, even when I wasn’t entirely sure what they were myself. I was educated at a private girls’ school in Sydney, where we were encouraged to literally take on the world.Graduates were considered as “independent, articulate and compassionate women who are seekers of truth and doers of justice”. As someone who loved science, these graduate attributes seemed to suit pursuing a career in healthcare. I then studied at university, where the female to male ratio on the campus for health science degrees was in the region of 3:1. This only reaffirmed my high school narrative: women belong in science as much as anyone.
It sounds overly simplistic to say that having a strong family unit and access to a rounded education has a hugely positive impact on personal and professional development, and whilst this is true, it is not an absolute necessity. Over the years I have studied and worked with amazingly talented and bright women who all come from a range of backgrounds and circumstance. I cannot claim to fully understand the challenges they have overcome to get where they are, but I do completely respect what they have achieved. Systemic and institutional gender bias may still exist in many professional environments, but I feel there is greater transparency overall and the culture is shifting.
If you could offer advice to young women aspiring to pursue a career in Radiation Oncology, what key insights or recommendations would you share based on your own experiences?
When trying to think of recommendations, I naturally thought of advice that I received over the years. I was told to say “yes” to everything because you never know what opportunities will come from collaborating with others and taking on new projects. This is true and I have been fortunate to reap the rewards of my efforts; however, it is equally important to learn to say “no” sometimes.You can’t do everything, nor should you be expected to.It’s okay to be strategic and selective in your work. This is not about being lazy or selfish but is a way to protect yourself and the quality of your work. Spreading yourself too thin only increases your stress and decreases the standard of what you produce.
Trying to be a little more inspirational and articulate, I immediately thought of Gloria’s speech in the Barbie movie, where she passionately examines the impossibility of being a woman. America Ferrara certainly gave us a lot to unpack in that short two and a half minutes! Her message resonated with so many people, and equally applies to young women wanting to advance their career in Radiation Oncology.
We face challenges every day; personally, and professionally, and overcoming these challenges can sometimes also feel impossible. Not every abstract will be accepted. Not every paper written will be published. Not every grant application will be successful.Not every deadline will be met. Not every promotion will be offered to you. Setbacks are inevitable for everyone, and you are not alone here.
Just be your best self, whatever that is.
Elizabeth Forde, ESTRO Board Member
Assistant Professor (RTT), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland