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No escaping gravity: NASA physicist lands in Townsville

Published:  07 June 2021

A physicist has traded shooting lasers between spacecrafts for NASA, to fine-tuning the complex radiation machines used to treat cancer patients at Townsville University Hospital.

Glenn de Vine started at Townsville University Hospital in April as the assistant director of medical physics after an eight-year career working out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, USA.

His daily mountain-bike commute traversed the same desert engineers used to prepare Mars rovers for interplanetary missions.

“I’d always dreamed of working for NASA,” he said.

“The work was exciting and cutting edge, but it didn’t have many practical applications other than expanding our knowledge and being kind of awesome.

“I came back home to Australia looking for a different challenge and medical physics has such a huge, measurable and practical impact on our patients’ lives.”

Glenn is responsible for making sure high-tech treatment machines at Townsville Cancer Centre are operating effectively and safely.

Among them is Townsville University Hospital’s MR-LINAC, one of only two clinical MR-LINICS in Australia, which allows doctors to use in-built magnetic-resonance imaging to better target radiation.

“The heart of medical physics is really about quality assurance,” he said.

“We’ll be shooting radiation into tumours millimetres from the spine and if we miss and hit the cord, we could cause irreparable damage to the patient.

“The toys are still pretty cool as well, particularly the MR-LINAC. Every time you do a new measurement you know that no one else in Australia would have done that before.”

While at NASA, Glenn was part of a multibillion-dollar astrophysics mission to use lasers to measure and listen to gravitational waves.

“We aimed to set up three satellites five million kilometres apart connected by laser beams,” he said.

“The mission would allow us to listen to the universe in a way we’ve never been able to before.”

“After the global financial crisis, however, the timeline for the mission was pushed back a decade or two, so I moved onto an Earth-science mission.”

Glenn was also involved in a project that precisely tracks the separation of two satellites, 200 kilometres apart, to measure some of the effects of climate change on Earth.

“Areas on earth that have a large mass cause an extra gravitational pull on the spacecraft. For example, when one of our satellites passes over the Himalayas it’ll speed up,” he said.

“When you have a glacier that melts you can use this technique to measure the gravitational change of that event from our satellites.

“This technique has actually become one of the best ways we have to measure and document a major effect of climate change.”

Glenn grew up in Australia but hopped between Sydney, Brisbane, and Canberra before living in France, then the United States.

“I’m hoping Townsville can become home for me now,” he said.

“I’ve got an awesome job and I’m looking forward to settling down and staying put for a while.”

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