Inspiring the future of cancer research

By Emily Leighton, MA’13

In 2019, 74 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day.

Breast cancer accounts for 25 per cent of new cancer cases in Canada, and it is the second leading cause of death from cancer in women.

Claire Park is working to change these statistics. “If we can detect breast cancer early, we can make better treatment decisions and improve outcomes,” she said.

The PhD Candidate’s research is focused on imaging and sampling breast cancer tumours.  

Current methods to image and guide biopsy to tumours are limited, particularly for women with dense breast tissue or heterogeneous tumours. Functional imaging looks at the metabolic activity of tumours compared to healthy tissue, but it doesn’t provide any anatomical reference. “Although it can better detect tumours, there’s no way to see the biopsy needle and guide it accurately to the tumour,” Park explained.

To address this problem, she is developing an image-guided biopsy system – combining a functional imaging technique called Positron Emission Mammography (PEM) with ultrasound.

“We want to better detect, localize and target these tumours,” she said. “The system can be translated to the clinical setting and will improve methods to accurately detect tumours, sample them and, ultimately, make more informed treatment decisions.”

The next step with the project is phantom studies – using a tissue-mimicking breast phantom with embedded targets to simulate breast tumours in order to test the system’s accuracy.

Park is completing a CAMPEP-accredited, thesis-based PhD program with Robarts scientist Aaron Fenster, PhD. The selective program focuses on medical physics training, with opportunities for hands-on experiences performing quality assurance and calibration in machines for radiation therapy, under practising medical physicists.

Park’s research was recently recognized at the American Association of Physicists in Medicine Annual Meeting - the biggest medical physics conference in the world with upwards of 3,000 attendees. She won a ‘Best in Physics’ award for her scientific abstract, placing in the top 15 of abstracts presented at the conference.  

“Being in the first year of my PhD studies, this recognition really encourages me to keep going,” she said.

The motivated trainee says the scientific excellence and mentorship culture at Robarts is a big factor in her early success. “Dr. Fenster is a pioneer in image-guided diagnosis and therapy,” she said. “He’s so enthusiastic about sharing his experience and skills, and provides a lot of opportunities for trainees.”

In addition to research, Park volunteers with the Canadian Cancer Society's Research Information and Outreach Team, a group of trainees involved with cancer research education and outreach. In collaboration with Let's Talk Science, an award-winning Canadian organization focused on science education, she is co-chairing an upcoming outreach event for the organization called Let’s Talk Cancer. The full-day event includes presentations and hands-on science activities for Grade 11 and 12 students.

“It’s important to engage with high school students, so we continue inspiring young people to consider careers in science and research,” she said.

Park also works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) for two upper-year Medical Biophysics undergraduate courses. This year, she received a Graduate Student Teaching Award from the Society of Graduate Students at Western University, recognizing her contributions to learning and education on campus.

The 23-year-old is involved in student leadership at the School, serving on the Department of Medical Biophysics’ Graduate Student Association, and plays in four intramural sports leagues. “These activities help me maintain balance my life,” she said.

Park has her sights set on a career as a clinical medical physicist and plans to apply for a residency position after completing her PhD. “As a medical physicist, I’ll have the opportunity to combine my interests in clinical care, research and teaching.”