Interview 53. – Dr Heather Williams


Dr Heather Williams is a Principal Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at The Christie Hospital and honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester, focussing on teaching imaging physics and positron emission tomography (PET) research. Heather is also a Director of ScienceGrrl, STEMNET ambassador, and active member of the IPEM Nuclear Medicine Special Interest Group and IoP Women in Physics Group committees. Heather also likes standing up and talking about science, and encouraging others (particularly women) to do so. When she’s not busy with all that, Heather enjoys running, hiking and introducing her sons to the wonders of the universe, often at the same time.

Twitter: @alrightPET

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I was visiting Wightwick Manor at the weekend with family, mainly for the reason that is was an interesting-looking place with a nice cafe that took us all about 1.5 hours to get to. There was an exhibition of pre-Raphaelite paintings in one of the outbuildings, and I was stunned by the use of luminous colour in some of the portraits and my spirits just lifted at seeing light captured on canvas in this way that was so like a real sunset or rainbow. I get that feeling a lot from art, and visiting galleries is something that always brings me a great deal of joy, but this was an unexpected pleasure – I didn’t expect to find it in a country manor house, hemmed in on all sides by a housing estate near Wolverhampton.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

I have to admit I cheated and Googled the dictionary definitions before I answered this! I think the definition of wonder is pretty good: “feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar.” I would say awe goes beyond this, it doesn’t treat wonder as a passing frisson, but contemplates it as something of significance, perhaps even as evidence of something beyond revealing itself to mere mortals. Curiosity may or may not be related to either of them – it is the asking of questions, wanting to find things out, thirsting for understanding and knowledge. Wonder and/or awe can spark curiosity, but curiosity can exist independently of these too – you can be intrigued by something in a largely intellectual sense, without being emotionally affected by it.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I think we all wonder when confronted with something beautiful and unexpected, it’s a reaction that shortcuts rational analysis, goes straight to our hearts and stirs an emotional response. Some people have become accustomed to shutting down this reaction pretty quickly, dismissing it as childlike silliness, but I don’t think it does us any favours to be so serious, we’re just distancing ourselves from so many sources of joy. I remember when my youngest son was very small he would stop to stroke the moss growing on a wall, and I was fleetingly annoyed that he was dawdling before thinking “Yes, why not? Why not stroke the moss? What else is so urgent that I can’t spend two minutes appreciating a tiny plant that makes this wall all soft and fluffy?” In that moment, he taught me to really notice the environment I’m in; the colours, the shapes, the way the light falls on everything, and to delight in it. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I’m generally happier outdoors and a hike in the countryside is guaranteed to lift my mood, regardless of the weather.

That said, I also experience wonder intensely when I am blindsided by art, music or theatre. Watching someone create something is a particular pleasure; when one of your fellow humans really shows you what they can do, talent refined by hours of practice and preparation. It blows me away. It doesn’t matter if they’re a painter, choreographer, musician, presenter, artisan, actor, dancer, chef or writer (and I am fortunate enough to count all of these amongst my friends), if I see them pouring so much of who they are into what they do, it is profoundly moving and inspiring. Maybe I find this so fascinating because I don’t create in the same way in my line of work, the purpose of my science and teaching is more to collect and organise and communicate what is already there, waiting to be discovered.


What do you love about magic (the performance by magicians on stage/TV etc.)? And what do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?

I like how clever magic is, how it manipulates people’s perceptions, so what they think they saw isn’t really what happened. Magic is a game played by the magician and their audience, where only the magician knows the truth of what just happened and everyone else is observing what the magician wants them to see, from different viewpoints. I like magic that retains that playfulness, that gets the audience to question what they’ve observed and how they were tricked. I don’t like magic that’s grandiose or pompous, or puts the magician on a God-like pedestal as is if they are really doing what you think they’re doing.


My dad underwent radiotherapy at Christie’s Hospital and so we’re one of many families who highly value the work done, technology and the team at hospitals like yours. What does a medical physicist do in a hospital? Do you interact much with patients?

I’m sorry to hear your Dad needed radiotherapy, but glad to hear he had a good experience of The Christie. It’s a really special place, with patients absolutely at the centre of what we do. Medical Physicists are one group within a team looking after our patients and they have a wide range of expertise. Most Medical Physicists work in radiotherapy, which uses radiation beams to treat disease. Their job is to plan treatment so the disease is treated effectively but damage to healthy parts of the body is limited, and checking the machines delivering the treatment are set up correctly so the treatment is given as planned. There are lots of other physicists and engineers specialising in other medical technologies too though, including every type of medical imaging. I’m a specialist in Positron Emission Tomography, which maps and measures a specific function of the body depending on what type of injection we give the patient beforehand – most of our work here is using a slightly radioactive form of sugar to look at glucose metabolism in cancer. I also spend a lot of time planning and delivering lectures and workshops about medical physics to University students and colleagues in training, which is just perfect for me as I really enjoy speaking about science as well as doing it.


As part of your job you get to see inside the human body in intricate detail. What is this feeling like? Does this still evoke awe and wonder or has it become mundane through multiple experiences?

I really don’t think about it on a daily basis, as when I look at images of the human body I am usually trying to extract some other information, to assess what they mean, or how good they are after I’ve made a change to how we collect the data and form the image. We also tend to be imaging to determine where cancer is, and if treatment is being effective, so we are more focussed on the task before us than the images themselves. Any feeling of “wow” in that setting is either really good or really bad news; I wouldn’t call it wonder, more relief or dread.

We do occasionally have a step-change in image quality that makes me think, “wow, that’s good, I can see this and this and this and they were all just fuzzy before” and for an imaging physicist I suppose that is a moment of wonder. I wouldn’t call it awe, though; I understand exactly how this change has been accomplished using the technology inside the scanner, so I’m impressed rather than worshipful.

What does always strike me is that none of us look exactly like medical textbooks on the inside. We usually have the same bits in the same places doing the same jobs, but individuals are very much variations on a theme rather than carbon copies. For example, I’ve only got one big kidney instead of two smaller ones, but it works perfectly fine and only I found out this variation when I volunteered for an MRI research study as a student. It’s actually quite common to have non-standard kidneys, about 1 in 250 people have a variation in their “plumbing” and the vast majority are healthy. The human body’s capacity to adapt and compensate is immense, and goes quite a way to explaining why humans live so long. I’ve previously been called into meetings to review images that turn out to look very unusual because the way that person is joined up on the inside is very different to what we’d expect, and these images illustrate exactly how flexible our anatomy and physiology really is. In this setting I pass rapidly through wonder into curiosity, trying to work out what is happening for this particular patient and how something so unusual still functions effectively, or where the problems might originate if it doesn’t. My job in that setting is to comment on what the images are showing us, based on how they were acquired and processed, and to bring my understanding of the imaging process alongside my clinical colleagues’ understanding of anatomy and physiology to try and figure out what’s going on and why. I really enjoy those inter-disciplinary discussions, the exchange of knowledge between experts.


Where is imaging technology heading? What would a hospital like yours look like in 10-20 years?

I think we can expect better quality, faster imaging, which is more tailored to the needs of the individual. I also expect a lot more assessments to be done remotely, and for more of the initial review of data and images to be done by artificial intelligence. However, all of these changes need to be implemented robustly and in a way that supports how care is delivered, and I am sceptical about any claim that a certain app or gadget will the solution to the challenges the NHS currently faces. I think the art of practising medicine requires an interaction between the medical staff and their patient which can’t be completely coded into an algorithm. Computers can’t pick out which pictures are of buses and which are of cars to outwit the reCAPTCHA log-in processes on websites, so I very much doubt they will be able to look at a patient and pick up on all the subtle cues that tell a medical professional that something else is going on beyond what their words and test results are telling you.


Where would you invest into the NHS?

We need to be good stewards of tax payers’ money, so there is definitely a role for efficiency and cost-effectiveness in managing NHS care. However, people who are ill are vulnerable, they’re often frightened and confused, and really listening to what they are telling us, and responding to them with compassion and dignity, cannot be rushed. Medicine is so much more than ticking off a list of symptoms and printing the prescription that matches. Unless time to fully attend to the needs of our patients is factored into assessments of workload and appropriate staffing, frontline NHS staff will continue to struggle to deliver the standard of care they are proud of, and dedicated healthcare workers will become disaffected and burnt out, and leave. Right now, we need more people to look after patients to maintain what the NHS can already do. That foundation needs to be secure before the system is stretched further by implementing new technologies.


You’ve worked tirelessly to promote women in science. I have two daughters just starting their schooling. What needs to be done to allow them to feel welcome and make valued contributions in STEM careers?

I believe the most important thing you can tell any child is that who they are is just great, and that they have something to give the world that no-one else can. I think parents need to really pay attention to their children, watch them, listen to them, see what they are showing us as they grow, and what they are revealing of their interests, gifts, personalities. Our responsibility is to provide a context in which they can flourish into all they can be, or as much of it as we can reasonably schedule time for without wearing everyone out!
Gender stereotypes promise to simplify all this for us, by providing lists of toys and clothes and hobbies segregated into “for boys” and “for girls”, but in doing so they also place roadblocks on a child’s voyage of self-discovery. I think it’s so important that children are allowed to be interested in whatever they are interested in – glittery unicorns, electricity and magnetism, both! Home should be the place where you can be most fully yourself, so I’d encourage parents to allow children to explore who they are and try out all kinds of activities and actively reject any suggestion that there are things “for boys” and “for girls”. There are so many free resources online, parks and outdoor spaces in easy reach of many, and free events at museums and art galleries, it doesn’t have to be expensive to go on an adventure.
The support of parents is so key in giving children confidence, so they are more able to make non-stereotypical choices if they want to: a boy can be a dancer, or a girl can be a physicist. The second biggest influence outside the home is school, and I think in order to make greater progress towards gender equality in all professions, schools need to actively challenge gender stereotypes and take great care not to perpetuate them. The Institute of Physics has already done some great research which showed more girls chose physics, and more boys chose arts subjects, when gender stereotypes were consistently undermined across the curriculum and in wider school culture.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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