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Kenji Nanto sees the magic in imaging

Posted by on Thursday, November 18, 2021 in Uncategorized .

A third-year Doctor of Medical Physics (DMP) student finds a career through training at VUSM

by Lexie Little

Kenji NantoDoctor of Medical Physics (DMP) student Kenji Nanto knows the power of an image.

Studying diagnostic imaging at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), he grasps information about the amalgamation of particles and processes that eventually create images used by providers to indicate patient problems and plan care paths. Those snapshots in time through x-ray, MRI, and CT provide an essential step in patient care.

“From a diagnostic side, you’re an expert of medical imaging, to say it broadly,” Nanto said. “And I mean medical imaging using radioactive radiation as well as electromagnetic and mechanical waves. Really understanding the physics and being that subject matter expert for the hospital, for the radiologists, for the technicians, for leadership. Knowing the regulations and the potential dangers that come with using this type of equipment.

“We understand this magic somehow, and we’re able to make pictures out of it. It makes me really excited about my work. We somehow understand these subatomic particles that are passing through us and somewhat understand how these things change to make an image. It’s mind-boggling. I think it’s mind-boggling.”

As an undergraduate in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he gave little thought to how he might one day contribute to medical care. Already deep in his program, he felt he shouldn’t switch his major to biomedical engineering so late. A shift in his career would have altered his graduation timeline, and like many at age 22, he just wanted to finish school and find a job.

“I didn’t even know about medical physics until three years ago,” Nanto said. “I graduated from undergraduate in 2014…With engineering, they teach you a little of everything. I didn’t search for more directed guidance as much as I should have. Going to a big university, I got lost in everything offered to me. I took one of the first job offers after graduation without looking around.”

Looking for a career change years later, Nanto’s father-in-law stepped in to offer some advice.

“My father-in-law is a radiation safety officer at a hospital in southern Illinois,” he said. “The way he explained [medical physics to me], if you get board-certified through the American Board of Radiology, you’re essentially a doctor for equipment. You look at and treat the equipment, not the patients. I thought, ‘That’s great. I like working with electronics and heavy equipment.’ But I also wanted to work in a field that makes an impact.”

The return to school marked a big decision for Nanto, formerly a performance engineer at a wireless communication network, and for his young family. He and his wife Stephanie packed up their life in Chicago with a 1-year-old child in tow to start anew in Nashville. Thinking about raising a family, they knew they wanted to stay within driving distance for family and friends to visit and perhaps offer some help, especially in 2021 when the Nantos welcomed twins.

One can now find the third-year student working with some of the most advanced technology in diagnostic imaging around the medical campus. The Medical Physics program at Vanderbilt centers around clinical practice, allowing for hands-on learning.

“Having literal hands-on experience is what I feel I’m most getting out of this degree by coming to Vanderbilt,” he said. “I’m not sure if all schools do it, but Vanderbilt does, and I get four solid years with individualized attention makes it seem less like school and more like career training.”

Nanto plans to eventually work as a radiation safety officer and diagnostic medical physicist. Such specialists check equipment for regulatory standards, discuss procedures and tools with care providers, answer questions about potential dangers or uses, and work to advance imaging technologies. Instead of caring for the patients himself, he will care for the instruments used to explore, diagnose, and treat them.

Most days as the third-year resident, he shadows and observes radiation technologists in all departments that use diagnostic imaging at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He observes daily and weekly quality control, confirming units retain peak performance under regulatory guidelines. He also conducts inspections of all mobile x-ray-based units while shadowing professors on other modalities like CT or MRI.

As he follows faculty, he gains experience asking them questions about specific processes.

“What’s the best way to run this Fluoroscopic unit?” he asks. “Why did you hit that button when that occurred?”

Sometimes, Nanto makes his way into operating rooms and examination rooms to watch radiation employees use the equipment in real time, dissecting the techniques they use to tie it back to his medical physics education.

“These opportunities have given me many instances to really get a feeling of how I, as a physicist, can bring value to them, to the radiologists and most importantly the patients,” he said. “Really keeping an eye on the big picture of my (future) job.”

Nanto said the medical physics faculty give him personalized education to prepare him for his specific role. While some faculty members have worked in similar positions as ranking radiation officers, younger faculty members know how to balance life as a new physicist and younger parent.

The combination of attention to both his future responsibilities at work and at home lends an air of constant support that continues to make Nanto feel like part of the working clinical staff.

“From Day 1, I felt like I was part of the faculty,” he said. “They had me observing and starting to participate within my first year…They have already said they will keep themselves open to me as resources after I graduate, which I know I will need. I feel like I’m starting to do the job already here at Vanderbilt…I feel like I’m part of the team, talking with them and discussing issues. We have weekly discussions like, ‘This is what I’ve come across,’ or ‘This is what I might find difficult.’ They’re just open to these discussions, and they have been consistently – daily.”

Nanto felt that sense of community and openness not only as a student but as a teacher. First- and second-year medical physics students can act as teaching assistants in one of the physics labs. Nanto served as a TA in his first year, meeting undergraduate students and learning more about the university.

Curious about the undergraduate programs, he asked his students why they chose to come to Vanderbilt.

“My students said things like, ‘Well, I was looking at Harvard and Yale.’ I didn’t even realize when I applied that Vanderbilt was and is on the same level as Ivy League schools,” he said. “I asked what made VU different, and they said Vanderbilt made them feel like the university was lucky to have them, not the other way around. When they applied here, Vanderbilt said, ‘We’re lucky you’re considering us.’ I feel like the medical physics department has that mentality. The majority of the professors keep that mentality as well, and it reflects in the student population. You’re valued here.”

Beyond the academic campus, the Nantos have found value in Nashville as a growing city. Though getting out and about in town remains hard for parents of three children younger than four years old, they have been able to connect with the vibrant younger community.

Stephanie, a speech pathologist, said she has had no issues finding friends here among young mothers, adults, and people looking to create a new community.

“Nashville just breeds that,” Nanto said. “I feel like Nashville has energy with multiple universities. It’s palpable. In the restaurants and the activities around town, there’s just a younger vibe here. It’s just more exciting, I guess. It’s hard to describe…And, the food here is really good.”

Though they can’t often go out, the Nantos do order for delivery to take advantage of the many options available in Nashville.

When Nanto’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece comes to visit, they order takeout from local restaurants and enjoy the familiar company. But he finds a family at VUSM, too, where each individual remains passionate and focused about their careers.

“Everyone I have met in the program here has been very passionate about medical physics and the day-to-day work. It’s good to be in an environment of students of all age ranges that are passionate about learning the technical aspect of everything that goes on in medicine.”

Now, Nanto prepares to enter his fourth year, when he will work with radiologists who diagnose patients to learn on that side of the medical physics experience how he can further bring value to the hospital and to best inform practice for helping patients.

He reflects on how far he has come in such a short time, thinking back to his first conversations with former program director Dr. Manuel Morales. He remembers initial feelings of support that have continued.

“I loved [Morales] and the vibe that he gave me,” Nanto said. “I expressed that I wanted a graduate degree with a terminal career. I was also looking for a mentorship environment. The fact that they have a small student population in medical physics reflects that. Right now, I have the full attention of everybody in my department at any given moment. Especially with my background, they are more than accommodating. Coming in during the pandemic and with children, they’ve been very accommodating to say the least…If you want your education to feel like you’re already essentially part of the working clinical staff, come to Vanderbilt. If you want to feel like by the time you walk out of here, you are a competent, well-versed physicist, I’d say come to Vanderbilt.

“This is the best you could get.”