Q&A: Bringing Space Down to Earth

Physics 8, 115
Chiara La Tessa hopes to contribute to cancer treatments and human-missioned trips to Mars by exploring the effects of high-energy particles on living things.
Chiara La Tessa/BNL.

This is the first in a series of articles that ask physicists to explain what inspires their research.

Chiara La Tessa spends most of her time making other people’s research succeed. As a beamline scientist for NASA’s space radiation laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, she provides technical support to visiting scientists, many of whom use the facility’s high-energy ion beam to study the interaction of radiation with living things in a simulated space environment.

When she’s not helping users, La Tessa is able to fit in some experiments of her own. Her research is focused on radiotherapy, which relies on beams of high-energy ions to treat cancers. Physics caught up with La Tessa in one of her brief moments of quiet to discuss the day-to-day life of a beamline scientist and the questions that radiation scientists are trying to answer.

–Katherine Wright

What sparked your interest in physics?

When I finished high school I had fifteen different things that I wanted to do. I wanted to study cinema and do film critiques or literature. But I was like, ok, I might not be good enough to pay my bills with that! I really liked science and math. But I was unsure. Two weeks before classes started, I still hadn’t decided. My mum said, “Why don’t you study physics.” We started talking, and I realized that was actually a good idea.

What is your role at NSRL?

My main duty is to help run the facility. We are open everyday for 7 months of the year. Usually not nights, but it depends. I support the users and make sure the experiments are feasible. When the users are here, I set the beamline and fix any problems. We have a schedule every day with up to five different users. When we run, it is pretty intense.

Do you get to do your own research?

On the side. When I came, there wasn’t a research program, we were only supposed to operate the beam. But I got interested in doing something else. My research is mostly space orientated, but I also work on problems related to cancer therapies with particles.

What “big questions” are you trying to answer?

For physics, the long-term effects on humans of making a trip to Mars. Shielding the astronauts from radiation is a big concern. A mission to Mars would last about 500 days. Right now, the dose that they would get inside the space ship would be too high to risk the trip. So one thing that people are working on is optimizing and improving the shielding.

For cancer therapy, extending the ion type that can be used. Right now pediatric radiotherapy only uses protons. Doctors don't use carbon, mainly due to the increased risk of side effects. Kids have longer life expectancy, and the effect the radiation might have is unknown, so doctors are a bit more conservative. But for some tumors, protons do not appear to be as effective as carbon. People are looking at switching to helium and exploring using other ions.

If money were no object what would your dream experiment be?

Definitely experiments in space! That would be fun. Take a lot of detectors into space and really characterize the radiation. It has been characterized to some extent, but there are still a lot of uncertainties.

Most scientists have their own labs and research groups. Do you miss that side of it?

I have the privilege of being here. Whenever I want to do a measurement I don’t have to wait. If something doesn’t work I have time to think about it and can do it tomorrow. Of course for 7 months of the year I am very busy with the users. But here I can select the ion I want, the energy I want. If I missed a point, I can just do it again. I don’t know if I would give it up for having my own time. It is more fun to have the beam.

Know a physicist with a knack for explaining their research to others? Write to physics@aps.org. All interviews are edited for brevity and clarity.

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