It’s 6:30 a.m. and University of Iowa senior Michelle Smith is filling a syringe with a clear, radioactive liquid.
Dozens of patients are on today’s schedule—some with heart problems, others with intestinal bleeding. There are usually one or two broken bones, and several patients hoping they don’t have cancer.
Eventually, a patient will be injected with the liquid–a radiopharmaceutical–and placed under a gamma ray camera to illuminate the body part suspected of causing the health problem.
This is nuclear medicine technology in action, and while it is not a treatment in itself, the procedure can save lives. The X-ray-like images it produces can help doctors diagnose many dangerous conditions—from hyperthyroidism to cancer to lung disease.
Smith’s role, as the technologist who makes sure the correct radiopharmaceutical is being used, and in the right amount, makes her one of the hottest commodities in health care today. There’s a national shortage of people with her skills.
The road to Smith’s high-tech success began in 1997.
“I came here for a high school summer program as part of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society,” she says. “I liked the campus, and it was closer to home than the other schools I was considering.”
Yet, when she graduated from high school, Smith wasn’t sure she could afford to go to college. She had good grades (she graduated magna cum laude) and a keen interest in science, so she knew she was qualified, but she also was the oldest of six children in a one-income family. There was little hope of continuing her education without financial aid.
At Iowa, three scholarship programs gave her the financial boost she needed.
“I always trusted that God would provide the financial means for me to attend college,” she says.
Smith qualified for an Opportunity at Iowa scholarship, which helps incoming first-year students from underrepresented populations. More recently, she received a scholarship created by NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and awarded each year to a Native American undergraduate student with financial need.
“I am proud of my Native American heritage, because I have had the opportunity to listen as my family members told stories about our heritage, which has contributed to the development of my identity,” Smith says.
Smith’s Native American heritage comes from her mother, who descended from Seminole and Sac and Fox Indian tribes in Oklahoma. Since the Sac and Fox tribe is native to Iowa, Michelle—an Illinois native—qualified to attend Iowa at in-state tuition rates under the University’s Iowa First Nations program.
“Financial aid played a part in my decision to attend Iowa, but truthfully, I was offered the same at other institutions. I picked Iowa because the people I was able to work with welcomed me and wanted to see me succeed,” she says.
She also qualified for a mentoring program, the University’s Iowa Biosciences Advantage (IBA), designed to prepare academically gifted minority students for the rigorous demands of studying in the field of biomedical science. The program accepts 15 students a year and immediately connects them with mentors, computers, and opportunities to work in research labs.
“They provide you with all kinds of resources—tutors, laptops, and social activities,” Smith says. “They want to get you interested in research, but they don’t hold you down if you decide it isn’t for you.”
Smith met Rick Domann, an associate professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, through the IBA. He became her research mentor, and for two years, Michelle complemented her classroom education by working in his cancer research laboratory. She even won an award from the American Cancer Society that funded her own research project, which involved treating human cancers with a gene transfer protocol.
The experience broadened Smith’s view of science and research, she says, and helped prepare her for the demands she now faces in the Nuclear Medicine Technology Program.
As part of the program, she works up to eight hours a day, five days a week, in the radiology department at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She takes only a few breaks each day to attend classes and to eat lunch, and after work, she goes home to hit the books.
Her course work for the past three years included biology, anatomy, and physics, but now she spends more time in the radiology department than in a classroom.
Tony Knight, a certified nuclear medicine technologist who oversees the Nuclear Medicine Technology Program, says the program is like an apprenticeship.
“At the beginning of the year, students are spending three to four hours a day in class and the rest of the day in the clinic, but the clinic time increases as the year progresses,” he says. “We try to make the experience as much like a job as possible from the start so when they graduate, they can step right into a job.”
The routine makes for some long days, but Smith says she doesn’t mind. She’s determined “to do my best at the field I have chosen.”
“This has been a great program, and there are jobs everywhere, which is awesome,” she says. “It’s amazing to look back at where I was when I was a freshman. I could not have imagined I would be where I am now.”
But Beverly Davidson, Roy J. Carver Professor of Internal Medicine at Iowa and codirector of the IBA, says Smith was destined for success at Iowa from the beginning.
“Being in IBA helped open doors for Michelle that may not have otherwise been open to her, but Michelle is a very bright young woman. She is one of those people who is just going to succeed,” Davidson says. “Being in the IBA may have helped her reach some of her milestones a little bit sooner.”
Today, Smith stands to graduate with one of the most sought-after health care degrees in the country. She was one of 10 Iowa undergraduate students accepted into the UI Carver College of Medicine’s elite Nuclear Medicine Technology Program this year.
When she graduates in July, she could be earning more than $60,000 because of the high demand for her skills.
Yet Smith, who has a warm smile and friendly demeanor, is not in it for the money.
“Helping people is one of the main things I want to do,” she says. “There’s something very rewarding about working in this area because if we diagnose and catch a problem soon enough, the person could be free of cancer or another disease just as serious.”
by Sara Langenberg