I would always recommend university students to take advantage of the international exchanges available. It is great for your CV but also it is such an amazing experience to grow and learn about the world and yourself. I went on exchange in Barcelona, Spain and still it is brought up in job interviews and work environments. On my exchange I met Stefan from Belgium. I remember already back then listening to him telling about his studies left me in ave but now I’m even more amazed. Read about his incredible responsibility and the enthusiasm he has for his work!
What is your job title?
Radiation Protection Expert
Where do you work?
Currently, I’m working for Controlatom, which is a Belgian company specialized in health physics, dosimetry and medical physics. I’m part of the health physicists’ team, but radiation protection experts is a term that better describes what we do. The dosimetry departments supplies all the people who are potentially exposed to ionizing radiation with a dosimeter: basically a device that can measure the radiation dose people get when working with radioactive sources or devices that emit x-rays. The medical physicists perform quality control on all the imaging devices in hospitals: this is to be sure there’s an ideal balance between the dose a patient gets and the quality of the image. Our main office is in Vilvoorde (near Brussels), but most of the time, experts are visiting companies and hospitals.
How did you get in to the line of work?
I always had an interest in science and more specifically in biomedical sciences (I want to know how the human body functions), and in nuclear physics (I also want to know on an atomic level how nature works). During my Master in Biomedical Engineering, I followed a specialization in radiation physics, which was sort of a combination of the two.
Did you feel lucky landing your job?
Yes, after a couple of months of applying with several interviews and some disappointments my eye fell on a job vacancy from Controlatom. I applied, had an interview 2 weeks later and one week later a phone call from Koen (my boss) that I got the job, which was a big relief. Especially since I was really tired of doing these very boring temporary jobs in the meantime.
What qualifications are needed?
A theoretical background in sciences and nuclear physics is necessary, but since every expert is a consultant for different companies, communication skills are also an essential part of the job. Specifically it’s important to be able to ‘translate’ scientific terms, theories to a more ‘common’ language that is understandable for people in the field.
Are you striven by the work you do or your paycheck?
More by the work I do, but obviously the paycheck is also important. Since I’m happy with my job right now, I wouldn’t give up my job for a higher paycheck if that would mean I would lose the freedom and variety I have now.
Does your work match your expectations?
Yes, I’m happy to do it. It’s a combination of multiple scientific disciplines, social interaction is important, I also learned how to read and understand national and international laws about our field of work. The fact that I get along well with my colleagues is also a big plus. I even go skiing every year with some of them: in an apres-ski bar in Austria, you really get to know people:). Also, there is a lot of expertise within Controlatom, so I know we’re doing this on a high level and that there are still a lot of things I can learn from my colleagues.
Describe a basic day at work. Does it vary day by day?
It starts at home, reading the files of the companies I have to visit that day. Since every company or hospital is different, there’s a lot of variation. During these site visits I have different tasks to perform and the most important one is to asses the actual protection of the people working there and to be sure that people are working in a safe way with the radioactive sources or x-ray devices present in the facility. This is done by performing measurements and also talking to the people, looking how they work. Another part is to check that the legal requirements, like licenses, work procedures, risk assessments, etc. are all in order.
Most of the time there are as well some site specific problems I have to solve, for example they can ask for a training in radiation protection, shielding studies for their sources or studies for the design and shielding of CT-scanners or radiotherapy rooms.
I also spend one day per week at the Megaports project in Antwerp. These are radiation portals planted in the whole port of Antwerp to detect radioactive cargo coming in and out of Belgium. We have to train, advise, guide the operators handling the daily alarms and perform quality controls on their work.
What is the most exciting thing about your work and why?
Helping people to work in a safe way with radioactive sources and devices, help them understand what is really is, so they can assess the danger and especially see or feel that what you’ve done, actually helped.
What do you get asked about your job by friends and family?
Lots of questions based on the perception of the word radioactive, like is this job dangerous? Answer: no if you know what you’re doing:).
Or do you work in a nuclear power plant? Again no: some of us give basic radiation safety trainings to people about to do some construction, welding jobs in a nuclear power plant, but that’s basically the only connection there is between our company and nuclear power plants.
What is the best part of your job?
The freedom and variation. As I explained above, there’s lot of variation and I also have the luxury to be free to make my own schedule. There’s only one condition: at the end of the year, all the companies who hire me as an expert (and my boss of course) have to be satisfied.
Do you have bad days or moments? Why?
I guess, like for lots of other people, the administrative part of the job can sometimes be a burden. It’s also possible that I give advice or ask for some improvements, but people don’t listen or don’t react to it. And since I spend lots of time on the road and I live in Belgium, traffic can be really terrible.
Do you have any advice for people considering your line of work?
Be aware that fundamental research isn’t part of the job, so if that is really important for you, I wouldn’t recommend this line of work.
If you’re into (nuclear, medical) sciences and everything what you’ve read above, looks appealing to you, this can be a job for you:)
Thank you Stefan!