Professor Manjit Dosanjh joined the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford in 2019 as visiting professor. Her pioneering work to apply physics to the medical domain is changing the field in cancer treatment and she is passionate about the power of STEM to change people’s lives.
According to Manjit Dosanjh, visiting professor at the Department of Physics, University of Oxford, collaboration is the invisible force that makes the impossible possible. And she should know having stretched the boundaries of what is indeed possible. Professor Dosanjh might well be called a multi-hyphenate in today’s world. As well as taking up a visiting professorship in the Department of Physics in 2019, she was, until recently, Senior Adviser for Medical Applications at CERN where she worked for 21 years and where she continues to collaborate. She is a long-term member of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, Geneva and served as the UN representative in Geneva for the NGO Graduate Women International for 15 years. Incarnating the power of collaboration, Manjit is a self-titled ‘bridge builder’ – summed up if nothing else by that fact that as a biochemist, she worked in the world’s largest particle physics experiment and today holds a position in a physics department.
Collaboration and bridging underpin her work. She is a leading figure in the medical applications of physics in the field of cancer and has spent much of her career studying mechanisms of cancer resulting from environmental exposure including radiation damage. She was instrumental in the application of technologies developed at CERN in the medical field, in particular imaging for disease detection, accelerators for use in nuclear medicine and cancer therapy as well as the use of computing and information communication technologies for big biomedical data and personalised medicine. One of her major successes was the promotion and implementation of the Proton-Ion Medical Machine Study (PIMMS), carried out at CERN, by establishing a multidisciplinary European network, which catalysed the construction of state-of-the-art cancer centres where hadrons are currently being used in cancer treatment.
From the Himalayas to the West Midlands
So how did she get where she is today? One of four children, Manjit was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in a village without gas, running water or electricity. While her mother hadn’t had the privilege of a formal education, she nevertheless understood its power and made sure Manjit and her siblings went to school. In a life-changing move, aged 11, Manjit, her younger brother and her parents left India and moved to England. It was the summer of 1966 – it wasn’t until a much later date that she realised that England winning the World Cup was not a regular occurrence! – and within weeks of arriving, she started at the local secondary school in Stafford.
She had barely any English and so embarked upon an extraordinarily steep learning curve; naturally curious, academic and quietly ambitious, she flourished. She left secondary school with A-levels in physics, biology, maths and chemistry and went on to study biochemistry and chemistry at the University of Leeds. The first female in her family to go to university, it was a hugely significant achievement – but one at odds with her culture and upbringing. Further study wasn’t encouraged as marriage was seen as the natural next step but, rather than forego academia altogether, she reached the compromise of studying for her teaching certificate. Manjit taught science for four years before the pull of academia, study and research finally drew her back.
Cutting edge of molecular cell biology
Manjit’s interest in biochemistry had only grown and she was interested in pursuing the then-new field of biochemical engineering. On offer at Birmingham and Imperial at the time, she chose nearby Birmingham and undertook a Ministry of Defence-funded PhD that looked at using biological cultures to remove chemical waste. This work set the course of Manjit’s path and she has been at the cutting edge of molecular cell biology ever since. Her research career took her to MIT for 3 years and then Berkeley for the next 10 years before moving to Europe in 1999.
The move to CERN in 1999 marked yet another first; being a biologist at the beating heart of particle physics made her an ‘exotic species’ but her work there has proved to be pivotal. Her bridging role saw her working to apply technologies originally developed for particle physics to the domain of life sciences, aiming to translate and transfer knowledge about physics to society at large.
State-of-the-art cancer treatment
Today, Manjit’s work is centred around three main axes. The first is the development of state-of-the-art FLASH radiation therapy for cancer patients – a single ultra-high-dose-rate radiotherapy that holds the promise of being rapid, effective and also reducing radiation-induced damage in healthy tissue. Secondly, she focuses her energies on improving the provision of conventional radiation therapy in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to address the stark disparity in access to treatment. To this end, she leads the International Cancer Expert Corps programme, Smart Technologies to Extend Lives with Linear Accelerators (STELLA), that develops robust cheaper linear accelerators. Many LMICs in Africa have acute shortages of radiotherapy machines; in the lowest-income countries, only 4% of cancer patients that need radiotherapy treatment are able to be treated. The third pillar of her work is her passionate belief in the transformative power of science and technology to bridge the gap and make a difference in society, informed by her own experience of being a woman in STEM.
Many things have shaped and influenced Manjit as she steered her own uncharted course. As a child she remembers asking her father to grow a crop of red corn (which he duly did) and both she and her brother were fascinated that not all kernels were red – probably her first brush with DNA and genetics. Her mother was a strong, wise presence with such truisms as ‘you will get lots of experience in life – because experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want’ that have stayed with Manjit. A major event however that reinforced that she was on the right path was losing her sister to breast cancer. She is driven to collaborate and to build bridges because, as she sees it, it is the key from getting from the lab to the bed as quickly as possible. And that’s what matters most to Manjit: bringing people together to help others and challenging inequality in all its different guises.