Dr. Sara Dumit is among the leading theorists working on a rather challenging interdisciplinary research topic. Her research supports national security in event of a nuclear attack and supports radiation protection of nuclear workers in the US. Besides having been selected in 2021 to participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting as a young scientist (conducted online, which led to another participation in the 71st Meeting in 2022), Sara has recently received two consecutive prestigious awards for her interdisciplinary research in Health Physics (also known as Radiation Protection). Since Sara’s doctoral research work at the United States Transuranium and Uranium Registries (USTUR) and throughout her post-doctoral research work at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Sara has experienced how rewarding interdisciplinary research can be. Read along to find out more!
Thank you, Sara, for taking the time for this interview. Can you tell us more about your success, as evidenced by the recent awards you received?
Entirely my pleasure, Daniela, and thank you so much for your kind words. I was honored to receive the 2022 John D. Boice, Jr. Young Investigator Award from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), and the 2022 Elda E. Anderson Award from the Health Physics Society (HPS).
The former award recognises an early career professional engaged in some aspect of science pertaining to radiation protection and measurements.
The latter award is presented to a young member of the HPS to recognise excellence in research or development, discovery or invention, devotion to health physics, and significant contributions to the profession of health physics.
What can you explain us about your experience as an interdisciplinary scientist in the Health Physics field?
The Health Physics field incorporates and combines each of the three Nobel Disciplines: Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, and Physics. It has been incredibly fascinating to conduct scientific research in the Health Physics field, but also challenging. The rewarding part of conducting research across all Nobel Disciplines is that it has motivated me to keep learning more each day, and shaped me to become a more adaptive, inquisitive, and open-minded scientist. Although arduous, openness to interdisciplinary research can expand one’s professional scope of concern and even help to solve national security science challenges.
What type of interdisciplinary research do you do?
Briefly, I develop biokinetic models to study the deposition, translocation, retention, and excretion of plutonium in vivo. In particular, I study plutonium’s biokinetics in the human body following chelation therapy. Such type of research is intrinsically interdisciplinary, as it requires knowledge of the chemical reactions occurring in different organs, the physiology of the human body, drug kinetics, the physics of nuclear decays, etc.
When and why have you decided to become a scientist and how did you chose your topic?
I decided to become a scientist during my cross-institutional undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where I had the opportunity to take classes in different disciplines and participate in a variety of small research projects. It was then that I realised I wanted to pursue a scientific career. I chose my research topic during my first year as a PhD student at Washington State University (WSU). I visited one of WSU’s laboratories, the USTUR research facility, and was truly impressed with the exceptional health physics research conducted by USTUR scientists, the invaluable human data they have, and how supportive the Director, Dr. Tolmachev (who became my PhD Advisor) was. I wholeheartedly accepted his invitation to join the USTUR as a PhD student.
What is your main project at the moment?
I am working on validating the chelation model that our research group recently developed and published in the Health Physics Journal (HPJ), Dumit et al. 119(6): 715-732; 2020. The publication showing the model validation results is currently being peer-reviewed and, hopefully, will soon be published (open access) at the HPJ.
What is the biggest challenge in your research?
The greatest challenge in my research is to model plutonium biokinetics in humans during the administration of chelation therapy. The treatment enhances the rate of plutonium excretion from the body (decorporation), to reduce the amount of plutonium in vivo – as an attempt to decrease the internal radiation dose to the tissues/organs. Consequently, the standard biokinetic models available to describe the normal biokinetics of plutonium are unable to describe its enhanced excretion during chelation therapy. A chelation model can help us to assess the magnitude of the internal radiation dose delivered to tissues and organs in a timely manner.
Did the pandemic have an impact on your career/your work?
To some extent yes. All my scheduled travels to attend scientific meetings and conferences had to be canceled and I delivered my presentations and seminars online. I missed the face-to-face interactions with my colleagues and research collaborators. But I am grateful that we found a way to keep connected, in a virtual capacity. I am also thankful that a computer is the only equipment I need to conduct my modeling research, thus, I had no issues when working from home.
What is your favourite project by now?
It is difficult to choose only one, as I have been involved in outstanding projects nationally (e.g., NCRP Scientific Committee 6-13) and internationally (e.g., ICRP Task Group 121). A remarkable project has been to write a report (“The Wound Project – Measurement and Dose Assessment in Case of Internal Contamination Through Wounds”) for the World Health Organization (WHO)/Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance Network (REMPAN), alongside EURADOS members of the European Radiation Dosimetry Group. I am collaborating with experts from around the world.
Tell me about your participation and what stood out to you most during the 70th and 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings?
Participating at both the 70th and 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will remember forever. I was able to attend lectures and panel discussions with the Nobel Laureates, which were highly inspirational and motivating. In addition, I was able to participate in ‘Open Exchange’ sessions with the Nobel Laureates, which allowed informal and candid discussions. I had the unique opportunity to exchange knowledge with the brightest young scientists from around the world and the Nobel Laureates – a fascinating cross-generational, cultural, and interdisciplinary exchange.
What stood out to me the most was hearing the trajectory of the Nobel Laureates’ careers. Most of them faced numerous challenges with their research projects and collaborated with scientists from other institutions so that, together, difficult problems could be solved. I was fascinated hearing those stories since they were students until the moment they received the Nobel Prize. I strongly believe that, as scientists, we need each other to solve difficult challenges. We need several bright minds thinking and discussing a research problem together. Teamwork is crucial in science, as we do not achieve success alone.
Which goals do you wish to achieve in your career and what is the next step?
My goals are to continue and amplify my involvement in national and international professional organisations such as the HPS, NCRP, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), European Radiation Dosimetry Group (EURADOS), the World Health Organization (WHO), and others. Additionally, I want to continue contributing to science and advancing the field alongside my esteemed colleagues and collaborators. Currently, there is no consensus chelation model available even after more than 50 years of research by the international scientific community. I hope my research will contribute to the development of a standard chelation model for the refinement of internal radiation dose assessment in case of nuclear emergencies. I also want to be a supportive mentor to young researchers, following the example of the exceptional mentors I had throughout my career. I would not be where I am today without their support, and I thank God for it.
Dr. Sara Dumit is a Scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Young Scientist (2022 and 2021). She earned her Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Washington State University, with doctoral research work conducted at the United States Transuranium and Uranium Registries (USTUR). Her postdoctoral research work was completed at LANL’s Internal Dosimetry Group – Radiation Protection Division.
Nationally, Sara serves as a member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) Scientific Committee 6-13, and as a consultant for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) N13.64. She is also a member of the Health Physics Society (HPS) Public Information Committee (PIC) and a founding member of the HPS’ Women in Radiation Protection celebratory webpage.
Internationally, Sara is a member-mentee of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) Task Group 121 and is a member of the European Radiation Dosimetry Group (EURADOS) Working Group 7. She is also a member of the “Wound Project” for the World Health Organization (WHO)/Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance Network (REMPAN).
Sara has authored and co-authored numerous scientific papers and abstracts to the radiation protection literature and presented her research numerous times (nationally and internationally), including as an invited speaker at HPS and EURADOS meetings. Recently, Sara was awarded the 2022 John D. Boice, Jr., the Young Investigator Award of the NCRP, and the 2022 Elda E. Anderson Award of the HPS.