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Slice of life: A scientific mind

Fermilab engineer physicist Fernanda Garcia helps technician Brian Stanzil remove part of the linac accelerator Tuesday as they work to replace a tube.
Fermilab engineer physicist Fernanda Garcia helps technician Brian Stanzil remove part of the linac accelerator Tuesday as they work to replace a tube.

BATAVIA – Fermilab engineer physicist Fernanda Garcia gently brought down the copper pipe that is part of the powerful linear accelerator at Fermilab.

On Tuesday, Garcia and others worked swiftly, yet carefully, to replace a tube in the accelerator, which provides the beam for high-energy physics research and neutron radiation therapy.

“Without a new tube, the beam would just stop working,” Garcia said. “It’s just like your Christmas tree lights. If one stops working, they all stop working.”

It’s her job to make sure the accelerator operates correctly. The scientists at Fermilab use high-energy physics to understand the fundamental nature of matter and energy. At a price of $65,000, it’s a good thing she doesn’t have to replace it all the time. It’s been about three years since it’s been replaced.

“If we are down, everybody is down,” Garcia said. “There is a lot of pressure to make sure we do the work safely.”

In her job, Garcia spends as much time doing “hands on” work as she does in her office. She enjoys both.

“After this project, I will go back to my office and do programming and analysis,” Garcia said. “You really have a chance to do so many different things.”

High-energy physics is in Garcia’s family. Her husband, Duane Newhart, also works in the accelerator division at Fermilab. Because she is around scientists most of the time, Garcia admitted it’s sometimes hard to explain what she does and what goes on at Fermilab to someone who is not a scientist.

“I need to think how I am going to explain things,” she said. “It’s challenging.”

After replacing the tube and checking and rechecking to make sure everything is in harmony, the accelerator is ready for use again. That means Fermilab’s neutron therapy facility can treat patients again.

While Fermilab is known for its cutting edge scientific research, the neutron therapy facility has treated more than 3,000 cancer patients since opening in September 1976.

Neutron radiotherapy is offered at the Northern Illinois University Institute for Neutron Therapy at Fermilab. In 2004, Northern Illinois University assumed management of the facility.

Neutrons kill cancer cells by destroying their DNA. Neutrons are more effective at killing tumors than conventional radiation therapy, said Tom Kroc, head of the Fermilab component of neutron therapy.

Neutron therapy has been shown to be superior for some types of cancer, including locally advanced prostate cancer, locally advanced head and neck tumors, inoperable sarcomas and cancer of the salivary glands.

The neutron therapy facility has seen its share of success stories, including Kroc’s father, Richard Kroc, who is in remission after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“We treated my dad here more than 10 years ago, and he’s still doing fine,” Kroc said.

Patients typically require 12 treatments over four weeks – compared with 30 to 40 treatments lasting eight weeks for conventional radiation. Clinical trials were conducted at Fermilab for 10 years to determine which cancers could be treated effectively by fast neutron therapy. Neutron therapy no longer is considered experimental.

Garcia said she is glad to see the linear accelerator used to give cancer patients hope.

“Our relationship with the neutron therapy group is very healthy,” Garcia said. “We always get very frustrated when the machine goes down and a patient is waiting. We try our best to keep the machine running.”

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