This page was last updated on: July 9, 2017
Audrey Smith Wegst
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The Journey of Audrey Smith Wegst
I never thought majoring in physics would lead to such a fascinating life and career as I have had. Physics was my favorite subject at Mount Holyoke and I was one of four in my class who majored in physics. But jobs for women scientists in the 1950’s were rare and menial at best. Physics was not the best career choice for a woman without further education. So after graduation, I looked for a graduate program and found an interesting one at the University of Rochester funded by the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission. It was actually the Navy who paid my way. They were building the first US nuclear powered submarine fleet and needed people trained in radiation safety. Two women were accepted into this program. A year later I received my Master’s degree in radiation biology after intensely studying the hazards of radiation.
At that time, the use of radioactive materials for the diagnosis and treatment of disease was just beginning to be explored. The University of Michigan Medical Center had an innovative program in the Department of Endocrinology called the isotope laboratory. Here they investigated the use of radioiodine for the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease. They also were in the forefront of using radionuclides for functional imaging of disease. They did this by injecting a radioactive material which would be distributed through the body. If tissues were diseased the radioactive material would be distributed differently than in healthy tissue. Because you can “see” the radioactive material with special equipment you can take a picture to aid in the diagnosis of disease. This was the beginning of Nuclear Medicine. Because of the unique training I had had, I was offered a job in the isotope laboratory.
I met my first husband at the University of Michigan where he was a graduate student in radiation health physics. We started a family and moved to California in 1963 where he was employed at Cal Tech to monitor radiation safety in their research labs. After ten years of marriage and two children we divorced and I went back to work at Cedar’s Sinai Medical Center in Los Angles. It was about the same time that the University of Kansas Medical Center offered me an academic position in the Department of Radiology providing physics support to their nuclear medicine facility. This also gave me the opportunity to work on my Ph.D. in radiation biophysics, which I received seven years later.
My work at the University of Kansas on maintaining image quality of gamma cameras, which are the machines that ‘see’ the radioactive material given to patients, led to an offer by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1980 to serve as an expert for several projects in Latin America. Three years later I joined the organization and moved to Vienna, Austria with my younger son for two years. For the IAEA, I procured equipment for developing countries, developed manuals, directed and coordinated research and organized advisor meetings. I traveled to thirty countries introducing nuclear medicine techniques and giving workshops in developing countries on quality control of nuclear medicine instruments. In 1984 I had the unique opportunity of acting as technical officer for a study tour of nuclear medicine facilities in the USSR with a group of young physicians from developing countries and their Russian monitors.
After those two years in Vienna I returned to the University of Kansas Medical Center. Two years after that I left the University of Kansas and started my own consulting company, Diagnostic Technology Consultants, Inc. to provide medical physics support to hospitals and clinics including the University of Kansas Medical Center. DTC is now over 25 years old and has 6 physicists plus support staff. I still actively serve as president of the company.
In 2000, I married my second husband, John, a professor at Stanford University in petroleum geology. He had consulted for many years with the Geologic Survey at the University of Kansas. We literally have traveled to the ends of the earth as John loved the high latitudes.
This journey I have led over the last 60 years could never have happened without physics. Physics has given me a wonderful and fulfilling life and it continues to do so today.
In 1987 Audrey was honored by Mt. Holyoke with the Sesquicentennial Award!