Fermilab Education Home sciencelines Spring 2000

Featured Scientist - Arlene Lennox (1942-2008)

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Please tell us about your position as department head in charge of Fermilab's Neutron Therapy Facility.

The Neutron Therapy Facility started in 1976. Between 1976 and 1985 it was run as a research project funded by the National Cancer Institute. It had a fairly large budget and was able to run a complete clinical program, treating the patients for free and supporting research staff to make developments in the field, publications, attend conferences, and generally advance the subject.

In 1985 the grant terminated but the physicians, Drs. Hendricksen (Rush) and Cohen (University of Chicago) decided they wanted to continue to operate. They formed a partnership called the Midwest Institute for Neutron Therapy. Fermilab agreed to allow them to continue to operate here. Without the grant the Institute would be operating as a private business and recouping their expenses by charging the patients. First we had to convince Medicare that it was appropriate to pay for the treatment, because until 1985 it was considered experimental. I became involved in the process of getting insurance companies and Medicare to agree that this was a type of therapy that was no longer experimental and should be paid for as any other treatment. We had to strip down the staff. All insurance companies rejected the claims at first and we had to appeal. This was always something we had to deal with. We entered a very Spartan mode even though I was always aware that we had been essentially number one in the world in taking a leadership role in neutron therapy and Drs. Cohen and Hendricksen were highly respected. We wanted to return to that level of respectability and activity.

I entered the picture as a basic physicist. I had worked on the PBar source, lithium lens surveying alignment in the antiproton source. Now I had to learn to be a medical physicist. We couldn't afford to pay a separate medical physicist. I had to learn all of the clinical aspects of treating patients, all of the beamline physics in order to keep the beamline operating, the interlocks, the magnets, the electronics, the controls and how to keep the whole thing running. I suddenly was in charge of about six people, as I became a department head and had to learn to manage staff. I would now be interacting with the physicians, as well as interacting with the Laboratory. I now had to be a jack of all trades and do it pretty fast if we were to keep this facility open. This is pretty much what my position has been here since then. I have to know every aspect of the field and be on top of it.

During this period I became interested in medical accelerators for proton and/or neutron therapy and putting these facilities into freestanding clinics or hospitals. As long as neutron therapy is perceived as something that has to be conducted at a large national laboratory, it isn't going to get widespread application. Fermilab is making a great contribution by having the institute here, but if we're going to "grow up" and be used widely in the whole community, we have to show that you don't have to be part of a large national laboratory. So, I have been working on the design of a medical accelerator, talking about these accelerators and trying to get more awareness into the mainstream.

Fermilab helped build a synchrotron accelerator at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. It is the only hospital-based proton therapy clinic in the world. They are using the accelerator that Fermilab built. But, introducing new kinds of radiation which are a bit different than what is at the hospital is a whole pioneering effort on its own.

When Dr. Hendrickson retired the program took on other challenges and the partnership ended in 1995. This was when I became an entrepreneur approaching health organizations to see where a new partnership might be developed. This entailed putting together a business plan and convincing them that this was a viable undertaking. We needed to show that it could be a productive business effort as well. Even as standard therapy that is covered by insurance and Medicare, it is a therapy that is in competition with other radiation clinics. If you are going to get referrals to come here, you have to be proactive in letting patients know that this treatment is available.

We now have a partnership with Provena Saint Joseph's Hospital, Elgin, IL. We have a website that potential patients can go to, so I do communicate with patients even though it isn't my role to solicit patients.

Please tell us a little about your background before this position, including your graduate school experiences.

During the years of my graduate school, the National Science Foundation provided grants for high school science and math teachers to get advanced degrees because the country was interested in improving the quality of math and science in the schools. That was as a result of Sputnik in 1957. Congress was concerned that Russia was getting ahead of us in math and science and they decided to put money into upgrading the math and science programs. It was wonderful. There were programs throughout the country where high school teachers could go during the summer and finish a master's degree. The idea was that they would get a master's degree with a reasonable amount of scientific content. The emphasis was on math and science instead of education classes. This is an ongoing concern. The NSF grants provided room and board, books and tuition so you could attend for the summer with no out-of-pocket expenses. This program ran for about ten years and processed a lot of students. Many universities had Ph.D., research-oriented, high-tech staff teaching, with the emphasis on the content.

As an undergraduate I attended, Notre Dame College, in Cleveland, OH, a small women's liberal arts college. I trained to be a high school mathematics teacher and minored in physics. I really liked physics. I taught high school mathematics, physics, chemistry, homeroom, coached pep club, for six years. About four years into my teaching career, I started on a master's degree at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN. After a couple summers, they invited me to return full time for a Ph.D. At this time, University of Notre Dame was an all-male school. They allowed some women in the graduate school, but I was the only woman in my class. There was another woman in the program, so there were two of us in the whole physics program.

I was a woman in an all-male environment where you learn that men think differently, they operate differently and you've got to survive and compete. With my physics minor I had spent six years teaching and I was competing with people who were fresh out of college with physics majors. It was a highly competitive situation.

What was the most difficult challenge in this environment?

Content was difficult, but understanding the "old-boy network" was an issue. They gave long homework sets; I spent all of my time working through these problems. One day someone said to me, "We always go out on Friday night and have dinner together. Then we'll go over to someone's and play cards. We take Friday night off. Why don't you come with us?" We had classes six days a week and we always had homework sets due. I said I had to get that done. Someone offered me a set of the solutions if I'd be willing to come along. That's when I realized that everyone else had access to the solutions from people who'd been in the course previously. That's an example of the network at that time. That's how I realized that if you try to go it alone and don'taccept help from other people, you're not going to make it through. In the end I survived.

I did my Ph.D. research at Argonne National Laboratory. Fermilab didn't exist. If you were doing an experiment in high-energy physics, you went to Argonne. While I was there, Fermilab was in the beginning stages of construction. After I completed my Ph.D. I came to Fermilab as a postdoc. I worked from 1974 until 1985 on various high-energy projects here. I was on the first-approved experiment in the collider. The total cross section at E-0 was the first-approved experiment. I was still working on that when I came to neutron therapy. I worked on the lithium lens that is in the antiproton source and is used to focus the antiprotons into the debuncher. The "lens" is a slug of lithium that the antiprotons go through to bend and focus the antiprotons into the accelerator. The technology of the lithium lens was unknown. It had been tried several times and hadn't worked, for example, in Russia. So, we were working on it when people said it wouldn't work. Now it's a constant. It's used all the time. When the antiproton source was completed in spring of 1985, the Lab was looking to relocate a lot of people. It was changing from a construction project to routine operation. So a lot of people were being reassigned. I was invited to go to several other projects. Phil Livdahl, in the Directorate, at the time, and Rich Orr, who was head of the Accelerator Division, asked me if I would come to neutron therapy. They knew they had a problem because the grant had already been in effect for ten years, and there was a question as to whether the grant would be continued. Miguel Awschalom, who had shepherded the project, was seriously ill and they knew he wouldn't be able to continue.

They asked me to take over. In terms of promotion and status, I started back at the bottom. It also meant a real hit in salary because, my supervisors, until recently, weren't interested in what was going on at neutron therapy. Of course, the projects that the supervisors were most interested in were the ones who got the merit raises, so for a long time, I was lagging way behind in salary and wasn't promoted to the job title that one would like. But, it was worth it, because we were seeing patients who had no other hope of getting better. That makes you feel like it's worthwhile coming into work in the morning, despite the problems and despite not having much personal recognition. I am overwhelmed by the fact that this somewhat sterile field of physics actually has a human side where you can apply the physics to something that really matters. More recently, in the last five years or so, I feel that those who are now in charge recognize my contributions. You work your way up to a level of respect. That feels good. It wasn't always the case and I felt I often had to fight to keep us (neutron therapy) alive, keep things running, and keep us open.

What experiences do you remember most as a child that may have influenced your interest in science?

I am naturally good at math. I started seventh grade when I was ten years old. When I was in seventh and eighth grades I finished the whole arithmetic book by Christmas. It was just obvious that I was good at math, and that I liked it. That's why I wanted to become a math teacher.

I went to a parochial school where we had women teachers -- women authority figures. There wasn't this idea that we had male authority figures and men dominated and you had to be in second place. I was always comfortable that women could be authority figures and that in a lot of ways, women were better at and smarter than men in some things. I didn't have a complex about that as some girls have.

I started kindergarten when I turned five in December and others had already started in September. When I look at my experiences, I was always going into a situation where others had the advantage and I felt they were ahead and I had to catch up. Going into college, and graduate school, were the same. It was always the business of being behind and others having more experience, having been at it longer. Typically I'm able to come from behind and get ahead, but only because I work hard.

How would you describe some of your high school experiences?

I went to an all-girl high school. The nuns were running it. It was a girl who could be president. It was OK to be smart. It was OK to excel. We wore uniforms and it wasn't the problem of what do you look like today and which boy are you attracting. It was good to excel and you were admired if you moved ahead. I think sometimes coed is not always the best. Maybe for some, but others may be more comfortable if they are allowed to develop without all the distractions. I finished high school in three years and graduated when I was fifteen.

Of course, in an all-girl high school there was little in the way of science. We had only two years of math and we had chemistry. There was no physics. So, when I got into college, there I was, competing with people who had four years of high school math and a physics class and advanced chemistry.

When I was fourteen I went into the convent. That was the reason I was going to be a math teacher and why I was sent to an all-girl college. I was in the convent and was going to be teaching math in the Catholic schools. I went into the Novitiate for a year and started college at sixteen.
During my freshman year in college, I remember being told that my writing indicated a great deal of maturity, and yet I was two years younger than everyone else. When I was fourteen, the beginning of my senior year, they pulled me out of school to teach seventh grade because one of the nuns was sick. I was doing my high school work on Saturdays and teaching seventh grade during the week. So, what is maturity? It's the integrated life experiences and responsibilities.

Please discuss some of the most interesting challenges, as you see them, to girls and women in the sciences.

The advantage I think I had was understanding my own abilities and realizing that these other people, men, weren't necessarily any smarter or better than I was. They just had an advantage that I hadn't. They had a head start, but it doesn't mean that I couldn't do it too and I couldn't catch up.

I had authority roles when I was very young. My mother strongly believed that a woman had to be independent of men. She really felt that you were trapped if you couldn't make a living or manage your own resources. It wasn't anything against men. She just didn't think women should be in a subservient role that doesn't allow you to develop. You would be unhappy later if you didn't discover who you are and what you can do; if you simply go from having your father taking care of you to your husband taking care of you. She trained all of her daughters to be independent; to be able to do it yourself.

When I did get married, I think that this independence is what attracted my husband to me. I think it is amazing how men are attracted to and fascinated by women who are competent, who can speak their language. They like it. They are not threatened by it. They are delighted and surprised to meet someone who can communicate with them. I can't tell you how many people envy my husband and me because we can talk about and share with each other our professional experiences. We can help each other. Once you get over the romance of youth and you live with someone, you want to share the companionship, the friendship and ability to share and communicate.

Your work is an example of "spin-offs" or benefits of science to society. What hurdles do you see in the effectiveness of these benefits due to our general level of scientific literacy?

Regarding scientific literacy in terms of our health, we don't like to think about our own mortality. We are not in touch with our bodies. We seem to deny what our bodies are feeling and going through, what our bodies tell us. Somehow studying about what's going on in the body reminds us of our mortality and we don't want to do that. It's amazing how people really don't want information. We may be trying to show patients on slides where their tumor is; they don't want to see it. We treat doctors in much the same way as we treat our parents. As a young child goes to a parent, the parent knows everything and can solve everything. As we grow up we realize that is not true. That very childish attitude that we have with our parents, I think we take to our doctors, unless there is a sense of betrayal or hostility with a doctor. We need to improve our attitudes about being responsible for our own bodies. We need to be knowledgeable about what we put into our bodies, for the medication we put into it, whether we're exercising or not, that we are responsible. You can't just go to the doctor when something goes wrong and they'll just fix it. Literacy on health issues is very poor and I don't know what we can do about it.

I see two problems regarding spin-offs. When the spin-off is not part of the mission and not part of what the superiors would be judged on, the ideas and the employees get very little support. This is a basic problem. Congress or someone needs to support and advocate spin-offs. At the very highest levels we are not promoting spin-off development. If a spin-off does get developed and used in the market, people very quickly forget where it originated. Look at the Internet: that was high-energy physics, people trying to communicate at different times of day. Well, who knows that the Internet came from high-energy physics? People don't know the history. It's hard for people to accept basic research if they don't see the general applications that might be two or three steps removed from the research. They don't recognize where the spin-offs came from.

Also realize that if you have a basic scientist who doesn't run in the business world or have the connections and understand the culture, the idea may not happen either because they can't pull it off, or someone "steals" the idea creating bitterness.

Working with physicians, nurses, technicians, physicists and patients is such a challenge to collaborative skills! What tips can you give teachers as they increasingly include collaboration in the classroom?

Maybe this isn't true in the schools now, but when I was teaching, teachers were not confident with their subjects. They didn't want to collaborate because they felt that maybe their ignorance or inadequacies would be quickly exposed. We want to do whatever we can to keep people from knowing that we don't know this or don't understand that. We, at some level, all have that problem. We have to get over that hurdle or we can't make progress. We all have inadequacies and things we were never sure about. Things we don't think we understand. One thing I've learned in my life that has really helped, in terms of breaking into things, is to just be able to admit, I don't know. Being able to admit, I was wrong. Once you learn to be able to say, "Boy I screwed that up. I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention, I didn't read it carefully enough, I wasn't listening." Once you can say, I goofed and be comfortable with it to get on with things, once you can say, "I'm not familiar with that, can we talk about it, I've never been through that,"and admit up front you don't know. This goes a long way. Once you do that, then others will come along and share ignorance and you'll pretty soon be sharing what you do know. Then if neither one of us knows, we can go along together and we'll find out. We have to get rid of that shell. I think that's what teachers do.

I had a friend who was taking a math class solving three equations and three unknowns. He had this homework problem and couldn't figure it out. I said it was easy and showed him the method that I use all the time for solving similar problems. He was amazed. He plugged it in and checked the answers, the answers were right and he thought it was fantastic. So, he turned the homework in and he had the right answer but he did it the way I showed him, not the way the teacher wanted it, so it was marked wrong. There are differences in style. If you want to teach math, you have to understand enough about it, so that if someone comes up with an alternate approach, you can judge whether their alternative approach is valid. Just because it's not the way it is in the book doesn't mean it is not valid. It might even be better. I do see this with math teachers. They're unsure of the subject; they don't understand it well enough themselves and if a parent is an expert such as an engineer or mathematician or in science or something. If the teacher feels that the parent may know more, the teacher may get defensive and take an attitude that the problems have to be done a certain way, or it's no good. This then discourages the children. Then the students will feel that the situation is hopeless. They'll feel they can't guess how you want it done. I had these experiences myself the first year I was teaching physics in high school. Remember I only had a physics minor and there were some things I didn't feel I understood, myself. I had some students in the class who were studying hard on a certain area and then kind of put me to the test on that certain area. I had to learn how to handle it when I didn't know what's going on without losing face. What I did was go back to school. I said I have to know more about this to feel comfortable teaching it. I can't go into my cocoon, saying, OK, we're only going to follow the book and if you don't do it this way. . . That's the safe way for the teacher, but it stifles any creativity or thinking on the part of the student and that's what's wrong with education today. The teachers are not comfortable with what they know. I don't want to diminish the role of education classes, educational psychology and how to work with adolescents, but you have to understand enough about your subject so that if someone comes up with something you won't feel as if you're going to lose control of the class. These are the words that have to be said out loud and we have to grapple with them. It's better to say that you haven't had a chance to delve into that specialty, but suggest you talk about it after class and see what we can learn. You have to find ways to handle it. You can't clench up.

We also need to be able to accept diversity. We want too much to be working with others who are just like us. Collaboration is something you really learn on a high-energy physics experiment. You've got a European or a Russian collaborator who might not speak English very well, but understands the electronics, the foods they eat are different, the clothes are different, when they talk they sound different, but they bring something to the table, and you value them for what they bring. We tend to put people in boxes. They have to think the same as we do. If they're living with someone, there's something wrong with that, if they're having kids or don't have any kids, they went to this school or that school, or how they wear their hair or clothes. We look at all the externals and those externals prevent us from seeing what the individual brings to the table. We have to learn to overcome that.

Would you please share with us some of your favorite or most rewarding ways to relax or revitalize yourself?

I have a problem, like many of us, that we're churning and churning. If I really need to get life under control and focus, I'll take a Saturday and get a tape to listen to and keep my hands busy by either doing embroidery or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You could also be cleaning the kitchen or peeling carrots. The point is, you have your hands doing something that doesn't take a lot of thinking and may be somewhat repetitive. In the meantime, in your head, you're trying to focus on a story, or a piece of music. If I can do that for several hours, I find I can get my head clear to pick up some creative project or problem.

For exercise, I'm into jazzercise and bicycling. The bicycling my husband and I do together. The jazzercise is something to do with the girls. It's also relationships. I also play the violin. I play with the Kishwaukee Symphony.