My name is Mary-Ann E. Ekpo, a Ph.D. student in Medical Physics from Nigeria studying at the prestigious University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. I began my Ph.D. journey in 2012 soon after the completion of my M.Sc degree which was the motivation to further my graduate studies at the doctorate level. At the initial stage, I didn’t quite seem to have a full grasp of my doctoral research plan due to the limitations in the background knowledge/scope of the research area at the master’s level. I spent the first two years of the Ph.D. still trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do. My supervisor (Dr. Rachel Obed) tried to put me through at every stage I experienced set-backs and we were able to come up with the research proposal clearly setting out the aim and objectives of the research. We were able to conduct a pilot study around the country during that period.

 In 2013, my department signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for research collaboration with the International Centre of Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Italy under the Federation Scheme; a partnership that allows research students to attend any workshop/training relevant to student’s research area for a brief period. I was privileged to be selected as the only doctoral in my department to participate in the training program and was scheduled to attend two ICTP-IAEA joint training programs – Workshop on Nuclear data for Science and Technology: Medical Applications and also the Training in Radiation Protection of Patients. The training opened the door for my research!

Prior to my departure from Nigeria for this training, my supervisor introduced the ICTP-STEP (Sandwich Training Education Programme) program to me and she emphasized the need to look out for a host/partner supervisor from the list of facilitators for the training, which is a major requirement for the STEP fellowship. As a matter of emphasis, my supervisor has been an ICTP fellow over the years for different partnership programs and is currently an Associate fellow of the ICTP. Her exposure and regular visits to the Institute helped my orientation which shaped my expectations and aligned my priorities accordingly. The Sandwich Training Education Programme of the ICTP is like any other sandwich program for doctoral research that enables Ph.D. fellows to conduct part of their research in a host institute in Italy under a host supervisor in collaboration with the home supervisor. The STEP program is reserved for fellows from developing countries that are known to have specific limitations in different areas of research. The STEP fellowship is sponsored by different organizations to mention but a few: IAEA, OFID, ICTP for different areas of research. During the training, I met with one of the facilitators, a diagnostic medical physicist who offered to be the host supervisor.  This enabled me to submit the application and later resulted in my nomination and selection for the ICTP-STEP fellowship.

The STEP contract was for 3months in each of 2015, 2016 and 2017 making it a total of 9months. I departed for my first visit in April 2016 and stayed for 6months to cover for 2015 and 2016. It was a whole new experience, exposure, knowledge garnered whose memories I will always refer to, through my career. I resumed at ICTP with a mindset that I knew absolutely nothing and was ready to unlearn, learn and relearn and I presented myself as thus to my host supervisor. My host supervisor (Dr. Paola Bregant), an amazing personality was ever ready to answer all my questions, taught me from her wealth of experience and proffered practical solutions to the technical-challenges I encountered during the training. The mindset I had on arrival gave me the opportunity to join the Advanced Master’s in Medical Physics (MMP) students to learn some theoretical courses which I didn’t get during my master’s degree program. I attended these classes for the first six weeks of my stay. Meanwhile, documentation, registration, and signing of all contract forms were already organized and accomplished within the first few days of my arrival. I hadn’t any difficulties in settling in. As soon as the six weeks of classes were over, I had to resume at the hospital (Ospedale Maggiore) with my supervisor and we had a plan of action drawn out immediately. During my stay, I was scheduled to attend two IAEA training that was related to my area of research. I learned so much, met several global experts in the field, built research networks, some of which are still of immense help to me to date. I was scheduled to attend the “College on Medical Physics’’ and also the “Workshop on Computed Tomography: Quality control and Dosimetry”. I participated in the college on medical physics program with other Nigerians including my home supervisor making a total of five participants. We partook in a poster presentation alongside other countries and we were awarded the best poster presentation award. 

On my return to Nigeria after the 2016 visit, I was able to redefine my research objectives, thus I returned to the field, this time with clarity of purpose. I could practically sit with a radiographer in a CT suite and understand exactly the scan process and could perform a diagnostic quality assurance process. I also understood clearly the functions of a diagnostic medical physicist, the radiographer, and radiologist without conflict of interest. The 2017 visit was the ‘icing on the cake’ as it gave me the opportunity to fine-tune all I learned and exposed me to a lot more professionals within and outside the profession. ICTP is a center for physicists, mathematicians, nuclear chemists and other areas of related life sciences, so one can always meet world-class scientists doing so much around the world.

I have been recognized as an IAEA-ICTP STEP fellow who will always be referenced all through my career pursuit. My passion/zeal for the profession grew with each passing day as I continued to delve into more subjects in diagnostic imaging and putting to practice everything, I have learned so far. This has led me to more opportunities for local and foreign training from 2017 to date. I have become passionate about educating young research fellows to look out for opportunities for training/fellowships/sandwich programs. Our unique limitations in Africa to research has created a wide range of opportunities for research collaboration with developed societies. Any opportunity for foreign research collaboration literally takes the research to a whole new horizon, opens more partnership opportunity and oftentimes build a strong foundation for post-doctoral studies. I would encourage my younger colleagues not to give up trying, as much as I understand how rigorous some of the application processes can be and at the same time the frustration/discouragement in the rejection mails, there are still many more opportunities out there.

I would like to use this opportunity to especially thank my home supervisor DR (MRS) RACHEL OBED who showed me the way, opened my eyes to the world of research to improve quality and become a better research fellow. I appreciate her deeply for her recommendations and counsels whenever the need arose, and above all career mentoring. I thank ICTP-IAEA for the privilege granted me to be a beneficiary of the STEP fellowship program and for many others from other developing countries. This noble act has indeed helped a lot of research fellows around the world, opened bigger opportunities for the fellows and above all build a strong intellectual knowledge base for medical physics in Africa. I equally thank my host supervisor DR (MRS) PAOLA BREGANT for the opportunity to work with her, everything she taught me, her patience in answering all my questions even at odd hours irrespective of the frequency with which I asked. I also thank a host of other staff, colleagues, and friends I met at ICTP who all made my research visits a memorable one. The colleagues I have met and become friends with here in Nigeria, I appreciate you all. Let’s keep the networks active and together we will achieve greatness in the world of medical physics.

-Mary-Ann E. Ekpo