Meet Honoured Alum Dr. Muthana Al-Ghazi, clinical professor and director of medical physics at the University of California, Irvine

Dr. Muthana Al-Ghazi isn’t one for staying still. In addition to growing up in Iraq and attending university in both England and Canada, the 2020 Faculty of Science Honoured Alum is currently a clinical professor and Director of Medical Physics at the University of California, Irvine. The common thread linking those locales? A focus on higher education and the importance of lifelong learning.

As a boy in Baghdad, Al-Ghazi’s parents placed particular emphasis on education. He counts himself very fortunate to have had outstanding teachers and role models throughout his life. His father was a math teacher who made sure (along with Al-Ghazi’s mother) that he was placed in the best schools. Al-Ghazi says he was always interested in science growing up.

“In high school, in Baghdad, I had a really amazing physics teacher. He used modern teaching methods that emphasized independent inquiry. His practical illustrations of what then seemed to be complex phenomena encouraged critical thinking. This was the spark that ignited a lifelong interest in physics.”

After high school, Al-Ghazi went to study at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. There he met Professor ‘Jasper’ McKee, who taught him atomic physics as an undergraduate. Al-Ghazi was inspired by McKee’s teaching style, saying “… he was such an engaging and inspiring teacher and original thinker that it was impossible not to like him”.

Al-Ghazi completed his BSc. and then his MSc. at Birmingham before returning to Iraq. It was at that point that his family encouraged him to continue his studies and pursue his PhD. He wrote to McKee, who had left Great Britain for Canada a few years before to become the Director of the Cyclotron Laboratory and Accelerator Centre at the University of Manitoba. McKee cabled back to Al-Ghazi, urging him to come to Canada as soon as he could. Al-Ghazi says it was the beginning of his “lucky association” with the U of M.

During his time at the U of M, Al-Ghazi made many great memories. He recalls fondly the Department of Physics and Astronomy supporting independent thought.

“The professors were outstanding mentors. Intellectual space was given to students to develop their own interests. This encouraged originality and development of one’s own pursuits. Such an environment is so necessary to ensure that students, once they leave, are equipped to chart a successful career path.”

After obtaining his PhD., Al-Ghazi landed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Medical Physics at what is now known as Cancercare Manitoba. Following was more training in medical physics at the London Regional Cancer Centre in London, Ontario.

“After that I spent nine years as a medical physicist and later, head of the Medical Physics Department at the Thunder Bay Regional Cancer Centre with an adjunct academic appointment at Lakehead University. In the mid-1990’s I left for British Columbia to help start a new Cancer Centre in the Fraser Valley as part of the British Columbia Cancer Agency with an academic appointment at the University of British Columbia (UBC).”

In 1998, he assumed his current position at the University of California, Irvine. He says that he’s continued to “gravitate to warmer climates” since originally leaving home for university studies.

Throughout his career, Al-Ghazi has regularly volunteered in the Middle East, particularly his native Iraq. Knowing his country’s history as a leader in the region with regards to education, healthcare and civil institutions, he was well aware of what decades of war and sanctions had done to decimate those same institutions.

“I had the opportunity to do volunteer work with the International Medical Corps in Iraq. After that, I developed contacts with colleagues there. I was impressed by their outstanding caliber, energy and drive. They were working under unimaginably challenging conditions. I thought it appropriate to help them re-build the cancer care system in particular, and provide much needed service to cancer patients in the country. I continue to provide assistance as much as I can. Internet communication has made it much easier to provide resources that help them. This is a very small token of gratitude acknowledging the opportunities I have been fortunate enough to receive.”

In 2010, Al-Ghazi was awarded the designation of “Volunteer Doctor” by the International Medical Corps for his humanitarian service in war-torn Iraq. In 2011, he earned the “Educator of the Year” award from the Association of Residents in Radiation Oncology for excellence in resident education. Recently, he was elected a fellow of the International Organization of Medical Physics. This is one of fewer than 50 in 87 countries worldwide. This prestigious award was given at the World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering held in June 2019 in Prague, Czech Republic. Also in 2018, he was awarded the Marvin MD Williams professional achievement award by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), one of 35 recipients across the United States over the organization’s sixty-three-year history.

Al-Ghazi is grateful to his “incredibly gifted” professors over the years. He feels the best way to repay their kindness is to emulate them in his own work. As for any message he might have for today’s students of Physics, he believes an investment in science has multiple benefits, for them and for the world at large.

“Students should be encouraged to follow their passion and be patient. Rewards are not always tangible and not necessarily fast coming. Perseverance and humility are essential ingredients for success in any endeavor, science is no exception. Do not be afraid of failure, as long as one derives lessons from it and uses these lessons for the next successful venture. Success comes in small steps. Look out for opportunities. It is necessary to maintain a sense of curiosity. Make sure you have a good mentor. These are few and far between. If you cannot find one, be one.”

By Jo Davies

Careers in Science Panel and Roundtable
2020 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 30, 2020
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to learn about careers in Science while honouring exceptional alumni and celebrating their achievements.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.

For more information please click here.

Jan 21, 2020

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