By Billi London-Gray, University Marketing
For doctoral-student-turned-professor, the real world is the best classroom for learning the art of healing
Megan Trad came to Texas State University as an undergraduate with an interest in healthcare. Now, not even a decade later, she’s blazing new trails to improve the way medical professionals are trained.
Trad is both a radiation therapy professor and a doctoral student in the College of Education at Texas State. She is passionate about patient care, teaching and researching ways to improve the field of radiation therapy education.
As part of one of her first doctoral classes at Texas State, Trad and her classmates were required to volunteer in the community. The experience was so rewarding that she decided to implement a similar requirement in the Introduction to Radiation Therapy course she teaches. By pioneering a new program that gives real-world experience to students through volunteer service, she is changing the way her radiation therapy students are educated.
Trad’s path from student to professor has been paved with help from her peers. When she enrolled at Texas State as an undergraduate, she was unsure which medical specialty would become her personal calling. She just knew she wanted to work in the health professions.
“I had heard that the programs at Texas State were known for producing high-quality graduates,” Trad says. Moreover, the Texas State community attracted her. “Everyone here, from the faculty to the admissions staff, were all so friendly and helpful, and it made me think that they would actually care about me as a student.”
A professor suggested radiation therapy as a field that would combine her desire to help people with her hunger for an intellectual challenge.
“I wanted lots of patient contact and the technical side of medicine,” Trad says. “Radiation therapy is patient-centered but also uses advanced technology. It’s always changing. There’s always something new to learn.”
Trad excelled through the program and landed a job as a radiation therapist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston almost as soon as she graduated. That position would open another path to her, thanks again to the advice of a teacher.
From the start of her career as a radiation therapist, Trad was stoked by her interactions with patients.
“The impact you can have on patients can be very rewarding. You feel like you’re helping someone every day,” she says. “Some people see this field as depressing, but I never have. I really admire our patients. They keep showing you how you should be living your life. Even when their treatment is palliative — when their cancer is terminal — they don’t stop; they still have goals.”
Early in her tenure at M.D. Anderson, Trad also came to love her interactions with students. Since the center is a research and educational facility, she often found herself surrounded by groups of students.
“I enjoyed being able to explain what I did and to help the students understand,” she says. “I noticed the other therapists didn’t enjoy the student contact as much as I did. The students and my administrator pointed out to me that I was helpful. “
She partnered with a mentor, Charles Washington, who coached her on how to teach. She quickly fell in love with the work of teaching others how to heal.
The Mentored and the Mentor
“I always saw the faculty members at Texas State as mentors in some sense. They were always there to guide me,” Trad says. But the more formal mentoring experience with Washington, specific to teaching radiation therapy, was a new experience. “It really benefitted me to be mentored by him.”
Washington, the director of the Proton Therapy Center at M.D. Anderson, saw that Trad was an adept teacher from the beginning.
“Megan stood out in working with students with her passion to share information and to relate concepts to practice,” Washington says. “She was patient and accommodating while adhering to the learning process. Her willingness to assist and learn more was refreshing.”
Washington, who has mentored other students as well, describes mentoring as a relationship that builds on trust and open communication.
“The mentor shares personal experience and system navigation ability to shepherd the mentee to greater professional accomplishment. It is different from training: encouragement, advice and feedback are key in the success.
“As I mentor, I benefit by engaging a willing, fresh mind that values what I have to offer,” Washington says. “My reward is that I have given back and continue to have an impact through the work of others. Their success is my success.”
After working with Washington for a few months, Trad enrolled at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls to earn her master’s degree in radiologic science education. She focused her graduate research on the effects of mentoring upon students, presenting her findings in peer-reviewed articles and at professional conferences. She continued to work with Washington, and upon completion of her degree she joined the faculty at M.D. Anderson and started mentoring her own students.
“It really benefitted the students to have that mentoring,” Trad says. “I have kept in close contact with one particular student I taught at Anderson. He is currently pursuing a master’s in the hopes of becoming an educator in the field someday.”
When Trad received an offer to join the faculty at Texas State while pursuing her doctoral degree in adult, community and professional education, she enthusiastically accepted.
“Our department is fortunate to have her,” says Dora Lopez, a lecturer and the clinical coordinator for the radiation therapy program at Texas State. “She’s home-grown and committed to making our program even better.”
Trad started looking for ways to improve her teaching as soon as she started at Texas State. One of her first doctoral courses, a community development course with Drs. Miguel Guajardo and Ann Brooks, introduced her to service learning — putting students in community service positions where they can gain hands-on experience.
“Instead of learning what the books said about it, we went out into a community and worked with the people who were in need of a change,” Trad says. “It was a very rewarding and transformational learning experience for me. I wanted to find a way to bring that to my students as well.”
Trad researched area organizations and, as a test, volunteered on her own with Heart to Heart Hospice, an Austin-based organization that provides end-of-life care. Heart to Heart was a good fit for her service learning curriculum, so she integrated hospice volunteering with her Introduction to Radiation Therapy course for the fall 2010 semester.
She required her students to volunteer at least one hour per week. In order to gather data about their experiences, she evaluated detailed journals from each student. She also devised surveys to measure the effect of the service learning upon her students. The research will be part of her doctoral dissertation, but will first appear as a peer-reviewed article in the spring 2011 issue of the academic journal Radiation Therapist.
Going into the service learning coursework with Heart to Heart Hospice, some of Trad’s students were unsure how their short visits with terminal patients could contribute to the patients’ well-being.
“A lot of my students were very nervous at the beginning, thinking, ‘What can you do in an hour?’” Trad says. “But for some patients, that hour is the best hour of the whole week. You can make a big difference doing little things.”
Lopez agrees that the short but regular interactions between a radiation therapist and a patient are at the heart of the patient’s treatment experience.
“By definition, a radiation therapist administers prescribed doses of ionizing radiation to cancer patients. But our responsibilities go much further,” she says, explaining that a therapist must assess and encourage each patient daily through four to six weeks of treatment. “Service learning goes hand in hand with how and why we teach our students this profession.”
Katrina Wilson, the volunteer coordinator for Heart to Heart Hospice, says service learning also prepares future therapists to help patients, even when therapy is not curative. “The students can experience the other side of what they are going to do. Not all radiation therapy works. Some of their patients end up on hospice.”
Thomas Welch, one of Trad’s students, says the hospice experience has been invaluable. “The ability to talk to an individual who is terminally ill is a must in this field. Having been exposed to the hospice environment, I can engage patients in everyday conversation whether the topic is death and dying or just everyday life.”
Tori Popp, another student in Trad’s class, says she discovered how to extend herself to patients. “Building a relationship with a patient is a lot more than just smiling and saying, ‘Hi,’ every day. It’s about genuinely investing in them and finding out who they are.”
As for Trad, she says service learning will improve her students’ preparedness and employability. As she continues her research, she hopes it will be used to improve medical training through hands-on experiences. Most important, however, she wants to help her students find their way.
“I received help to get into this field,” Trad says. “Helping them understand — helping any students understand their field, even if they don’t choose radiation therapy — is good work.”