Marie Odile Bernier is a researcher at France’s Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN) and co-leader of Work Package 3 in Harmonic. Here, she tells us about her work and shares some advice.
Can you briefly explain who you are and what you do?
I’m a researcher in epidemiology, which studies the incidence, distribution, possible causes and control of diseases or health outcomes. I’m also a medical doctor. I work in the Epidemiology Laboratory at IRSN, a French institute of research and expertise in ionising radiation (i.e. radiation strong enough to break chemical bonds in a molecule, including DNA).
What is the main question driving your research?
My research aims to evaluate the health impact of being exposed to ionising radiation (IR) for medical purposes, for example in the case of diagnostic imaging or radiotherapy. I launched in 2009 an ongoing study involving 100,000 children who underwent computed tomography (CT) scans at 21 large hospitals. The aim was to investigate the potential long-term adverse effects of the radiation emitted during the procedure. We found a small- but statistically significant- increased risk of brain cancer and leukemia in patients exposed to CT during childhood.
What is your role in Harmonic?
Richard McNally, from Newcastle University, and I co-lead the project work package dedicated to building a large multinational cohort of children exposed to IR during diagnosis or treatment of heart defects. Seven European countries already have national cohorts. Our aim within Harmonic is to bring these cohorts together to have a large set of patients, around 100,000, and allow us to analyse the potential long-term adverse effects of radiation received during cardiac fluoroscopy.
My role is to coordinate our efforts to build the cohort and oversee the analyses.
What is the main challenge of putting all those cohorts together?
The main challenge is to find a minimal set of data to be put together based on what is available in each country. And then you need some patience, since getting the agreements to share the data can sometimes be a long process. The next step is to organise our next meeting in a suitable place and discuss the project. I’m glad this will be in Barcelona, soon this year!
How will these efforts contribute to the well-being of children exposed to medical radiation?
We already know that interventional cardiac procedures, such as cardiac fluoroscopy, are of great benefit to patients, allowing them to avoid surgery, which has a much higher risk of adverse effects. However, we need to understand if the exposure to IR can be harmful in the long-term and whether it can lead to radiation-induced disease even several years later. Our efforts will help us make these procedures as safe as possible for young patients. Some of them are in their first year of life when they undergo the fluoroscopy procedure.
What did you want to do when you were a child?
I wanted to be a florist! That is a bit far from what I do!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like working with colleagues, discussing results and how we can improve our research. I also enjoy the challenge of designing the best study to answer a particular research question. It is quite a creative process.
Creativity is something in common with a florist! And what do you enjoy the least?
You can lose so much time on administrative matters, like signing collaboration agreements. It takes months and I find it really boring.
What advice would you give young researchers in your field?
I would tell them to remember that research is and should be fun – it constantly shakes up your ideas! And to be open to unexpected results. These are often the most interesting results, even if we may feel uncomfortable interpreting them.