Leaders at Work: Flying the Falcon

UND grad gives up war machines to wield cancer-fighting weapons as oncological physicist at Altru Cancer Center

UND Alum Aaron Kempenich, an oncological physicist, works at Altru's Cancer Center with advanced cancer-fighting technologies. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

UND alum Aaron Kempenich, an oncological physicist, works at Altru’s Cancer Center with advanced cancer-fighting technologies. He came to Altru after working with the prestigious Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he researched potentially deadly uses of radiation. The birth of his daughter changed his career path. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

As he held his newborn daughter in his hands for the first time, Aaron Kempenich had a flash of insight.

He wanted to save lives, not take them.

“I was doing research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory helping advance many things, possibly including top secret nuclear weapons,” he said. “The place was beyond magical and appealing, and overwhelming in a positive way. In fact, Los Alamos has the highest density of Ph.D.’s per square inch anywhere. It’s very competitive.”

Kempenich liked the competition and thrived on the stress.

Until his daughter was born. He realized that he no longer wanted to work on things that could help make weapons.

Today, Kempenich wields a different sort of weapon. He fights cancer as a board certified oncological physicist at Altru Cancer Center.

“Use of radiation at Los Alamos was to possibly kill people,” Kempenich said. “Now we possibly give people life.”

Behind the scenes

Though patients don’t often see him, Kempenich “sees” every patient.

“I detailly exam every patient’s record, diagnosis and cancer plan,” he said. “I work with the oncologist to prescribe radiation, decide on treatment planning, and calibrate radiation. Every patient has a unique plan.”

In a typical day, Kempenich observes the new and ongoing patient plans, modifies and calibrates the linear accelerator (LINAC), and develops quality assurance plans for each patient to assure absolute correctness.

“We can’t make a mistake,” he said. “Radiation’s effect is permanent.”

Pin-point accuracy

Kempenich sees the cancer fight akin to the original Star Wars movie.

“Altru Cancer Center is the Rebellion,” Kempenich said. “Cancer is the Dark Side. The oncologist is Luke Skywalker. But he can’t get to Darth Vader alone.” He compares the LINAC to the Millenium Falcon and Han Solo to himself. “If the Falcon isn’t working, no one can get to the Death Star. It’s a complicated machine, and only I know how it works. Together we get patients away from the Dark Side.”

Kempenich advocated for Altru Cancer Center’s versions of the Millennium Falcon – TomoTherapy and Elekta, both pin-point accurate LINACs that deliver radiation that follows the shapes of the tumors.

“The TomoTherapy is based on different thinking,” he said. “We led the future. It was the 284th in the world when we installed it. There are less than 700 in the world. TomoTherapy can chew up extremely complicated cases. Nothing can beat it, but both LINACs are just amazing. We can help patients get remission.”

Kempenich sees cancer cells as rebellious.

“Cancer isn’t bad,” he said. “It’s just a cell. Every cell is like a kite with ribbons and a tail. Each time the cell reproduces, it cuts off one tail’s ribbon. When the ribbons are gone, the cell has orders to perform apoptosis- to kill itself-  to keep errors from the DNA. These errors become the seeds of cancer.”

“Cancer cells don’t listen to orders and keep living and reproducing instead of dying,” Kempenich continued. His job is to help kill those cells while harming as few healthy cells as possible.

Aaron Kempenich

The smaller device next to Kempenich, labeled ArcCHECK, calibrates the larger Elekta Accelerator. The Elekta delivers pin-point radiation to those receiving treatment, as does the TomoTherapy linear accelerator. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

From physics to physicist

Kempenich grew up in Little Falls, Minn., and entered UND as a physics major. “I didn’t have to study in high school and was quite social as a freshman,” he said. After the first exam, he changed his major to engineering, then philosophy. Physics, however, came knocking again.

He credits UND faculty for his success in the major.

“William Schwalm (physics & astrophysics) demanded essays instead of just equations and numbers,” Kempenich said. “He wanted to see your thought process. His approach helped me approach life. He has a skill like no other professor.”

Kempenich earned physics bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UND, going to Los Alamos for research.

Leaving the Los Alamos path, Kempenich entered the medical physics program at the University of Manitoba, realizing only later that they admit just two students a year. He credits Graeme Dewar (physics & astrophysics) for direction and the late Don Poochigian (philosophy & religion) for a recommendation letter.

“Dr. Poochigian wrote a wonderful letter,” Kempenich said. “He got me in.”

School was tough.

“It was sink or swim, and I had rocks in my pocket,” Kempenich said. “I used my UND skills.”

After completing his residency at Altru and three years of progressive board testing, he reached the title of Diplomate of the American Board of Radiology.

“I spent hours every day at Urban Stampede studying for those boards,” Kempenich said. “Dr. Schwalm imparted me skills to handle the exam questions. I can’t give him enough credit. His skills have helped me survive life.”

Offering opportunity

He also credits Kanishka Marasinghe for helping him learn to write like a person, not as a physicist.

Marasinghe returns the credit.

“Some of the opportunities Aaron had at our department, especially the opportunity to travel to internationally-renowned laboratories to conduct experiments, are rare,” Marasinghe said. “Aaron made the best of them.”

“What struck me most about Aaron was his confidence, drive, and perseverance.  He was not deterred by obstacles. Aaron was very keen on understanding how things worked, and that made him a very good experimentalist.  Aaron was also very outgoing and networked very well. He accompanied me to world-class laboratories such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. He was very much at ease meeting world-renowned physicists and struck up casual conversations with them easily.

Marasinghe added that there are a lot of job opportunities for physics majors.

“Physics is about asking fundamental questions and trying to answer them by observing and experimenting,” Marasinghe said. “Physics generates knowledge that will continue to drive the economic engines of the world and play a key role in future progress. Much of today’s technology which make our lives richer would not be around if not for fundamental discoveries in physics.”

“It was a long climb,” Kempenich said, “but well worth it.”

“This is a very positive job,” he said. “I can get emotional, it feels so good to truly help people. I can help a mom with cancer and give that mom back to her kids. That’s the best reward of my job. We give people life.”