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February 2009 Issue

medical physics graduate and doctoral program
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Behind-the-Scenes Work Has Benefits for Patients

By Amanda Harper
Published February 2009

If you’ve ever wondered how a degree in physics translates into a career outside of NASA, you need look no farther than your neighborhood hospital.

Behind every radiation oncologist there is a specially trained physicist calculating complex dosage equations and precise treatment delivery angles for radiation therapy to ensure the best possible care for patients.

Although patients rarely meet their radiation physicist, these scientists play a critical role in every cancer patient’s care. Radiation physicists collaborate with the patient’s radiation oncologist to develop a highly targeted treatment plan that will minimize damage to surrounding tissues during cancer treatment.

Medical physics is a growing field and UC is at the forefront of training people to serve in cancer centers across the United States.

The UC College of Medicine’s radiation physics master’s program recently received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs (CAMPEP).

Directed by Howard Elson, PhD, UC’s program is one of only 15 such accredited programs in the United States and the only one in Ohio.

CAMPEP accreditation is an independent, voluntary review process to identify exceptional medical physics education programs. Graduates of CAMPEP-accredited programs are considered fully independent and prepared, pending board examination, to work in medical physics. Graduates of non-accredited programs are required to complete an additional year of clinical training experience before working full time in the field.

“A career in radiation physics is appealing to many students because it allows them to put a highly technical science to practical use and directly impact patient care,” says Elson, a UC field service professor and radiation physicist with the UC Barrett Cancer Institute at University Hospital.

Currently, UC has 11 students enrolled in the two-year master’s program. Students spend most of their first year in the classroom studying radiation physics, imaging, biology and other human health principles. In the second year, students are assigned mentors and work in the clinic and conduct research.

Nate Papalia, who is set to graduate from UC’s radiation physics master’s program this March, was pursuing a master’s in physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago when he discovered the medical physics field.

He enjoyed physics but had an interest in medicine and was considering medical school.

“Radiation physics was a great solution because it allowed me to combine both disciplines,” Papalia recalls. “Once I started the program, I was a little taken aback by the breadth of knowledge you needed for the job.

“The staff and teachers work hard to keep our training current and relevant, so we get a good deal of hands-on training in the clinic that will better prepare me for my future career.”

In addition to developing targeted radiation treatment plans, radiation physicists are responsible for calibrating and maintaining treatment units, radiation safety protocol and quality assurance.

“I’m glad I ended up in the radiation physics program at UC. I’m getting the type of comprehensive training I don’t think was available through many of the other programs I considered,” adds Papalia.

“CAMPEP accreditation is a testament to that programmatic excellence.”

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