“The contribution of physics to medicine has been spectacular,” says Prof. James Dobbins, III. “What if you went to a hospital and there were no X-rays, no CT, no MRI, no radiation therapy, no nuclear medicine, no molecular imaging? What would medicine be like?”
Dobbins is the director of the Duke University Medical Physics Graduate Program, which offers Master of Science and PhD degrees. Although Duke’s program is only seven years old, the relationship between physics and medicine goes way back—the first Nobel Prize in physics was given to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen for discovering X-rays in 1895. The physics and medicine relationship at Duke also predates the formal program. Many graduates of Duke Physics have followed a direct or meandering path into the field. (Click here to read about Tom Savard, PhD 1998, and click here to read about Katie West Hulme, 2007.)
“We had been training students, especially PhDs, in programs related to medical physics for 30-plus years at Duke,” Dobbins says. “A decade ago we realized if we pooled our resources we would have one of the largest medical physics faculties in the world.” Today, that is indeed the case. The program has 50 professors, all of whom have primary appointments in one of the five “family” departments: physics, radiology, radiation oncology, biomedical engineering, and medical health physics. (Students interested in earning a PhD in medical physics resarch topics can do so through the physics department or—if they want more clinical experience—through the medical physics program.)
At 64 students, Duke’s Medical Physics program is the second largest in the United States. “We’re among the top four, I would say, in quality and reputation,” Dobbins says. The program offers tracks in all four sub-disciplines of medical physics: diagnostic imaging, radiation oncology, nuclear medicine, and medical health physics. The program has about equal numbers of MS and PhD students. “Having them work together as a community enhances the experience of both,” Dobbins says. “PhD students remind our master’s degree students of the importance of research, and the master’s students remind the PhD students of the importance of the clinical context.”
Students in the program do research and gain clinical experience as well as attending class. So far, students have published or presented more than 200 papers in professional journals and scientific meetings. After graduation, 95% find jobs in medical physics or closely related fields.
Most of the incoming students have an undergraduate degree in physics, although there are also some other majors, such as engineering and chemistry. Those who want to eventually be certified by the American Board of Radiology to work as clinical physicists need to have undergraduate prerequisites equivalent to at least a physics minor. “Medical physics is a great way to use physics for a very tangible and practical benefit to human kind,” Dobbins says. “There are probably undergraduate students that might find physics to be an attractive major if they were aware of medical physics as a career path.”
Dobbins himself came to the field of medical physics through physics: he earned a PhD in physics from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1985. He speaks for many physicists in the field when he says, “We’re using physics and math, which we love, and we’re bringing skills that only physicists have, to produce something of tremendous value for the human enterprise, something that has practical and altruistic value. It’s a fantastic field to work in.”
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.