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Nationally Accredited Grad Programs in Med Physics Now Offered

Role of Physics in Diagnosis, Treatment of Diseases Highlighted

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Students will be prepared for a career as medical physicists at hospitals, research laboratories, industry and academic institutions.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

To help achieve the University’s goal of graduating students who are work ready, life ready and world ready, the Department of Physics and Applied Physics is now offering master’s degree and Ph.D. programs in radiological sciences with a medical physics option.

“A Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and biotechnology with medical physics specialization is also available,” says Prof. Erno Sajo, who is director and graduate coordinator for medical physics. “These programs are the only ones of their kind in New England, and are among the most rapidly growing academic programs on campus.”

The programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs (CAMPEP), an internationally recognized and sole accrediting agency of the medical physics profession. To date, UMass Lowell is one of only 40 universities worldwide that have met the high quality standards established by CAMPEP.

Students will receive the education and training they need to work in the fields of therapeutic, diagnostic and nuclear medical physics as well as medical radiation protection. Currently, there are 27 students enrolled in the program at various stages of their academic careers.

“Many of them are engaged in collaborative research with UMass Medical School and with Harvard-affiliated hospitals in Boston,” notes Sajo.

A Graying Population and Increasing Demand for Medical Physicists

The demand for medical physicists is expected to grow as the population ages, and the focus on health issues will increase the demand for improved medical diagnostic and therapeutic tools.

“Most medical physicists work in a clinical environment and have responsibilities in areas of diagnosis and treatment of various diseases, particularly cancer, often with specific patients and in consultation with physician colleagues,” says Sajo.

Medical physicists are also involved in developing new instrumentation and technology used in diagnostic radiology — including computerized tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or their combinations — for displaying detailed cross-sectional images of the human anatomy.

“They are also engaged in research and development on imaging procedures using infrared and ultrasound sources,” adds Sajo.

Among the Top-Paying Jobs

A workforce study conducted in 2010 by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) concluded that the number of new medical physicists required to meet demand would increase from 158 to more than 190 per year for radiation oncology physicists and remain at 30 for diagnostic imaging physicists through 2030. The current annual production is 43 radiation oncologists and seven diagnostic imaging medical physicists, which leaves a significant shortage.

“Because of this shortage and because of the significant expertise needed in this field, the salary of medical physicists is among the top professions,” notes Sajo.

According to the 2010 survey by the AAPM, the median salary for recent graduates without board certification is $105,000 at the M.S. level. With board certification and three years’ experience, this becomes $131,000. The overall median salary for a certified professional with a master’s degree is $175,000.

Development-Driven Research

“The M.S. program is designed to be two years plus one summer semester, although the typical academic plan may be different due to elective courses and the length of thesis research,” explains Sajo. “The duration of the Ph.D. program depends on the student’s academic progress, and it is usually between four and six years. Both the M.S. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation must be based on hypothesis- or development-driven research, and the student is expected to submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal.”

In addition to Sajo, other faculty members include Prof. Clayton French, who is the graduate coordinator for radiological sciences, Assoc. Profs. Mark Tries and Anna Yaroslavsky, and adjunct faculty from other leading institutions, including Lahey Clinic, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Tufts University Medical Center, Mass. General Hospital, UMass Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.