New physics concentration prepares students for careers in radiation therapy and medical imaging technology

New physics concentration prepares students for careers in radiation therapy and medical imaging technology

Story and photos developed by University Communications.

We want physics to be a vibrant and vigorous program to meet the need of students and society.
– Dr. Fakayode
S tarting this fall, a new concentration in medical physics will prepare students to get a master’s degree for careers in radiation therapy. It’s the second opportunity for students in recent years—following a new physics education pathway in 2021 to stem the shortage of physics teachers nationwide.

Other initiatives in the works are a dual-enrollment partnership with Auburn University in engineering and opening talks with Georgia Tech to offer dual-enrollment for medical physics students.

Dr. Sayo Fakayode
Dr. Sayo Fakayode
“This is going to be really unique, and it will drive up enrollment,” said Dr. Sayo Fakayode, chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

“We want to provide many pathways for the student. We want physics to be a vibrant and vigorous program to meet the need of students and society,” he said.

The need for medical physicists is thought to be 150 to 200 new clinical practitioners per year, according to estimates at Wayne State University in Michigan. This is due to diseases like cancer. In recent years, early detection and prevention methods like chemotherapy decreased the risk of cancer deaths by 32%. However, cancers involving the breast and prostate are rising, according to a study published by the American Cancer Society (ASC) Journals.

After getting a master’s and working in a residency training program, students must pass an exam to become certified as medical physicists.

Few universities nationwide have an undergraduate medical physics pathway. They’re normally found at schools that also offer a graduate degree in the subject. Georgia Tech is the only master’s in the state preceded by undergraduate courses in nuclear physics.

Prior knowledge of nuclear physics isn’t necessary to get a master’s degree in medical physics. But Georgia College wants to put students ahead of the pack when applying to graduate school, said Physics Professor Dr. Donovan Domingue.

“This will be the first in-depth exposure of that topic for them” Domingue said. “Grad schools don’t require that, but we want to give students every bit of advantage we can. To show they’ve done well in a course that’s almost repeated in grad school will help them gain acceptance.”

Georgia College has offered a nuclear physics course for years, along with strong anatomy and physiology courses needed to get into graduate school. But students weren’t aware of the job opportunities associated with nuclear physics.

The new concentration offers them a clear career path to get jobs after college, attend graduate school or get a Ph.D. in medical physics.

Medical physicists can work in hospitals checking radiation equipment without a graduate degree and expect to earn a good starting salary. That rises to six-figures—between 120,000 and 185,000 per year depending on a master’s or Ph.D.—one of the highest salaries for physics majors, Domingue said.

With a master’s, medical physicists work side-by-side with doctors controlling the dose of radiation for cancer therapy and working with radiation imaging. They often travel between hospitals checking and certifying operation of radiation equipment and safely disposing radioactive materials. They read CT-scans, help diagnose illnesses and perform research for better radiation detection.

The university’s nuclear physicist, Dr. Ralph France, is modifying his nuclear physics course to align with the new pathway. To concentrate in medical physics, Georgia College students will be required to take anatomy and physiology, nuclear physics and solid state physics, which teaches principals used in many radiation detection devices.

The subject is perfect for anyone who does well in mathematics and wants a medical career, Domingue said, and prospective students are already showing interest.

Officials hope to start the program with at least five students in fall 2023. If it’s anything like the new forensics program—which started with just a few concentrations but quickly ballooned into a third of all chemistry majors—numbers will increase “as the excitement catches on,” Fakayode said.

Chemistry faculty are looking for ways to fund scientific equipment to further assist students, like machines that detect gamma rays and alpha particles.

To train the next generation, we will be aggressive and go after all the resources the students and faculty will need for the program to be successful. We are open and excited. I just thank my team. They are the very best—very effective and very creative. I see this as an exciting moment.
– Dr. Fakayode