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Medical Physics - What Bio do I need?

  1. Mar 18, 2009 #1
    Hello. I am having a hard time finding information on this and really need some help.

    I am a physics major at my school without a medical physics program. I am planning on going to graduate school and pursuing a masters/phd in medical physics. There are a few problems.

    1) Most graduate schools require biology knowledge from undergraduate programs.

    This is fine, the problem is how much? The sites bounce around on how much is preferred, some prefer the 1 year series in bio with the 1 year series in chemistry and that's all.

    Then there are schools such as University of Penn. who only ask for 1 year of chemistry and preferably 1 Human Anatomy and Physiology Course.

    My choices are pretty clear cut.

    I can do the 1 year of chemistry along with my physics degree, 1 year of bio.


    I can do the 1 year of chemistry along with 1 Human Anatomy & Physiology class and 1 quarter of Biology.

    Which would be better? If it matters or not my GPA is about a 3.64 in my classes. Time is short and it's very difficult to work in classes so I would greatly appreciate any feedback given. Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2009 #2
    On a related note, how helpful or necessary is it to have taken an undergraduate anatomy course for medical physics? Or is it possible to just learn all you need to in grad school?
  4. Mar 18, 2009 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    Here, "Medical Physics" is taken to mean the fields of both biomedical imaging and radiation dosimetry. I think your second option is more in line with preparation for this.
  5. Mar 18, 2009 #4


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    In general it's best to contact the specific programs you're interested in to see what their requirements are, or if the program favours students with particular courses. As you've pointed out - the programs vary in their requirements, so in this respect it comes down to which programs you're going to aim for and/or feel you have the best shot with.

    In my opinion as a medical physics resident, I would argue that a full year of biology and chemistry will help the most as they are necessary to understand the radiation biology that's covered in medical physics. A course in anatomy and physiology will certainly help as well, but my personal experience is that A&P can generally be picked up at the graduate level as needed. In fact, many graduate programs offer an A&P course geared towards medical physicists, so I wouldn't break my back to take that over fundamental biology and chemistry at the undergraduate level.

    With respect to how much, in general, I think first year courses are sufficient. An additional course in molecular biology would help, but not at the expense of additional physics courses. Medical physicists are first and foremost physicists.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2009
  6. Mar 18, 2009 #5
    Medical Physics incorporates a lot of different subfields. I work as a Senior Medical Physicist in Radiation Oncology in a not for profit community hospital. Ok, so what does that mean??? I work with patients who are receiving radiation to treat their cancer. Since one of my responsibilities is to review the patients treatment plan, it is very important for me to know anatomy. Not just where things are but how to identify structures on CT and MRI. I do not do any research.

    A Diagnostic Physicist may not need as much anatomy or biology since they generally look at image quality. They do need a knowledge of it if they become a Radiation Safety Officer within a hospital setting since they will be calculating dose to structures during certain medical procedures.

    A Health Physicist and Radiobiologic Physicist will need more chemistry and biology since they deal with more of the molecular effects of radiation.

    To sum it all up, each program may have a different subfield focus making the requirements different. Think about which subspecialty you may be interested in and look for the requirements for those programs.

  7. Mar 18, 2009 #6


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    As someone who teaches anatomy, has taught physiology, and may eventually start up an anatomy and physiology course, you should take a general biology course before you take anatomy and physiology. Many schools, such as ours, offer those as separate courses instead of one combined course. If you have NO biology background, I'd recommend an undergrad A&P course before trying to tackle graduate level learning of the subject. It's a whole different type of learning from physics, so taking a slightly watered-down undergrad course (it still isn't an easy course) will brace you better for the more advanced levels of learning the subject if you need it.

    The downside to a full general biology course for your goals is that a lot of general biology focuses on plants, which you don't need at all for medical physics. The problem is, you can't skip that semester, because often that content is inter-twined with other important basics, like cell structure and cell division and genetics that you will need to understand for more advanced coursework.
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