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Nuclear Engineering or Medical Physics?

  1. Aug 18, 2015 #1
    I'm currently a Nuclear engineering student in the US. I'm at the point where I need to begin doing research and am torn between the radiation health side of things and the energy side. I honestly love both so I came here to ask a few questions to help determine my research choice. Also I know there's the possibility to go either way in grad school but I believe doing research now in the more related field would be beneficial to which ever I choose.

    1) From the energy side I'm interested in reactor designs that eliminate the waste issue or greatly reduce it. One thing I'm ignorant about is the salary of someone with a PhD in nuclear engineering. I understand it can range vastly but I'd take comfort in knowing that if I pursue this path I'll be able to pay off student loans and live quite comfortably.

    2) No one can predict the future but how long will medicine physics be around? When I ask this I am mostly referring the radiation therapy side. As technology advances wouldn't it make sense to move towards an alternative that doesn't involving potential damaging healthy cells. (I understand cancer is very diverse and there is no one solution, and also that radiation isn't as harmful as many might believe but it can still be potent).

    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 18, 2015 #2


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    My (somewhat outsider) impression of the future of nuclear medicine has two big parts - the first will be the continued development of hadron therapy. The second will be the continued development of using hormones that bond to the DNA in cancer cells, delivering Beta and Auger emitters very close to the DNA they need to damage. Then there is the development of radiation protective drugs. These are all about limiting the damage to healthy cells, and require significant input from physics. Then there are parts of nuclear medicine dedicated to imaging. That's certainly not going away any time soon. Remember, treatments like chemotherapy also damage healthy cells. Basically, I don't see nuclear medicine going away any time soon.

    (ETA: this is quite a good overview http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/N...ions/Radioisotopes/Radioisotopes-in-Medicine/ )
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2015
  4. Aug 18, 2015 #3


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    To further respond to the second question, there are a lot of potentially interesting therapies for cancer coming down the road, but radiation therapy is not going anywhere soon. My reasons for believing this are the following:
    1. Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for many cancers, particularly localized ones, either as a stand-alone treatment or in conjunction with other treatments. It's not perfect and there are side effects, but it does effectively cure cancer in many cases. And it's important to understand that if a new therapy comes along, it doesn't just need to do a good job - it needs to do a better job than what the current standard of care provides.
    2. Radiation therapy is also extremely effective for palliation or symptomatic relief. Patients with metastasis can develop very painful secondary tumours in their bones, or tumours that put pressure on the spinal cord and effectively incapacitate them. While palliative RT won't cure them, it can make some of these symptoms disappear so that a patient can have a higher quality of life while fighting the cancer.
    3. Radiation therapy is cheap. A linear accelerator costs a few million dollars, plus the costs of a concrete vault, supporting networks and staff. Once it's up and running it can treat upwards of 200 people per year for a decade or more. Compare this to the cost of some of the newer drugs on the market at tens of thousands of dollars for a given course and RT can look really attractive.
    4. As e.bar.goum pointed out, a lot of the chemo drugs do a lot of systemic damage and often a lot more damage than radiation. With radiation you have a lot of control over the dose that's delivered and where it goes, and hence the side-effects are predicable and for the most part-manageable.
    5. The role of radiation therapy appears to be expanding. One big example is that localized lung cancers are primarily treated by surgical excision. However, recent evidence suggests that stereotactic treatments provide outcomes on par with the surgery, but without the risks associated with surgery on part of the patient's lung.
    6. Along the lines of new research and development, there is a lot of work being done to make RT more effective. In addition to the post above, you have improved image guidance - most linacs are coming with cone beam CT capability these days, MRI-radtiotherapy treatment units are coming online, etc. There is a lot of interest in using gold nanoparticles as radiosensitizing agents. So the bottom line is that RT outcomes are going to continue to improve.
    7. Also remember that cancer is not a single disease. While one type of cancer may suddenly be eradicated by a magic bullet, it's much more improbably that said magic bullet would work for all cancers. And as far as magic bullets go, an "easy" one is unlikely at this point. A lot of very smart people have been working on this problem for a very long time. Instead we're likely to see slow and incremental improvements over time in many areas.
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