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Theoretical... medical physics?

  1. Nov 2, 2015 #1
    For all of you who are thinking I'm a complete doofus... you're right :oldeyes:

    Unfortunately, I'm getting ready to apply for graduate school, and I'm still deciding which sub-field to apply to.

    On one hand, I would feel most at home doing research with practical applications, especially in the medical field. I don't plan to cure cancer or the common cold, but the thought of solving physics problems with the end goal being to save someone's life (or make it a little more comfortable) is very appealing to me.

    At the same time, I have somewhat of an aversion to experimental work. I've worked with 3 groups - 1 numerical/theoretical, and 2 experimental. I learned a lot doing the experimental work, and I can certainly see how people are fascinated by what can sometimes be a giant puzzle, but it's just not my thing.

    I am struggling to find a sub-field of physics which is right for me. I did an REU in biophysics this summer, and it didn't really appeal to me (something something motor proteins :oldconfused::oldconfused:).

    I was hoping to see that some universities would have a group which brought medical physics together with HEP to study proton therapies or something, but I couldn't find such a thing. I was wondering if someone with my particular interests might be fine applying for nuclear physics, particle physics, biophysics... I just haven't a clue. Is there even such a niche for me in the grand scheme of things?

    Thanks :oldtongue:
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 2, 2015 #2
    You might not personally find a 'cure for cancer', but there are effective nuclear therapies which are quite reliable.
    Maybe working in that field and becoming expert in their application might suit you.
  4. Nov 2, 2015 #3


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    It can be tough figuring out what you want to do in the long term.

    Medical physics isn't exactly that field for someone with an aversion to experimental work. Although, Iabs were never my favourite aspect of physics as an undergraduate and I'm pretty happy in the field. (For the record, I suspect I would have enjoyed labs a lot more had I been a little more organized.) There is a lot of computational work in medical physics though: Monte Carlo simulations, image reconstruction, deformable image registration, motion tracking, biological modeling, process engineering, computer-assisted detection algorithms, etc.

    You might just want to do a search for proton therapy centres if that's what you're interested in. In the US there are about 15 currently in operation with another 10 or so planning to come online. Most will have a web-page that details the research they do, and from there you can see which academic institutions and graduate programs they're affiliated with.

    Keep searching. You'll find something.
  5. Nov 2, 2015 #4


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    I know a couple of nuclear theorists who do medical physics work (nuclear physics of 12C beams for heavy ion therapies, modelling of auger cascade processes), so theoretical medical physics certainly exists, and there's work to do. As far as I know, GEANT4 is very dominant in modelling of ion therapy, which is ... problematic. We can do better.

    Approach this like you'd approach trying to find any grad position - try to find groups who do what you want to do, and see what they do. But, you're better off looking at nuclear physics, not HEP!
  6. Nov 4, 2015 #5
    Excellent, thank you all for your advice. I spoke to some of my professors today in regards to this, and they said that nuclear physics is sort of a dying field. Is this true?
  7. Nov 4, 2015 #6


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    I certainly don't think so. It's a well established field, and a lot of the low hanging fruit is gone, but there's a whole heap of things we don't know. Nuclear physics is hard, but not finished. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/34677838/strongstubborn.png [Broken]

    Perhaps if you're in the US, you can get a bit of an impression it's dying, with the closure of some small labs (e.g. Yale), but then again, at NSCL (MSU), they're building a ~ 1 billion dollar accelerator for radioactive beams (FRIB). And you know, the world is bigger than the US.

    Further, obviously, medical physics is not dying, and nuclear methods are a huge part of medical physics.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
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