amateur radio, Tooley’s first role following his clinical training was as a physicist at Bart’s Hospital in London in the mid-1980s, applying signal processing to extract useful information from signals from the body. “Communications and signals were always an interest of mine,” he says. Back then, he used an IBM XT personal computer. “It cost $7800 and had a 10 MB hard disk, and I thought this was absolutely amazing.”
In his first big project, which was also his Ph.D., he worked with a cardiologist. Together, they measured electrical signals inside the heart to distinguish abnormally high heart rates caused by disease, from those due to other causes. Their research ultimately led to a patent. Such interdisciplinary collaborations are common and essential, in clinical practice and research. “That’s when ideas happen,” says Tooley.
Echoing the point, Cherry recommends prospective Ph.D. students should find labs that work closely with clinicians, for a good start in research. “The best that you can do is immerse yourself in an environment where you’re close to a hospital and you’re talking to physicians.” Working on the front line, they have an intimate understanding of clinical problems and whether new solutions can work in everyday practice.
As data sets grow larger and analysis becomes more sophisticated, solid computing and programming skills are vital too. “Now things such as machine learning have become so important, not to mention lots of other advanced statistical methods that we use, students do need to be prepared to do some computational work,” says Cherry.
Translating research into the hospital can be a long-term endeavor. Some 13 years in the making, and a defining project in his career, Cherry’s lab is developing the first totalbody PET scanner. With the prospect of scanning its first patients within the next year, the system promises 40 times the sensitivity of those currently in hospitals.
Clinical physics can offer more immediate rewards—physicists can see the patients they are helping dayto-day. Especially in smaller clinics, a physicist’s day can also be really varied. “You may be doing some [treatment] planning in the morning and by the afternoon you’re on a [treatment] machine fixing a problem,” says radiotherapy physicist Robert Farley, head of medical physics in the
South Tees Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust in Middlesbrough, UK. “Then you have to come back and advise a consultant on a specific patient treatment.” Where do I start? Clinical training programs are available globally, all with varying entry requirements and structures, though fierce competition for places is common. Alternative routes are also possible for those researchers who may be looking to change careers, as are jobs as a medical physics technologist.
Before going further, Farley recommends talking to people in the field, visiting departments and getting work experience to get a good feel for the discipline. Keeping an open mind is important, he advises. Switching from a research career in chemistry using magnetic resonance techniques, he assumed MRI would suit him best. But after a tour of a local radiotherapy department, he was captivated. “I was [also] told by a friend that they couldn’t imagine me working with patients,” he says. “So don’t rule things out because, actually, you might surprise yourself.”
Jude Dineley is a freelance science writer based in Germany
LIBIN SCARIA: Radiotherapy at India’s national cancer center
“The personal satisfaction you get by doing something with a direct social benefit is very high,” says Libin Scaria, who works as a clinical radiotherapy physicist at the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai,
India. His bustling workplace is a national center for cancer treatment, research, and prevention, funded by the Department of Atomic Energy. Scaria helps cancer patients directly in his work. Every morning he tests the linacs used to treat patients, making sure they deliver high-energy X-rays safely and accurately. Specializing in breast cancer and brain and spinal cord tumors, he also designs treatment plans—a key responsibility of physicists in India. He is never bored. “That’s the thing that I like, because every patient is a different challenge.” The rest of Scaria’s time is divided between teaching radiation therapists and doctors, and carrying out project work, such as the introduction of new treatments. He enjoys the resulting variety in his day. “It ’s a wide area. There is so much to do.” Following one of two possible paths in India, Scaria began his job after a one-year internship at the Indo American Cancer Hospital in Hyderabad. As many physicists work in remote areas with a shortage of experienced colleagues, the experience is essential, says Scaria. “It enables junior physicists to practice independently from the beginning of their career.” As part of his training, Scaria also completed a oneyear diploma in radiological physics at the Homi Bhabha National Institute, also in Mumbai, following a bachelor’s and Master’s in physics. The government-run diploma is highly regarded. Though competition for places is fierce, Scaria recommends it over the alternative, a medicalphysics Master’s, where the quality of training is variable.
APS Careers 2020 in partnership with Physics World