J. Margo Clark, Ph.D.
Technical Staff Member
ESH-12 Radiation Protection Services
Los Alamos National Laboratory
What is a health physicist?
Health physics is devoted to protecting people and the environment from radiation hazards, while making it possible to enjoy the benefits of the peaceful use of the atom. Health physics is diverse and one of the most interesting and rewarding fields of scientific endeavor. Many industries, medical facilities, national laboratories, and research laboratories demand professionals who understand radiation hazards and their prevention and control.
For decades, ionizing radiation has been used in beneficial ways, such as in medicine, treating cancer, irradiating food and medical wastes to destroy bacteria, and generating electrical power. But when used unsafely, ionizing radiation can harm living organisms. Care must be taken with nuclear reactors, high-energy particle accelerators, x-ray machines, and radionuclides used in biomedical research and therapy. Health physicists help minimize the potential for unnecessary irradiation of individuals or environmental contamination. Health physicists work in a variety of disciplines, including medicine, research, industry, education, environmental protection, and enforcement of government regulations. Although usually concentrating in one of these areas, a health physicist typically performs duties in several areas.
What makes a good health physicist?
A good health physicist needs to be able to draw from a wide variety of disciplines including physics, biology, biophysics, engineering (nuclear, civil, mechanical, or electrical), physiology, genetics, ecology, environmental sciences, toxicology, meteorology, and industrial hygiene. These disciplines must be integrated in an analytical fashion to solve specific problems. Although the health physicist may specialize, a professional health physicist typically performs duties in several areas. The wide spectrum of knowledge required of the health physicist makes this profession both challenging and rewarding.
What is life as a health physicist like?
One of the advantages of health physics is that one may specialize in one or more of the following fields:
Health physics research: If involved in research, a health physicist may investigate the principles by which radiation interacts with matter and living systems. Health physicists also study environmental radioactivity and the effects of radiation on biological systems on earth and in space. This research is used in many ways, ranging from designing radiation detection instrumentation to establishing radiation protection standards.
Medical health physics: Those interested in medicine may choose to specialize in medical health physics. They work wherever radiation sources are used to diagnose and treat human diseases. Hospitals, clinics, and major medical centers use radiation sources, including x-ray machines, particle accelerators, and many types of radioactive materials. Medical health physicists are needed to ensure proper and safe working conditions for both patients and medical staff. Health physicists may assist physicians in setting up shielding for x-ray rooms, ensuring that machines are properly calibrated, assisting with treatment planning for radiation therapy, or ensuring radiation protection for diagnostic nuclear medicine departments. The medical health physicist may also teach courses in radiation physics and biology, and review research projects involving radiation work. Through her personal supervision of radiation installations in hospitals and clinics, the health physicist seeks to obtain the maximum benefits of nuclear medicine with minimum risks of radiation exposure.
Environmental health physics: The environmental health physicist is the professional most closely associated with protecting the public and environment from unnecessary exposure to manmade and technologically enhanced natural radioactivity. One important task is the environmental surveillance for radioactivity, which involves many types of instrumentation and field sampling technologies. Another typical area of responsibility is using computer models to assess the environmental impact of radionuclides released to the environment.
Industrial or applied health physics: These health physicists advise managers regarding methods and equipment for radiation work. She also assists engineers and scientists in designing facilities and new radiation control programs.
Educational health physics: Those working in education develop and conduct training programs for future health physicists. They also train radiation workers and the general public. These individuals instruct workers and other health physicists regarding the risk associated with radiation sources and methods used to reduce risk. One goal is to help individuals understand the relative risk of radiation exposure. In most cases, the risk is no greater than that found from other hazards in industries. Health physicists in education may be found in college or university classrooms and laboratories, or at off-campus training sites where they supervise student instruction. Sometimes educators conduct their own health physics research projects and publish their findings.
Regulatory enforcement health physics: Those who work in regulatory enforcement must have knowledge and experience concerning all types of radiation hazards in order to establish guidelines for adequate radiation control. These guidelines help society receive the greatest benefits from radiation sources at the lowest possible risk.
Power reactor health physics: A power reactor health physicist is responsible for all phases of radiation protection at a reactor site. Responsibilities may include selecting, purchasing, and maintaining radiation protection, laboratory, and detection equipment. Nuclear power plant workers require extensive training, while plant process systems require detailed study. The power reactor health physicist must be ready to respond quickly and with expertise in the unlikely event of a radiation accident. Health physicists make assessments of the potential environmental impact and ensure that the facility complies with federal regulations. Procedures must be prepared and updated, safety standards and emergency plans must be written, and preparedness drills conducted. It is common for a power reactor health physicist to supervise as many as 70–80 technicians and professionals, such as chemists and radiochemists. The daily work of a power reactor health physicist may involve reviewing radiological monitoring data for as many as 2000 employees. Area radiological surveys, radiation records, and internal and external measurements of radioactivity must be reviewed. In addition, survey and laboratory results are analyzed to ensure the reactor is operating within prescribed limits. The power reactor health physicist’s career is multifaceted, satisfying, and rewarding.
How do I become a health physicist?
Because health physicists have responsible technical positions in several disciplines, you will need a broad background of education and experience. A bachelor’s degree with basic education in the physical sciences is necessary, but training is also required in other areas, such as biology and math. In addition, most health physicists have a master’s degree in health physics. A few go on to receive a Ph.D. in health physics. Academic programs in health physics, leading to baccalaureate and advanced degrees, are now offered in several American universities. These comprehensive programs will allow you to specialize in areas such as medical physics, biophysics, nuclear engineering, and radiation biology.
Health physics technician: Opportunities also exist in the field for health physics technicians. The educational requirements are less than that for a health physicist; two-year associate’s degrees in this specialty are offered by several schools. Academic training alone will not make a health physicist. Practical experience in applying radiation protection principles is essential. To provide hands-on, real-life experience, cooperative programs are offered at many universities in collaboration with national laboratories and utilities.
What/where are the jobs?
Health physicists are in demand in the job market, and the outlook for jobs in the future is good. They work in research, industry, education, national laboratories, and government at most every level. Some health physicists are self-employed consultants, and others are entrepreneurs who start their own companies. Employment can be found in every state.