Alpert Medical School professors working at Rhode Island Hospital will play a major role in the development of a new University of Rhode Island five-year degree program combining a bachelor’s in physics with a master’s in medical physics, the first of its kind in New England. The instructors will be teaching six courses for URI graduate students at the hospital when the program begins in September.
“We enjoy creating educational opportunities for students,” said Edward Sternick, professor and vice chair of radiation oncology at the Med School and Rhode Island Hospital. “The physics department (at URI) is outstanding in their foresightedness and this program will be excellent for the medical school and the hospital.”
The integrated degree program will begin with undergraduate physics courses taught at URI, while the more specialized courses for students in their fourth and fifth years of study will be taught by Brown professors at Rhode Island Hospital, said Yana Reshetnyak, associate professor of physics at URI.
Because the number of cancer patients requiring radiation treatment each year is increasing, the demand for expertise in medical physics will multiply in coming years, making the degree program an essential educational asset. Sternick said this opportunity will create excellent job prospects for graduates of the medical physics degree program.
“This is a fresh and new direction for our department,” Reshetnyak said. “There is a deficit of people with master’s degrees in medical physics, so this program could attract new students to our school.”
The idea for the medical physics program began nearly two years ago as the result of discussions between URI physics professors and Alpert Medical School professors about the future need for interdisciplinary graduate programs, according to Reshetnyak.
“When people from the hospital introduced medical physics to us, everyone in our department got very excited,” she said.
The medical physics program is just starting to advertise for its first class of students. Although the URI Department of Physics had expected to get approval from the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education in September or October, the medical physics program was only approved in December, according to Reshetnyak.
“We are a little behind schedule, but we expect to have a fall class in 2011. To have five or six students would be very good, but maybe we’ll start with three to five,” Reshetnyak said. “A few of our physics students may also switch to medical physics.”
This specialty program will be training students “to be good clinical physicists,” according to Sternick. Coursework will provide instruction in the planning and delivery of radiation to cancer patients, utilizing computer-based technology. Medical physics students will learn how to electronically program the precise treatment ordered by a doctor while avoiding harm to surrounding healthy tissue, he said.
“Medical physicists are responsible for the quality aspects of the delivery of radiation,” he added.
Although URI has decided to only offer a master’s degree in medical physics at this time, the long-term goal is to expand the program, Sternick said. Once interest in the specialty physics program is gauged, the possibility of offering doctoral studies may be explored.
“Right now, the reason we are not offering doctoral studies is related to the size of our department,” said Reshetnyak. “In order to teach that program, we would need to have more faculty and specialized courses.”
According to Sternick, the evolving degree program will be an integral part of the larger statewide effort to build the biomedical sector of the economy.
“By building up medical training, it will create job opportunities for residents and bring new money into the state to help the economy,” Sternick said.