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Health Physicist


Health physics is a relatively new academic specialty which has emerged since the atomic bomb was dropped. The Chernobyl radiation disaster in 1986 and the Hiroshima tragedy opened up the eyes of many health physicists to the health dangers and risks of radiation exposure. Health physicists are safety professionals in the field of radiation protection. They use their knowledge of the physical and biological effects of radiation in order to ensure the safety of both users of radioactive sources and of the general public.

Health physicists are sometimes referred to as radiation science and protection specialists by those employed in the field. A health physicist usually works in one of three areas: research, consulting, or education and training. They may specialize in only one area, but most often are involved in all three. They may be involved with basic research in radiobiology, radiogeology, ecology or shielding and critical assembly studies. In a nuclear plant, the health physicists devises and directs research, training, and monitoring programs to protect plant personnel from radiation hazards. The health physicist, while serving a necessary safety function within nuclear installations, does not fulfill the role of a health advocate in this situation. His or her job is to enforce regulations, not to question them, and to support the nuclear plant management.

Health physicists are in charge of taking proper care around nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, high-energy particle accelerators, x-ray machines and other sources of radiation used in medical research and therapy. Environmental concerns and people's health are a major cause of this safety concern. Radiation emissions have been known to cause thyroid cancer and leukemia, congenital abnormalities, amongst other psychological disorders, and have an environmental impact on plants, animals and the environment. Therefore their work generally controls the beneficial use of radiation, preventing contamination in workers, the public and the environment.

As research scientists, health physicists may study applied science and engineering programs, basic research, or anything in between. Radiation ecologists study the effects of radiation exposure on the environment, while other health physicists study internal dosage affects or radiation. New methods of waste disposal and soil seepage of radionuclides are also under study by engineers in health physics.

Health physicists develop new methods of combating and safely storing radiation, including special clothing to be worn during x-ray examinations. They also work to protect the people working with radioactive materials, including power plant workers and technicians in hospitals. For example, a health physicist may run a seminar at a power plant for employees, teaching them how to handle radiation sources and how to protect themselves by monitoring how much radiation they are exposed to in their daily work. They must assist these workers to ensure job safety.

Health physicists are also in charge of cleaning up abandoned nuclear power plants or other nuclear sites. Most companies do not know how to clean up an area, so they hire an expert scientist to do so. The health physicist must go to the site and survey the area. They either apply special cleaning agents or remove the surface.
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  Interests and Skills  
Health physicists must have an aptitude for physics and mathematics, and be able to pay close attention to detail. Most are concerned with safety and protecting the environment from potentially harmful radiation effects. Health physicists must enjoy working with others as members of a team, while at the same time working alone the ability to reflect on and contemplate larger scientific ideas.

They should have excellent writing and computer skills, and patience and curiosity of the physical world. Successful health physicists should enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, using sophisticated instruments and equipment to perform tasks requiring precision, and supervising the work of others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design and conduct research in radiation effects and health physics
  • Participate as a member of a research or development team in the design and development of experimental, industrial or safety equipment, instrumentation and instruction
  • Conduct research to understand fundamental processes in radiation and nuclear physics
  • Provide support services for activities such as radiation therapy, diagnostic imaging or seismology
  • Conduct experiments with radiation, light, sound, heat, electricity and magnetism
  • Teach safety and awareness skills to employees that work in radiation facilities
  • Design, build and test experimental safety equipment
  • Write papers for scientific journals on radiation safety
  • May work with medical doctors on radiation treatment for cancer patients
  • A typical workday for a health physicist is not so typical. They split up their time among laboratories, offices, fieldwork, hospital examination room and other locations. The hours they put in depend on the type of job they are doing, however a minimum of a 40-hour week is required. Health physicists associated with a public health agency may have a great deal of fieldwork and public contact work and may have to travel extensively.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Health physicists are employed by government and private research establishments, nuclear power plants, uranium mines and petroleum refineries, hospitals, reactor operations, public health departments, military environments, medical research facilities, food sterilization facilities and other industries where radiation is used

  Long Term Career Potential  
Many firms and institutions hire only one health physicist who is responsible for the radiation protection of all employees. In these cases, they are promoted within the job and are usually hired at a high level. In large firms, there are possibilities of promotion to supervisory jobs or to positions directing research.

  Educational Paths  
Most health physicists begin their postsecondary education with a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in physics, and then go on to earn a master's and a PhD degree in physics or a sub-discipline of physics. Health physicists who wish to do original research generally need to obtain a PhD and spend one to five years in post-doctoral research in a university or government laboratory. Otherwise, a master's will usually suffice for obtaining safety positions.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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