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New Stanford School of Medicine doctoral program in biomedical physics

A new PhD program, hosted by the departments of radiology and radiation oncology, trains students in technologies used for therapy and diagnostics.

- By Emily Moskal

The inaugural members of the biomedical physics program at the Stanford School of Medicine and their advisors. 
Jim Gensheimer

In high school, Ashwin Kumar wrote a paper about titanium bone implants and how to best treat them with lasers before they’re implanted so they are less likely to be rejected. Until the treatment, the implant surface looks, under a microscope, like crumpled-up aluminum foil. When Kumar saw images of the smooth post-laser titanium, he believed what the data indicated: Laser treatments work.

That fascination with the microscopic and its sometimes-invisible influence on medicine led Kumar to pursue an emerging field: biomedical physics.

He began his doctoral studies last month, one of six students in the new biomedical physics program at the Stanford School of Medicine. The field employs physics and engineering to solve clinical problems.

“The applicability of biomedical physics is astounding,” Kumar said. “You can develop engineering methods through this program and through the research that you do in order to transcend traditional medical knowledge and improve patient care.”

The program, which emphasizes translational research from bench to bedside, follows a traditional five- to six-year doctoral track, but it’s “packed with more technology and flexibility than other biomedical programs,” said Edward Graves, PhD, the program’s director.

“This program is unique in its emphasis on translational science and engineering and is designed to provide students the tools they need to directly solve problems facing clinicians in the treatment of human disease,” said Graves, who is also a Stanford Medicine associate professor of radiation oncology.

Future-focused

There are around 50 similar programs accredited by the Committee on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs in the United States. But Graves said he didn’t want to create just another medical physics program; he wanted to build one that emphasized technology and was forward-focused.

“We wanted to look to the future, at where this field is going, and prepare students to lead in that direction,” Graves said.

He noted that Stanford Medicine has a strong reputation in the technology used in biomedical physics, having pioneered the use of medical linear accelerators for cancer treatment and non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging.

The biomedical physics program is similar to bioengineering and biophysics, but it’s applied to clinical problems as opposed to informing basic science. Most incoming students have undergraduate degrees in physics, engineering or biology, ideally with experience in each.

The program will offer training in imaging and radiation oncology science as well as molecular imaging and diagnostics. Building on classes taught to residents in the radiology and radiation oncology departments, it is designed to be highly customized, with only one required class per quarter. The remaining courses are electives, spanning a range of departments but mostly housed in radiology and radiation oncology.

Launching pad

Students also have a fair amount of freedom in choosing their doctoral research because of the large staff-to-student ratio, Graves said. Around 50 faculty are available as mentors for the program.

Students can research topics such as using machine learning to diagnose cancer from medical imaging. Or, like Kumar, they can learn about advancing neuroscience imaging and analysis for medical applications. Kumar imagines that soon we will have augmented reality immersions, enabled by lessons in biomedical physics — in which a person’s vision is superimposed by computer images — that will help technology companies understand personalized brain-computer interfaces.

After graduation, the students will design imaging systems and hardware, quantify how much radiation should be delivered to a patient, and pursue other careers that require knowledge of physics, according to Graves.

Graves envisions that most students will work at clinics, for medical or imaging device companies, or in academia.

“We are giving students a top-notch education in physics, engineering, biology and medicine as well as exposure to the clinical settings,” Graves said. “We know they’ll make a big impact.”

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care, and Stanford Children's Health. For more information, please visit the Office of Communications website at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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