The Road to Health Physics in Alabama

Emily A. Caffrey, PhD

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) successfully launched a new Master's of Health Physics Program (MHP), with its first cohort of students starting classes in fall 2016, and its first graduate, Misty Liverett, completing all requirements in August 2018. This was the culmination of four years' worth of effort by Norman Bolus, the interim program director, and Liliana Navarrete, an assistant professor in the School of Health Professions (SHP), Nuclear Medicine Technology Program. Norman and Liliana took the lead in developing the new program, including outlining the curriculum, getting necessary approvals from the SHP Academic Affairs Committee at UAB, and finally pushing the program through the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and the Board of Trustees for the University of Alabama System, who signed off on the program in April of 2016. Thus, a brand-new health physics program, and the only one of its kind in the state of Alabama, was born!

The health physics program is housed in the SHP, Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, alongside the Nuclear Medicine Technology Program. It is unique amongst other health physics programs in its inclusion of a practicum requirement for its students. Each student is required to complete two semesters (12 credit hours) of supervised practice at one of several partner sites. Current partner sites include the UAB Office of Radiation Safety, the UAB Cyclotron Facility, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and the Huntsville Hospital, to name a few. Supervised practice provides students hands-on opportunities to practice the principles learned in the classroom. Students are also expected to complete an independent research project.

With all the necessary approvals in place and a cohort of students slated to start classes in the fall, UAB needed a faculty member to teach classes and advise students! I had recently graduated with my PhD from Oregon State University and moved to the state of Alabama for my partner's job (NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center). UAB offered me the opportunity to teach at the graduate level, something I had always wanted to do. I started teaching and mentoring that first cohort of students in fall 2016 and continued with that class—in particular, mentoring Misty through her graduation in August 2018. There is nothing as rewarding as teaching enthusiastic students! In addition to teaching classes, I helped to reboot UAB's collaboration with Oak Ridge Associated Universities to create new opportunities for students. Misty did her research project in collaboration with ORISE, looking at the Los Alamos National Laboratory cohort of the Million Person Study.

UAB's MHP program has recently hired its first full-time associate professor, Dr. Muhammad Maqbool from Ball State University, whose research includes materials for radiation shielding and protection and photonics in health physics applications. The program was very excited to have its largest class of 10 students start classes in fall of 2018. The keys to UAB's success were realistic student numbers, a supportive university administration, and synergy from having a Master's in Nuclear Medicine Technology Program. All signs point to a successful launch of a new style of health physics program, one that will help fill the workforce need for talented radiation protection professionals!

More information about the program can be found on the UAB health physics web page.

Back row, left to right, UAB student Jordan Pugh, Interim Program Director Norman Bolus, HPS President Nolan Hertel, and Associate Professor Muhammad Maqbool. Front row, left to right, UAB student Dee Pringle, Assistant Professor Liliana Navarrete, UAB alumna Misty Liverett, and UAB student Manar Sakalla. Photo courtesy of Jarvis Caffrey