Skip to main content

MSMP student applies prior skills to new field

Posted by on Thursday, December 2, 2021 in Uncategorized .

Shane Welsh, a former radiation safety technician, finds his way to VUSM for a Master of Science in Medical Physics

by Lexie Little

Shane WelshAs Shane Welsh sat in Livermore, California, he contemplated whether he should stay. A North Dakota native, he remained unphased by the prospect of moving across the country. But doing so during a global pandemic when he already had a full-time job posed a different set of challenges.

“I was working full-time. I had a good, paying job. The idea of quitting and leaving that security to go and start school on its own is a scary decision to make,” he said. “In the middle of a pandemic, it’s even more so. But I knew that if I didn’t take that opportunity, I would probably regret it later on. I didn’t know if the opportunity would present itself again. Once I had the opportunity to come somewhere like Vanderbilt, I had to take it.”

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, that is, where Welsh wanted to earn his Master of Science in Medical Physics.

Welsh previously worked on the USS Abraham Lincoln as a U.S. Navy nuclear propulsion plant operator and radiological control technician for the Department of Energy. Applying the principles of radiation safety to medical physics provided a path to advance his existing skills in a new way, in a new field.

At the master’s level, medical physics students choose from two tracks of study, one that addresses diagnostic imaging through radiation technology and one that focuses on using radiation to treat disease.

“Medical physics broadly deals with using radiation to either diagnose or treat disease. That would be the two ways I classify the broad branches of medical physics,” Welsh explained. “The diagnostic side of medical physics is all about the imaging modalities: CT, MRI, fluoroscopy, things of that nature. That branch examines how the equipment works and how you can optimize those imaging modalities to extract as much useful information as you can while minimizing the risk and exposure associated with radiation.

“On the therapy side, on the treatment side, it is still very much a tradeoff because you’re using radiation. The tradeoff is that you’re trying to destroy a tumor – hit a tumor – with as much radiation as you can while surrounding tissue is spared to the maximum extent possible. So, medical physics deals with that tradeoff of using radiation and trying to extract benefit from it while minimizing damage associated with using radiation as much as you can.”

As a radiation safety technician, Welsh often went out into the field to take measurements, reporting back to health physicists who would review the data. He initially thought he would pursue health physics, but the hands-on technical experience he would have in medical physics appealed to him more. Medical physicists work primarily with the radiation technologies and machinery, integrating into medical teams like radiation oncology units.

In choosing a program, Welsh hoped to find an interprofessional learning environment where training goes beyond simple didactic study.

“It’s important to look for a place that doesn’t just teach you the didactics but takes a more holistic approach of like how medical physicists can be a part of the radiation oncology department as a whole,” Welsh said. “You have therapists, the oncologists, the dosimetrists, you have medical physicists. They all have a role to play, and it’s important to understand how medical physicists can leverage their abilities to benefit that team. That’s another thing that I have enjoyed about my education here. It’s not solely focused on the didactics but focused on the bigger picture teamwork – how medical physicists can benefit their radiation oncology departments. That’s important to consider in a program and something I have enjoyed about my experience at Vanderbilt.”

Welsh said the team environment extends to the students themselves, where each student and resident invests in the success of others. Residents host weekly seminars designed to help future medical physicists prepare for board certification, an essential step on the career path.

Future medical physicists, in a process similar to that of physicians, match into residency programs and work toward board certification to practice in hospitals and clinics across the country. As a second-year student, Welsh currently prepares for the first steps of this process in examinations and match applications.

“I’m currently in two courses,” he said. “I’m on campus usually four to six hours a day. Other than that, I’m mainly at home studying. Because I’m in my second year right now, I’m preparing for A) the first part of my board certification process – an exam that I will take in January, and B) residency applications. I’m applying to stay here at Vanderbilt if I’m lucky enough to do that. I’m also going through the match process to find a residency program after I graduate. Right now, besides my coursework, those are the two big things that take up most of my time. Studying for that exam and preparing residency applications.”

Reflecting on his career to this point, Welsh said he practically stumbled across medical physics on accident. Though he had an entire career in radiation safety prior to his arrival at VUSM, he had never heard of the niche but increasingly relevant field. Ironic that he now nears completion of his degree.

As a student, he relies on faculty from diverse backgrounds to inform his future practice.

“A lot of our classes, we have multiple instructors for each class,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily one instructor for the entire class like there might be in undergraduate classes. That’s useful because you get a variety of backgrounds and perspectives on the field. Honestly, I think the cumulative effect of the experience that our faculty have here and being able to draw from the collective experience is what’s benefited me the most.”

Welsh and his cohort entered VUSM at a time when interactions with faculty and with each other remained a challenge. The COVID-19 global pandemic shifted daily life as he arrived for his studies.

With campus distancing protocols in place, many courses had to shift to virtual options, making clinical rotations and other opportunities difficult across the medical campus. But Welsh said he feels each member of the community made the best of the situation.

“It was challenging, especially being distanced that entire first semester,” he said. “I think our faculty did a great job of rearranging our course schedules. It didn’t affect us as much coming in because we’re primarily didactic. That’s easier to do distanced. But the upperclassmen had practicums and labs that they had to juggle, and the faculty did a great job of handling that. Being able to make sure that because it is a technical field, they get that hands-on experience.”

Now, students have returned for in-person work while maintaining distancing, masking, and vaccination protocols. Heading off campus after finishing his coursework at the end of the day, Welsh looks to the east and sees the outlines of buildings stretching toward downtown. His studies keep him occupied most of the time, but he still enjoys the atmosphere Nashville has to offer.

Growing up in a small town in eastern North Dakota, Nashville served as the first metropolitan destination he had the chance to visit. He never imagined he would live here.

“I like the city a lot,” he said. “There’s never a shortage of things to do if you want to be able to do something. I’ve lived in a handful of different parts of the country, and Nashville is one of those places big enough where you have plenty to do but not so big that you have a lot of the issues associated with living in a big city. Nashville was one of the first places I ever visited growing up. When I visited here the first time, it felt like a huge city. I never imagined I would wind up living here, but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to do so. I’ve liked it so far.”

He now hopes to stay longer to complete his residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, knowing he will be well-equipped for the next step no matter where he goes thanks to his training at VUSM. He looks forward to the hands-on work that he will undertake in a residency setting.

According to Mayo Clinic, job growth for medical physics is projected to reach 7% from 2019 to 2029. Technologies continue to advance, allowing for ample opportunities to explore a career in treatment through radiation.

“The more you learn about and work with these technologies, the more they blow you away,” Welsh said. “Seeing how the technology evolves and integrations of things like AI and other computing technologies I think will have big impacts on the field. I’m a bit of an equipment and technology geek. I think it’s exciting to see the new technologies as they’re being developed and implemented and how they will impact how and what we do.”

Big innovations warrant big moves, and Welsh remains glad he came to experience change at VUSM.

Learn more about our programs by visiting our Medical Physics website.