Dr. Jennifer Pursley, medical physics

Dr. Jennifer Pursley found her niche in medical physics

Jul 13, 2022

by Jennifer Pursley, PhD

For #SummerOfScience, AWIS is highlighting members and partners to show the impact different fields of science have on society – and how these fields are impacted by women.

Introduce yourself, your title, and describe your work.

My name is Jennifer Pursley and I’m a board-certified clinical medical physicist. I work in the Radiation Oncology department at Massachusetts General Hospital, and my primary responsibility is to ensure that cancer patients receive accurate and high-quality radiation treatments. Day-to-day, I may spend time overseeing repairs or performing quality assurance tests on the linear accelerators we use for treatment, advising our physicians and treatment planners on challenging cases, testing updates and new features to the software we use, or documenting specialized procedures. I also have an Assistant Professor appointment at Harvard Medical School, and I mentor students and residents and give guest lectures in our medical physics and treatment planning courses.

Why do you enjoy this field?

I enjoy this field because the work is very hands-on and I spend lots of time talking to other people, and the result of my work is that patients receive high-quality care, which is very satisfying.

What challenges have you faced to get to where you are now?
  • This can be a challenging field to get into because a lot of specialized training is required to ensure that clinical physicists know everything they need to make the right decisions about patient care.
  • I did my PhD and a postdoc in experimental particle physics at Fermilab before learning of medical physics. To switch to this field, I had to get into a medical physics residency, which is a structured two-year training program for physicists, like the residency physicians do after medical school.
  • There are over twice the number of applicants for residencies as there are positions, so it can be competitive.
  • After residency, I completed board certification through the American Board of Radiology, which required passing two written exams and an oral exam specific to clinical medical physics practice.
What advice do you have for other women considering this field?

I never pictured myself working in a hospital as a physicist, but I’m very happy with my work and being part of the patient care team. It’s the opposite of sitting alone writing code, which was my experience in particle physics. Medical physics has a higher proportion of women than other fields of physics (23.3% of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine members in 2019 identified as female), but women, gender, and ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in this field. Medical physicists are very friendly and happy to talk to students; if you’re interested in medical physics, find a medical physicist online or at a nearby Radiation Oncology center!