Students learn about radiation in health physics

While interest in sustainable energy sources like nuclear energy is growing, so are health and safety concerns regarding them. The foundations of health physics class educates students on radiation, the risk to health, and measures to assess and reduce risk.p15-McTaggart,-Robert-(4c300)

The class is co-taught by instructors Robert McTaggart, associate professor of physics, and Gary Yarrow, director of Environmental Health and Safety.

“The class began in 2010 at South Dakota State University because it was needed in order to establish a minor in nuclear engineering,” McTaggart said. “While the minor was the primary goal, the course is also important to support the nuclear-savvy physicist or engineer.”

While the class is a requirement for the nuclear engineering minor, it also attracts students majoring in physics, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.

“We promote the course to a variety of disciplines, including chemistry, biology, physics and engineering majors. We also adjusted the prerequisites to allow students interested in medical school or a medical physicist career,” McTaggart added.

Health plays an important role in nuclear physics, whether at a power plant, hospital or an academic environment. According to McTaggart, biology is needed in order to understand health physics.

p15-Radioactive-(4c300)Health physics is a different kind of health field. McTaggart stated that the challenge is understanding the difference between radiation that occurs every day and radiation that can cause harm.

“Human biology is great at dealing with everyday doses, but high amounts can be harmful,” McTaggart added. “Safety is a key element in the nuclear workplace.”

Biology is important in understanding how radiation affects cells.

“An issue I come up with is that most students taking the course haven’t taken a college-level biology course,” Yarrow said.

In the course, physics and biology are combined to give students a unique educational experience.

“Health physics gives students perspectives in many different ways,” Yarrow added.

The course is offered every other spring semester and has averaged 10 students in the class. Topics covered include radiation quantities, limits and risk assessment, external and internal dosimetry, biological effects of radiation, interactions of radiation with matter, radioactive decay, radiation detection and various applications of radiation.

“We are the only nuclear engineering program in the surrounding states,” McTaggart said.

The course has gotten good feedback, and many students have found success in the field. After completing the course, many students have applied their education by going to graduate school, working in a nuclear power plant or in the health field.

Jacob Guenther, a senior from Sioux Falls, is pursuing a double major in mechanical engineering and physics with a minor in nuclear engineering.

According the Guenther, this course is unique in that it takes nuclear physics and adds in biology to learn how nuclear radiation affects living things.

Guenther would like to see more courses like foundations of health physics offered at SDSU to increase learning opportunities across disciplines.

“One thing SDSU needs more than anything is more nuclear courses,” Guenther said. “A nuclear engineering major would take us to a whole new level.”

Erin Wicker

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