Practising clinical medical physics in Nigeria these past years has been an adventurous roller coaster ride. I have seen the good the bad and the ugly. As a growing profession, that is to be expected no doubt. One of the challenges I had and still do sometimes was introducing myself to other health and non-health professionals.  A typical conversation would look like this:

Me: Hello my name is ‘me’ and I am a medical physicist

John Doe: Hi, nice to meet you. Wow you are a doctor, a medical physician.

Me: Erm no sir. There is an ‘ist’ at the end and not an ‘ian’.  Physicist from the word physics. Physicist as in Albert Einstein, Isaac newton, Stephen Hawking, The big bang theory etc.  A medical physicist is a physicist who has specialized postgraduate academic qualification in medical physics and most times clinical training usually in the form of a residency program.

Jane Doe: So that means you are a consultant doctor because your program looks similar.

Me: Not that kind of doctor, we are scientists (sweetheart didn’t you just hear me explain to John Doe?). A medical physicist has a first degree in physics and not medicine.  The ‘Dr’ title comes after getting a PhD! We would typically have a primary area of specialization but apply our knowledge in many different areas of science and medicine. In addition we are actively involved in teaching, R&D and other cool stuff.

John Doe: This sounds like a very interesting field.

Me: Yes it is. (I spend more time listing and explaining the different medical physics subfields, thanks to google and Wikipedia).

Jane Doe: You must really be intelligent. Physics is hard and you are merging it with medicine? You guys must really be brainy and to think that you are even a female.

Me: (*feeling like a G*). Oh it’s no big deal to us. (*It is girl! Remember those late quantum mechanics nights trying to solve the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat in a box. You still don’t know if the cat is dead or alive*). That’s how we roll.

John Doe’s cousin: You are so right, I have a friend who is a medical physicist. He studied at the University of ___, Nigeria. I know about medical physics.

Me: (*ears wide open*) Oh you have a medical physicist friend? That university doesn’t offer medical physics at any level. There are only about 3 accredited universities in the country that offer the program. Are you sure it is medical physics?

John Doe’s cousin: Yes I think so

Me: So what does your friend do and where does he or she work?

John Doe’s cousin: He takes X-ray images of patients.

Me: Oh I see. He must be a radiographer. That is a different profession entirely.

John Doe’s cousin: Really? Thanks for educating me.

Me: You are welcome! (*runs*).

Next week…..

Me: Good morning

John Doe: oh I remember you. You are the medical physician I met last week.

Me: (*gives up*)

Discussions with my colleagues in Nigeria, Ghana and some other parts of the world revealed that their experiences are very similar and sometimes worse. So it appears to be a global challenge. By the way the conversations above were with professionals in healthcare. Imagine what happens otherwise. However I remember two lovely scenarios where introducing myself as a medical physicist brought glory and favour:

The first was at a non-science conference. An elderly man sitting beside me asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a Physicist (I left out the medical part to avoid long explanations as I was very hungry). As soon as he heard the word ‘physicist’, I became like a ‘god’ in his eyes. I imagined that he thought Einstein was the last living physicist. Anyway his eyes were lit for the remaining part of the program as I proudly talked about my profession and enjoyed the ‘special lady’ treatment.

The second happened while working in a cancer centre in Europe. I was in the process of negotiating the rent money for an apartment with my soon-to-be landlord.  I told him where I worked and he immediately started considering my offer. He went on to tell me he had a loved one who had cancer and was receiving radiotherapy. I sympathized with him and further explained that as a medical physicist I was responsible for planning the course of the radiation treatment with the oncologist and ensuring that the simulations and calculations were done accurately so that the tumour is fried without killing the patient. He offered me a ride to work and I ended up paying the lowest rent in his house.

Have you had a case of mistaken identity?