Using a Physics PhD in the Medical Technology Industry

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tom Savard, who earned his PhD in physics at Duke in 1998, now works at St. Jude Medical in St. Paul, where he is Director of Advanced Process Development-Systems for the Atrial Fibrillation Division. While at Duke, Savard studied resonance imaging of trapped atoms with Prof. John Thomas. He started his career at Honeywell working on space defense, and made the transition to medical work almost seven years ago. “I really like working on problems that are challenging and important,” he says. “I wanted to try medicine too because it’s using technology to make life better for people.” At St. Jude, he leads teams that develop the company’s products and quality-control test equipment. Savard focuses on products related to radiofrequency ablation for atrial fibrillation, which means applying energy to the heart to interrupt faulty electrical signals. The energy has to be applied at the exact spot in the heart that is generating the faulty rhythms. Savard works on improving the navigation and recording systems that doctors use to find that spot. The systems record electrical signals from the heart and create an electrical map of heart activity.

Savard says he uses his physics background every day: “When you’re testing something, you really have to understand the physics of how it works. You need to understand the physics of the measurements, and you need to understand how you can establish more precision in the measurements. There’s lots of problem-solving, so the discipline of breaking a problem into smaller pieces and solving those smaller pieces is definitely something I’m leveraging from my physics background.” His background also comes in handy when he’s faced with a cross-disciplinary problem (like one that’s both electrical and mechanical), or one that requires an analytical understanding of how things work. “Having all that experimental background in physics is really helpful for understanding what’s possible—what really could go wrong and how you could prevent those things from going wrong,” he says. Savard has some advice for newly minted physics PhDs interested in working in the medical technology industry, or any other industry for that matter: “As a physicist, you have to realize there are challenging questions in every field that your physics background can be used to solve: testing, development, processing, quality.” To land that first job, he suggests networking with physicists in industry. Savard developed a list of contacts by looking through a patent database to find people who had applied for patents related to his interest. “Once you’re employed, you can demonstrate all your skills and you can apply them in a variety of different environments,” he says.

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.