History of the Department of Physics

Physics became a distinct unit within the Division of Science in 1963.  Before that, it had been a part of the Department of Science, which was composed of four disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, and science education.   Official designation of Physics as a department occurred in 1965/66 when the Division of Science was dissolved, and the four disciplines became individual departments within the School of Arts & Sciences. Prior to 1965, the primary mission of the department, as well as the university, was teaching and service. With the establishment of our physics program came increased emphasis on research, which grew with our university.

A brief timeline for the department is given below.

  • 1963 Department of Physics established
  • 1965 Traditional BS and BA programs established
  • 1969 Science Building (Howell Science Complex) occupied with Physics occupying East wing
  • 1970 ECU Department of Physics hosts an NSF sponsored Solar Eclipse Conference (total solar eclipse March 7 in Greenville)
  • 1970 Traditional MS program established
  • 1971 ECU Particle Accelerator Laboratory established
  • 1971 BSAP (Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics) program established
  • 1974 First personal computers in eastern North Carolina acquired for academic programs (NSF grant)
  • 1978 MP (Master in Physics) program established (would later become part of MS program with option in Medical Physics
  • 1996 Biomedical Laser Laboratory established
  • 1998 PhD in Biomedical Physics established (first PhD on East Campus)
  • 1998 Violin Acoustics Laboratory established
  • 1999 Biomedical Optics Laboratory established
  • 2011 Particle Accelerator Laboratory Renovated (with a new NSF-funded accelerator installed)
  • 2012 OSL Dating Laboratory established
  • 2017 Undergraduate physics programs reorganized into Research and Professional Concentrations under the BS-Physics major

Program Evolution and History of the Medical Physics concentration of the MS program

The Department of Physics at East Carolina established the Master’s degree with focus in Medical Physics in 1989 to complement the ongoing Master’s level graduate program in applied physics initiated in 1970.  The need for highly qualified medical physicists was well recognized at that time and the administration was in support of expanding the curriculum to meet the needs of the community.  The Medical Physics program was initiated with the full partnership of the Department of Radiation Oncology of the East Carolina University School of Medicine.  It was recognized that to be successful the program must have a strong clinical component and the Department of Radiation Oncology was firmly committed to that end. Several faculty members from the Department of Radiation Oncology maintain joint appointments, others maintain adjunct appointments with the Department of Physics.

The first graduate of the Medical Physics Master’s degree, Ms. Pamela White, completed her degree in 1991. From the inception, the program has been very productive. Soon after its inception, action was taken to limit the enrollment to four new students per year. This decision was implemented to maintain a sufficiently small enrollment to assure that adequate hands-on clinical training could be attained. It was felt that quality education was more important than quantity of students and that clinical hands-on experience was the defining factor in graduating qualified medical physicists.  It has only been in recent years, based on increased staffing at the Department of Radiation Oncology, that the limit on the number of new students accepted has been increased. Also, with the accreditation of the program in January 2006 a high number of quality students applied to the program. The last three years enrollment was stable around 15 students, accepting 6 to 8 new MS-MP students each year.

This increase in enrollment, with its increased commitment for clinical training, exemplifies the University’s commitment to a strong and sustained Medical Physics Program. From the first graduate, Ms. White, who was appointed as an assistant professor at the Medical College of Virginia, students have accepted numerous positions ranging from staff positions at M.D. Anderson, Harvard University, and Duke University, to becoming medical Physicists at regional hospitals in more than 10 states and two foreign countries. Several of our graduates now are in positions of chief physicist at local and regional hospitals.

The PhD program in biomedical physics is now established and hosts around 20 doctoral students. It is planned to accept 4 to 5 new doctoral students each year. Our Master’s students have the benefit of an expanding research base and the ability to continue their education within East Carolina University should they desire. Within the last years some of our doctoral students pursued in parallel to their doctoral studies the Master’s in Medical Physics and performed their doctoral research in Medical Physics and Radiation Biology. The PhD program also offers a new concentration to allow highly qualified students to earn both, the accredited MS in Physics, Medical Physics concentration together with the PhD in Biomedical Physics.


The mission of the Department of Physics is to serve the people of the State of North Carolina by educating the students enrolled in its courses and programs through excellent teaching at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels.  The Faculty of the Department of Physics pursues active programs of research in pure and interdisciplinary applied physics seeking to advance the frontiers of knowledge in their chosen fields of specialization.