Nuclear scientists of tomorrow look and act a lot like any other group of young adults. They wear nice clothes to conferences, they laugh at all my jokes, and they get really excited when they talk about their passions. The difference here is that their passions involve radioactive materials.
One of my favorite things about being a graduate student in an interdisciplinary field (geology + chemistry) is traveling to a variety of conferences to learn more about ongoing research in each of my two fields of interest. At the start of each year, I attend the spring American Chemical Society meeting. I have traveled to Hawaii for Pacifichem, Budapest for the International Mineralogical Association meeting, and I will soon fly to Beijing for Migration 2011, a conference on the environmental chemistry and migration behavior of actinides (the bottom row of the periodic table: Th, Pa, U, Np, Pu...) and their fission products.
My first trip to the fall American Chemical Society meeting was more than two weeks ago, but it feels like yesterday. The meeting themed 'Chemistry of Air, Space & Water' was held in Denver, Colorado, over August 28 - September 1. Notable sessions included 'Uptake and Incorporation of Radionuclides in Minerals' in which my own research was presented, 'Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry' which showcased Mdme. Curie as a person, as well as a scientist, and 'Communicating Chemistry to the Public' a session that gave me chills, as an aspiring science writer, on more than one occasion.
Given my interest in nuclear science, I also spent some time in the 'Young Investigators Research in Nuclear and Radiochemistry' session. I took this opportunity to speak with graduate students working in areas of nuclear science about their interest in nuclear science, their career goals, and their thoughts on how we, as young scientists, can better educate the public about all things nuclear.
Larissa Gribat, 2nd year PhD student, Washington State University
"I was a double major in chemistry and physics. I liked science, and I was looking for something to interest me. Dr. Silvia Jurrison from the University of Missouri visited [my undergraduate university] to talk to the local ACS chapter. Through this, I learned about a nuclear summer program and a fellowship program. Nuclear science was something I was looking for. I was suddenly excited about chemistry."
"I would like to continue in nuclear science. I would like to work in a competitive environment before becoming a professor at a radiochemistry school. This has been the experience of the most helpful professors that I have encountered working in radiochemistry."
"Changing the mindset of a country is very difficult, but it seems that the younger generation is more accepting of nuclear science. It would also help to have more technically trained radiochemists in DC and more expert journalists to [write about nuclear science] effectively."
Bradley Childs, 2nd year PhD student, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
"How did I get interested in nuclear science? I was offered a full scholarship in radiochemistry, so I took it. During my undergrad program in radiochemistry, I had the opportunity to take two environmental classes at Clemson University, and I have also had four internships in areas of radiopharmeceuticals and nuclear engineering."
"I would like to continue a career in nuclear science, maybe in synthesis. It's too soon to know."
"To communicate nuclear science to the public, it is important to break down the chemistry. What we're studying is interesting, new, and could change the world. It's important to start young, invest in children. Parents will learn through their children's interest, and that will raise awareness."
Keaton Belli (appearing in the Geochemistry division of the Sci-Mix poster session), 2nd year PhD student, Georgia Institute of Technology
"My undergraduate advisor taught a field methods course where I was able to do research in the field and take it back to the lab. I really wanted to do something that was purposeful, and I saw direct application in getting to remediate uranium in groundwater."
"I'm interested in contaminant remediation because there are gaps in our understanding. I would like to work in a national lab or as a research scientist at a university."
"It's important that there's an awareness--that the public knows we're still working to understand nuclear science."
Mark Boggs, 4th year PhD student, Washington State University
"I learned about nuclear science second-hand through research. I wanted to do environmental research. My undergrad was in chemistry at Colorado State, but I had no education in lanthanides or actinides--the bottom rows [of the periodic table] were hardly discussed. I was slow to develop an interest in actinides--I wanted to be an environmental chemist! Conferences helped me move from environmental chemistry to radiochemistry. The last Migration conference showed me that research in actinides is broad. I also like the international aspect of nuclear science--people around the world are working together to solve problems."
"I'm trying to get a post-doctoral position at a national lab. The academic system is so different from the national lab system, so I would like to get exposure to the national labs. I'm also getting more interested in policy because I've seen how it affects funding and research direction."
"The public are not exposed the good science that we do--reprocessing, reactors, medicine, fueling space shuttles--they only see weapons or a bad view of nuclear. They never realize how many people are involved in nuclear sciences--that there are aspects of nuclear science in so much of everyday life. Even as a scientist, I knew I wanted to do chemistry, but I never realized the scope of nuclear chemistry--that you can make a buckyball with uranium!"
James Bowen, senior PhD student, University of Cincinnati
"I was exposed to very little radiochemistry as an undergraduate in chemical engineering. I learned about the field from a friend, and then his professors spurred my interest."
"I would like to work at a national lab for 5 to 7 years and then move into academia or policy. I like the exchange of information and teaching other people what's going on."
"I've worked with Boy Scout groups to help them get merit badges. Kids really want to learn, but parents don't know much about nuclear science. I've found that when people are informed, nuclear piques interest."