Undergraduates in Control of a Nuclear Reactor: An interview with the Director of the Reed Research Reactor, Dr. Melinda Krahenbuhl

Interview by: Eleanor Sheekey

Nuclear physics involves the study of the fundamental properties of atomic nuclei and has many applications spanning power generation, medicine, and materials engineering. Dr. Melinda Krahenbuhl is particularly concerned with the education, safety, and applications of nuclear reactors. Having received a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Utah in 1998, Dr. Krahenbuhl has since served as the Research Administrator of the University of Utah Research Reactor and the Director of the Dow Chemical Research Reactor. This was the perfect experience for her current position as the Director of the Reed Research Nuclear Reactor in Portland, Oregon, the only nuclear reactor that is primarily controlled by undergraduates. Dr. Krahenbuhl has been the Director there since 2011 and has kindly agreed to share her day-to-day roles, experiences, and thoughts about the future of nuclear physics.

JYI: What initially made you interested in nuclear physics?

 Dr. Melinda Krahenbuhl

Dr. Melinda Krahenbuhl

I am a Chemical Engineer by education.  What got me interested in nuclear reactors was a job I interviewed for as an undergraduate.  I applied to work for a professor; during the interview, his graduate students took me on a tour of the lab that included the reactor.  I got to stand over the core while it was operating and see the blue glow.  I got the job and have been working with reactors ever since. 

JYI: So, what is a nuclear reactor?

A nuclear reactor is the right amount of fissile material in the right geometry that is able to sustain a chain reaction.  Physically, a reactor is made up of fuel (uranium), neutron poisons (boron or cadmium), and a moderator (water or graphite).

JYI: The Reed Research Reactor is not the first research reactor that you have been a Director of. How did you get into your current position?

I had heard that the Reed’s prior Director was planning to retire.  I contacted him directly and asked him to inform me when the job posted.  I applied and was hired. Reed seemed to be the right place for me to work with undergraduates in a reactor program that was supported by the administration. 

JYI: The Reed Research Reactor is predominantly run by undergraduates. What do the responsibilities of the undergraduates running the reactor usually involve?

 The Reed Research Reactor. Image taken from https://reactor.reed.edu/pictures.html

The Reed Research Reactor. Image taken from https://reactor.reed.edu/pictures.html

The student operators do the maintenance and calibration of the equipment. They are also required to do regulatory contamination surveys. They operate the reactor, take care of scheduled tours and labs, and the current operators train incoming operators. 

JYI: With the undergraduates taking control of the Reed Research Reactor, what do you get up to on a typical workday?

My workday typically consists of administrative tasks. I take care of budgets, order equipment, and oversee the operators’ work.  I still maintain a senior reactor operator license so I have requirements to stay qualified to operate the reactor.  I also interact with state and federal regulators.

JYI: How does your research contribute to industries and the society? 

The research I have done in the past has helped to create new mathematical models for the fate and distribution of plutonium in the human body. 

JYI: Nuclear engineering is regarded as a mainly male-dominated field. Have you faced any major challenges throughout your career because of it?

I don’t think about being in the minority on a daily basis.  I just do my job, knowing that gender bias still occurs but it is not going to stop me.  The following are a few examples of things that have been said or done to me during my career.

  1.  During a performance review, a grant that was awarded to me was dismissed as being a “soft science” grant and typical for women and therefore not competitive.
  2. While traveling on a federal grant, the host country assumed that I was part of the health science group instead of the reactor physics group and made no arrangements for my stay.
  3. My pink work shoes were written up as being inappropriate for work.
  4. I have been asked to pour coffee, copy reports, and type up documents for my male counterparts.

JYI: How do you think we can change this perception?

To change the perception, we need to continue to increase the numbers of non-binary gender individuals and women in the field.  At the community level, I speak out about inclusion and opportunity.  The nuclear field has been bogged down by the hiring and promoting of cookie-cutter individuals with similar backgrounds and education.  As a monolithic group, they cannot imagine what the next big breakthrough will be because they have no diversity.

JYI: Are you working on any upcoming projects?

I see my current role as a facilitator of research projects for students.  The most recent project I facilitated explored the effects of low-dose radiation on fruit flies.

JYI: What do you see as the future of nuclear research? 

I think there is a misconception that nuclear research is not relevant and that it is singularly tied to power generation.  Research into the uses of radiation and radioactive materials is constantly expanding.  For proposed space exploration, we need propulsion systems, and material damage testing for craft and human health effects.  There are still medical procedures, treatments, and diagnostics being researched.  And yes, even better nuclear power plants.

JYI: What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing a career in or relating to nuclear physics?

Don’t let your current definition of nuclear physics predetermine your educational path or career goals.  Be ready to take advantage of unique opportunities. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

For more information on the Reed Research Reactor visit the website: https://reactor.reed.edu/

GLOSSARY

Moderator: Used to moderate, that is, to slow down, neutrons from fission to thermal energies.

Neutron poisons: Neutron-absorbing materials that are intentionally inserted into some types of reactors to decrease the reactivity of their initial fresh fuel load.