Oak Ridge Pilot Research Project Takes a Page from its Storied History
LSU Health Physics graduate student replicates 1976 ‘Atomic Man’ incident
BATON ROUGE – A pilot project this summer at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, or ORAU, hearkens back to the organization’s roots.
ORAU has launched a Visiting Faculty Research Program, or VFRP, which creates teams to tackle research projects of interest to the organization. Through the VFRP, faculty from a member institution, a student intern and an ORAU subject matter expert team up to complete a project. LSU was one of two universities selected for this pilot program.
“We used to be much more engaged in research,” said Eric Abelquist, ORAU executive vice president and chief research officer. “That engagement goes back to ORAU’s founding when, after the Manhattan Project, there was an opportunity for universities in the Southeast to take a lead role in atomic energy research.”
The VRFP pilot program demonstrates the feasibility of expanding ORAU’s research enterprise. Two research universities – LSU and the University of Tennessee – were selected for the pilot.
At the heart of the program is a 10-week internship for one student at each of the universities. Each student is supervised by a faculty adviser, who received a $5,000 award for his or her participation in the project. The student and faculty member work closely with an ORAU subject matter expert, who helps develop and oversees the project.
VFRP projects this summer focused on health physics, and Abelquist said there is a practical reason for that.
“As a company that hires health physicists, we want to build a strong pipeline of future health physicists,” he said. Building relationships with faculty and strengthening relationships with ORAU’s member institutions will help ensure a strong pipeline.
“We hope health physics becomes a long-term interest for these interns. One possible outcome is that we make a hire at some point,” Abelquist said.
A near-certain outcome is that the students will finish their internships with a head start on a project that could become their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation.
Such is the case for Daniel DiMarco from Marrero, La.
DiMarco graduated with a bachelor of science degree in physics from LSU and is pursuing his health physics master’s degree in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy’s Medical & Health program. He worked with Jason Davis, ORAU health physicist, on a project to replicate exposure rates similar to the 1976 “McCluskey Room Incident.” During that event, Harold R. McCluskey, a chemical operations technician at the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant in Washington state who became known as the “Atomic Man,” survived exposure to the highest dose of radiation from americium ever recorded.
To replicate the effect, DiMarco took blood samples from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education’s Cytogenetic Biodosimetry Lab and exposed them to different radiation dose rates in an attempt to replicate the single-incident acute intake of radiation that occurred at Hanford and also potentially measure the physiological effects of chronic low-dose radiation.
“From a purely scientific perspective, we don’t know a lot about chronic low-dose radiation,” DiMarco said. “We know much more about what happens from accidents. We need a bigger data set.”
DiMarco’s research may be helpful in that regard, and his work in the Cytogenetic Biodosimetry Lab will definitely add to his experience.
“This project will give Daniel an introduction into how research is conducted in a laboratory setting,” Davis said. “And he will have to work out his own methodologies and design his own research questions.”
DiMarco’s LSU faculty adviser is Wayne Newhauser, the Dr. Charles M. Smith chair of Medical Physics, professor and director of Medical and Health Physics at LSU. Newhauser is enthusiastic about DiMarco’s project and the larger implications of the VFRP.
“This is one of those internships that is valuable to building the pipeline of future radiation workers,” he said. “It’s exciting for students and they get to interact with organizations in the real world who could be future employers.”
Newhauser adds that the VFRP is beneficial for his institution as a whole.
“LSU is our state’s flagship research university and a big part of our graduate program involves research. We like our students to be involved in cutting edge research,” he said.
ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, health, education and national security. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages ORISE for DOE. Learn more about ORAU at www.orau.org.
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