By ERIKA KHAIR
Student Writer, EKU Communications & Marketing
For most college students, summer plans don’t include studying graduate-level nuclear chemistry and hands-on training in a nuclear reactor facility.
But they did for Eastern Kentucky University junior Kate Tran.
The chemistry major from Louisville was one of only 15 students chosen from across the United States to participate in the highly selective Washington State University Nuclear Forensics Undergraduate Summer School in Pullman, Washington.
The program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is designed to provide comprehensive, experimental, hands-on training in topics essential to nuclear forensics with the goal of motivating students to pursue graduate studies in scientific disciplines related to nuclear forensics.
Scientists in the field are considered the detectives of the international world of nuclear terrorism. They use their skills to get a fingerprint, so to speak, from illegal nuclear material and use that information to trace the material back to its original production source.
“Any time an EKU student successfully competes for a spot in a nationally competitive program it is a good reflection on EKU,” said Dr. Diane Vance, a professor in the forensic science program. “The forensic science program has attracted exceptional students to EKU for many years, and Kate is certainly one of those.
“Kate is extremely intelligent, but that’s not all it takes to be successful professionally. She is interested in a variety of scientific studies, and her ability to understand and enjoy a breadth of scientific areas is a benefit in the increasingly multi-disciplinary world of science.”
In addition to graduate-level nuclear chemistry work in the classroom and laboratory training in nuclear facilities, participants also heard lectures from scientists from national laboratories like Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oakridge National Laboratory.
Tran described her favorite part of the program as “a close tie between meeting and learning from world-renowned experts in their field and playing with expensive toys, such as the laboratory equipment in the nuclear reactor facility.
“We visited Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the B Reactor as a field trip during the last week of the program,” she added.
Classes ran Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with a few breaks during the day. Students were also expected to maintain their own independent study hours in the evenings and on weekends. For Tran, this was the hardest part of the program. She called the experience intense, but also fun, with a lot of knowledge packed into the six weeks she spent in Washington.
For instance, she learned about the radiation given off by nuclear reactors and the interaction of radiation with matter. She was surprised by how little plutonium is actually needed to build an effective atomic bomb.
In her limited spare time she enjoyed hiking nearby trails and visiting the local farmers market.
Tran credits Vance with telling her about the nuclear forensics program and encouraging her to apply.
“She heavily encouraged me to use my summer break to explore other areas of chemistry so I could make informed decisions for a specialization in graduate school, since chemistry is an incredibly broad and diverse scientific field,” Tran said. “In addition, nuclear forensics is a field that not very many undergraduate students get to learn about, which is an invaluable opportunity.”
Tran wants to continue her chemistry studies in graduate school, work in a national laboratory and ultimately become a professor herself.