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September 8, 2008
Volume 86, Number 36
pp. 68-70

Staying Alive

Despite a three-decade decline, a few universities keep nuclear and radiochemistry going

Linda Raber

CONSIDERING THEIR SMALL subdiscipline ranking among the chemical sciences, nuclear and radiochemistry have always made outsized contributions. Nevertheless, a steady 30-year decline has left annual Ph.D. production in the U.S. in these fields to fewer than 10 Ph.D.s. Because so few retirees are being replaced with faculty in the same area, the survival of the fields is in the hands of a dedicated cadre of faculty at a half dozen or so universities.

In medicine alone, nuclear and radiochemists have helped to revolutionize imaging, pharmaceuticals, and cancer treatment (see page 13). These same scientists have unlocked the mysteries of the solar neutrino and given the world carbon dating and numerous other analytical techniques. Nuclear chemists have expanded the periodic table of the elements, identifying plutonium and subsequently all the transuranium elements.

Brookhaven National Laboratory
Counting On Them Students at work in the counting laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory during summer 2006. From left, John Freidrich (Minnesota State University, Mankato), Carolyn Bauer (State University of New York, Oneonta), and Noah Grant (University of California, Berkeley).

Strictly speaking, radiochemistry is the study of radioactive elements using chemical techniques, whereas nuclear chemistry is the study of the fundamental properties of atomic nuclei using chemical techniques. These days, however, the terms are used almost interchangeably.

The fields are vital to the well-