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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-being of people all over the world. One of the most pressing areas in which these fields are being called into play is in national security. According to "Readiness of the U.S. Nuclear Workforce for 21st Century Challenges," a report of an American Physical Society panel released in June, people trained specifically in chemistry are needed not only for "processing both fresh and spent fuel for nuclear reactors," but also for "the nation's security and health in the following cross-cutting roles: nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, nuclear forensics and surveillance of clandestine nuclear activities, monitoring of radioactive elements in the environment, production of radioisotopes, and preparation of radiopharmaceuticals for therapeutic and diagnostic medical applications."

"Everyone needs to know something about nuclear issues, particularly at a time when threats of dirty bombs, discussions about expanding the role of nuclear power, and concerns about transporting nuclear material across our borders are in the news," says Sherry J. Yennello, professor of radiochemistry at Texas A&M University. "Nuclear methods are becoming more embedded in our medical industry, and food irradiation is becoming more common.

"This means that nuclear chemistry ought to be in every general chemistry course that is taught in college and high school," Yennello says. "For that to happen there needs to be people who know enough to teach the material. We need to have nuclear chemistry faculty who can teach and develop curricula so others can teach our education majors, future policymakers, and everyone who will be affected," she says.

THE NUMBER of people pursuing advanced education in nuclear and radiochemistry is tiny, despite the great need. This is not surprising, given that the most recently launched nuclear power plant in the U.S. started operations more than 30 years ago, though recent talk about a resurgence in nuclear power could turn the tables. The present shortfall might also stem from public relations and outreach problems because so many people seem to be turned off by the terms "nuclear" and "radioactive."

Shrinkage of the ranks is exacerbated when nuclear chemistry faculty who retire are replaced with chemistry faculty in other disciplines, areas such as nanotechnology and materials science, that are seen as less mature. In addition, nuclear and radiochemistry are considered expendable in the current chemistry curriculum, even the curriculum mandated for an American Chemical Society-approved bachelor's degree.

"Nuclear chemistry ought to be in every general chemistry course that is taught in college and high school."

"The field was thriving 40 years ago," says Steven W. Yates, chemistry department chair and the sole radiochemist at the University of Kentucky. When he started his professional career in 1967, "40 or 50 universities had vibrant nuclear and radiochemistry programs, each with multiple faculty in the area. Today, only a handful of programs could be described this way, and the number of graduates emerging is small," he says.

Although the downward trend in nuclear chemistry Ph.D. production is clear, the actual numbers of Ph.D.s produced are hard to pin down because people who study nuclear chemistry frequently get their Ph.D.s in other areas. The National Science Foundation stopped collecting data on Ph.D.s in nuclear chemistry when the annual number fell below four in 2004, and the agency never collected data on radiochemistry as a separate entity.

An analysis of the 2007 online edition of the "ACS Directory of Graduate Research," the most recent one available, shows that only 22 universities in the U.S. offer nuclear chemistry education at any level. Excluding emeritus and retired faculty, there are currently 39 faculty in nuclear chemistry in the U.S. Many of these educators, on whom the future of the field depends, are near or past retirement age. They are on average more than 60 years of age—10 years older than their peers in other chemical sciences areas.

Michigan State University is one of the few "survivors" in nuclear chemistry, with three active nuclear and radiochemistry faculty members and eight current Ph.D. students. "We have managed with strong support from the university administration, including the chemistry department, and the location of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory on campus," says Paul F. Mantica, a radiochemistry professor there. He tells C&EN that over the past 10 years, eight nuclear chemistry Ph.D.s have graduated from Michigan State.

So Few Nuclear chemistry Ph.D.s in the U.S. have been on a 30-year slide
SOURCE: National Science Foundation
Aging Cohort Many nuclear chemistry faculty are at or past retirement age
SOURCE: "ACS Directory of Graduate Research" 2007 online edition

At Washington State University, Sue Clark has built a vigorous program that now has four tenured or tenure-track faculty members working in this area. "We also expect to fill another tenure-track position in this area next year," she says. According to Clark, the university focuses on fundamental nuclear chemistry, as opposed to the applications and engineering side of the field. By the end of this year, Washington State will have graduated 17 Ph.D.s in nuclear chemistry during the past 10 years, and 20 students are currently seeking a Ph.D. there. "We expect six to eight to graduate in the next three years with a Ph.D., and we hope to maintain an incoming graduate student number of 10 new students each year," Clark says.

IN THE PAST 10 YEARS, Texas A&M, which hosts another surviving nuclear chemistry program, has graduated seven Ph.D.s, Yennello says. Currently, four faculty members direct nine graduate students in the program.

Darleane C. Hoffman, professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, says her university has graduated 19 Ph.D.s in nuclear chemistry in the past 10 years. She believes that the annual production of two Ph.D.s will hold steady in the foreseeable future. "Although relatively healthy now, I would call our program fragile. We need to hire a new professor as soon as possible, as we have two out of our three faculty at retirement age," she says.

Hoffman believes the "crisis situation is beginning to turn around" and a few universities have appointed new professors with expertise in nuclear and radiochemistry. One such program is at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Ken Czerwinski, director of the radiochemistry program that he started there in 2004, tells C&EN that the program just graduated its first Ph.D. The program has three faculty and about 20 students.

Within the next several years, Czerwinski believes six to 10 students will get their degrees. The program at UNLV is substantially funded through Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) 2003 earmark aimed at the study of the treatment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Czerwinski says the faculty in his program work with those in other areas, particularly inorganic chemistry, synthetic chemistry, electrochemistry, and detection. "We also develop programs with national laboratories," he says.

Courtesy of Moses Lee
Rare researcher Nicholas Smith, a graduate student at UNLV, uses ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy to monitor concentrations and determine speciation in the advanced fuel cycle.

The University of Missouri, Columbia, has produced 22 Ph.D.s in radiochemistry over the past 10 years, according to Silvia S. Jurisson, a chemistry professor there. "We currently have 15 graduate students in radiochemistry working with three active faculty in chemistry," she says. "We have radiochemistry/radiopharmaceutical chemistry faculty in other departments who train graduate students and postdocs, as well, but their degrees will not necessarily be in chemistry."

Similarly, at Washington University in St. Louis, "many students do nuclear/radiochemistry as the major component of their Ph.D. research, but they receive their degrees in other disciplines, such as inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry," says Carolyn J. Anderson, a nuclear chemistry professor there. Anderson's Ph.D. is in inorganic chemistry.

Anderson tells C&EN that Washington University has graduated five Ph.D.s in nuclear chemistry in the past 10 years, "and about five more if you consider closely related fields." She emphasizes overlap with the related fields of organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry, as well as nuclear physics. "This is actually both the strength and weakness of nuclear and radiochemistry," she points out. "The overlaps are so diffuse that it is hard to both count and assess the strength of the field," she says. Nonetheless, four active faculty work in the area. And Anderson says applied nuclear chemistry at Washington University is very healthy.

One program that has helped attract students into the field is the ACS Division of Nuclear Chemistry & Technology (DNCT) Summer School in Nuclear & Radiochemistry. Washington University's Anderson, for one, got her start in the field through that program and highly recommends it to undergraduates. The summer school is held annually at two locations, one at San José State University and one at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). The program has been running for 25 years and has played an important role in helping the discipline survive.

At the recent ACS national meeting in Philadelphia, students, teachers, and others celebrated the summer school's history with a daylong symposium. Since the beginning, the summer school has been operated under the auspices of DNCT with funding from the Department of Energy. Michigan State's Mantica is the national director of the program, which has been funded by DOE for all of its 25 years.

Lester Morss is the program manager for heavy element chemistry within DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, which provides most of the approximately $500,000 per year to fund the summer school. Morss says the program furthers DOE's mission and the nation's needs, "focusing on fundamentals of nuclear science and going into chemical areas, in particular actinide chemistry, nuclear medicine, environmental, and radiopharmaceutical areas."

U Missouri Research Reactor
Deep Blue The University of Missouri Research Reactor Center is a world-class facility for neutron activation analysis, neutron scattering, and neutron capture/irradiation.

The summer school provides six weeks of intensive study, housing, transportation, and meals plus a stipend of $3,600. Each site hosts 12 students per year. Up to seven student credit hours can be earned at San José State, and BNL students can receive up to six college credits through its management partner, the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Mantica explains that lectures typically run five days per week. Students are expected to complete an extensive laboratory sequence. Each student also completes radiation safety training at the start of the summer school. The curriculum is enhanced with a guest lecture series, as well as several one-day symposia and organized field trips to nuclear-related research and applied science laboratories. "This enrichment affords an opportunity for students to see the broader impacts of nuclear science in today's world and to experience some of the future challenges through formal and informal discussions with leaders in the diverse fields represented by nuclear chemistry and technology," Mantica says.

Whether this kind of exposure is sufficient for resurrecting the field remains to be seen.

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Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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