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AKA a world of acronyms

It’s a running joke: politics is a world of acronyms. Just think the Alphabet Agencies of FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. I know that. But dear God, is it a world of acronyms.

I had my first day of meetings at my new job earlier this week – a week early because the meetings were to present the nature of the company to a potential donor, and my boss thought it might be useful for me to sit in and get to know what all the company’s really about. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Well now, I’ve got the following list of acronyms to look up. All these acronyms were thrown around by the other people in the room and never defined (if they were eventually defined, I wrote that down too). Admittedly, this was a room with four experts, the youngest of which has worked in nuclear energy and nuclear policy for three years and spent the nine years before that studying it (she got her BS, MS, and PhD in Nuclear Engineering…). So I shouldn’t be surprised that, after less than a year of interest, I don’t know the world as well as these people who have been immersed in it for 10, 20, 40 years. But it was still a bit overwhelming, and I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of me. Anyway, the list:

  • FLOR
  • NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative)
  • NEI
  • PWC
  • CNTAC
  • ASTM – (American standards something or other)
  • RSSC
  • HTGR
  • EFH
  • EIRP
  • BTI
  • ACORE
  • SMR (Small Modular Reactor)
  • PPA
  • EON (the German one)
  • EON (the American one)
  • AP
  • FONP
  • KSA
  • EA (Environmental Analysis?)
  • EPC
  • DND
  • CBNI
  • API

And then, of course, there were a number of acronyms I already knew:

  • NDA
  • NRC
  • UNSCEAR
  • UNCLOS
  • RFP
  • LWR
  • HWR
  • PWR
  • AP1000
  • And a lot more that I didn’t bother to remember because I, well, I knew them.

Needless to say, I’ve got a lot of googling to do, a lot of learning to take on, and I’m SO excited. Unfortunately, a lot of what I’ll be doing is technical and much of it will be embargoed for significant periods of time, so I won’t be able to write about it here. But don’t worry, I have other things on my plate moving forward (including eggplant!) so I’m sure there will be plenty to write about. Until next time…

Say Hello to Eggplant Week

I got back to Boston on Saturday, and hit Trader Joe’s Sunday morning with only one limitation: I biked, so I could only buy as much food as I could fit in my backpack. Usually, when I go shopping, I’m thinking about the leftovers I have in the fridge, or the half-opened box of pasta that needs to be finished – I typically adjust my purchases based on what I need to finish. But this time, it was just me, my backpack, and an entire store of possibilities.

We already know how much I love produce. I mean, farmers markets are basically my best friends, right? So being back in Boston, where I’ve got access to better produce than that which was available at the Stop’n’Shop in Upland, NY, where I can cull herbs from my baby herb garden on the porch, where I can go to a farmers market just down the street every Saturday… Let’s just say I’m happy to be home.

But back to TJ’s. They had graffiti eggplant for sale, which I’ve never seen before, but they looked cool, and since they’re smaller than regular eggplant, they seemed small enough to work for just one person. So I bought one.

Here’s the thing. I’ve never really liked eggplant.

But I figured I’d try it out. At a total investment of a whopping $0.79, it seemed like a reasonable risk to take.

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In case it isn’t already painfully obvious, I’m now a fan of eggplant. And, in an attempt to experiment with my new favorite mid/late-summer ingredient, I’m dedicating this week to the eggplant. By which I mean I’ll be incorporating eggplant into every dinner I cook for myself this week, and hopefully I’ll end up with a few awesome ways to prepare and consume the strange purple vegetable. And then, since eggplant season is basically now until mid-October, hopefully I’ll have plenty of dishes to whip up as the school year (and my very last semester of undergrad) gets started.

Tonight’s dinner was Eggplant “Bruschetta,” taken off the smittenkitchen site (my favorite of all cooking blogs, incidentally) and was surprisingly simple and filling. It required slicing and baking the eggplant coated in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then they were topped with diced tomatoes, onions, cheese, and some mint from my herb garden.

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(Side note: the cheese was Trader Joe’s Farmhouse English Cheddar with Italian Truffles and was very possibly the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life. Just smooth enough without being too creamy; flavorful enough to go with salami yesterday for lunch but not so overwhelming that it drowned out the tomatoes tonight…basically heaven in block form.)

“Fewer is More”

If I have a mini-passion inspired by my life experiences, its that scientists need to learn to communicate more effectively. We learn all these amazing things about the world around us: in just the past week, scientists have made discoveries as large as ancient ice on Pluto and as small as the existence of pentaquarks.

While images of Pluto are breathtaking and inspirational, a significant amount of discussion has been had in recent days regarding how to justify to the public the importance of visiting the outer edges of our solar system. An entire generation of scientists – the generation of scientists who are making these incredible discoveries today – were inspired to be where they are now by the Apollo explorations of yesteryear. And yet, they have no idea how to convince the general public that the next generation of scientists are being created today by the very same thing: inspirational trips to discover the unknown.

For someone like me, who already knows and loves physics, the announcement of the pentaquarks is even cooler. We know protons and neutrons, which combine to form the nucleus of every atom of every element, consist of three quarks. Scientists have discovered two different particles composed of five quarks each, and though we don’t know what they create, we know they contribute to explaining the Standard Model. Beyond that, who knows what this discovery will mean? Perhaps the next generation of scientists, the kids in classrooms who watched the images New Horizons sent home last week, will figure it out for us.

And herein lies the problem: the current generation of scientists doesn’t know how to talk to the next generation of scientists (or their parents). We barely even know how to talk to ourselves. Regardless of what I decide to study when I move to the next phase of my schooling, I’m absolutely not going to be studying anywhere unless they have courses in science communication. I want to learn how to speak to other scientists, especially scientists in other fields, and explain what I’ve learned. But most importantly, I want to be able to speak to non-scientists. Scientists need to be able to speak to non-scientists.

We can’t just assume that science journalists will do our job for us, because the journalists are easily duped by false science (case in point: the chocolate is good for you study) and the reality is that you can only truly explain what you understand. So if a journalist can understand 50% of the significance of a discovery, then the public will, at best, get 50% of its importance. But if scientists could learn to express the significance themselves, then the public has a better chance of understanding the fundamental beauty of whatever has just been added to the body of human knowledge.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that scientists don’t know what to say, they also don’t know how to say it. The number of times I’ve bitten my tongue to not correct “fewer” or “less” over the past five weeks is innumerable. And its not just to my fellow students; professors, lecturers, and lab techs have all said “less data points support this conclusion than that” or “something has fewer probability.” (Don’t remember which to use? Just remember: your grocery store is probably wrong.)

We have a 1,500 word research report due in a few days, and everyone is stressing because they don’t know how to put their thoughts and understanding down on paper. They’re more worried about the paper than the presentation that will require standing in front of ~20 people, not because they’re comfortable speaking in front of groups, but because they’re terrified of writing a paper.  (For reference, this post in total is 704 words; I wrote it in about 20 minutes.) Now, I’m not saying that I am always grammatically correct, or that I have perfect English. But scientists are the people who have discovered the world, and so many have no way to express it. How many incredible discoveries have been lost to history because the report manuscript was rejected for poor clarity? How many were lost because the research proposal was indecipherable? How much time and energy is wasted because nobody bothered to teach the scientist how to teach the world?

A Typical Day at Nuclear “Camp”

Admittedly, this week is a bit more stressful than the last couple of weeks have been, what with lab report due dates stacking up and a professor who has four days of four hour-long lectures and plans to teach four chapters. But based on the last 18 hours, I thought it might be fun to throw together a daily “schedule” so there isn’t any confusion – this isn’t actually a nuclear summer camp.

6:30am: Wake up. Shower. Eat Breakfast. Pack bag.

7:45am: Leave the dorm. Bike to the classroom (about a 7 min bike ride, so just over a mile, probably). Try to finish reading the chapter you’re about to be taught. (Fail)

8:30am: Lecture starts. (Chapter 11)

12:15pm: Lecture ends. Lunch starts. Homework is assigned. (Due tomorrow, of course.)

12:45pm: Return from eating lunch to work on the homework. (Complete 5 of 7 problems)

2:00pm: Seminar begins.

5:00pm: Seminar ends. Return to dorm.

*Note that approximately 2 days each week, we have a seminar in the afternoon. The remaining 3 afternoons are spent either in lab or touring various facilities on BNL’s campus.

5:30pm: Continue working on lab report. (Started over the weekend, due tomorrow)

6:30pm: Make dinner. Discuss report and associated discussion questions with classmates over dinner.

7:30pm: Return to room. Continue working on lab report.

8:30pm: Finish lab report. Continue research for paper/presentation (due next week).

9:30pm: Stop researching. Return to homework set.

9:55pm: Complete homework. Begin lab prep for tomorrow.

11:00pm: Finish lab prep for tomorrow. Begin reading Chapter 12 (32 pages).

11:45pm: Give up on reading. Brush teeth. Go to bed. Set alarm for 7:00am so chapter 12 can be completed in the morning. (Write blog post…)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be here and I’m ecstatic that I’m learning so much and making connections between previous chemistry classes and my physics classes. I really enjoy the labs because apparently chem lab is just like riding a bike – the techniques might be a bit rusty, but I do in fact remember the basics of pipetting and running a column and even proper acid disposal. But hoooooo boy! is it exhausting. I’ve got two more weeks of using every brain cell in my big head, and then I am taking a well-deserved week off before I go right back to using my brain again. Is this what the real world is like? ‘Cuz if it is, I love it and I hate it at the same time.

Hold!

After almost two years of wanting, I finally got myself a ticket for Matilda the Musical on Broadway and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. (Even though I was literally in the last row of the second balcony … there’s only so much money a college kid can/is willing to spend on a Broadway show, especially with trips to Book of Mormon in Boston and possibly If/Then in SF planned for the relatively near future…)

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The set was as beautiful as the pictures, and the cast was amazing. The show is SO much better with the visuals associated with sitting in the theater than it is just listening to the songs. The actors were fantastic, the choreography was beautiful, the entire show from start to finish was perfect. Well… almost perfect. Almost perfect for any average audience member and more than perfect for a techie like me.

There was a moment, in the middle of the song “Revolting Children” when things went wrong. The sets transition from classroom to living room to bedroom to Ms. Honey’s house to classroom to Ms. Trunchbull’s house to classroom to…to…to… Each time the classroom arrives, nine desks rise up out of the floor, and just as often, the desks sink back down. Except for when they don’t. In the middle of the song, eight of the nine desks dropped down into the ground, and the center desk … didn’t. For a moment, it seemed like that was just the choreography. A group of ten-year old professionals, not a single kid looked surprised, least of all the kid who’s desk wasn’t moving. But then the God mic sounded out: “Hold! Hold please.” Followed by about a second of silence as the kids stopped singing and the orchestra stopped playing and then, “All actors off the stage immediately.”

Never in my life have I seen a group of kids follow directions that quickly. In absolute silence, they were off the nearest wing in about two seconds flat. And, most significantly, either the sound tech muted all the microphones in a hot second or they were all completely silent for the five minutes they were backstage. Because that’s about how long it took for the curtain to come down, the announcement to the audience to be made, the desk to be dropped, and everyone to be ready to go.

The final aspect of the process that absolutely fascinated me was how quickly the kids figured out where they were when they started up again. Professionals through and through, even though they’re all between 8 and 15 years old. When the curtain came up, the lights were back to the previous cue, and the kids walked on immediately and stood where they’d been standing at that light cue. Once they were there, the music started and within about two beats they knew where they were in the music. And within a four count they were all singing and dancing as if they were standing on their sinking desks as normal. I know they know the music inside and out, but that still blew my mind.

And once they started up again, I knew exactly why that hold had to be called and why it had to be called immediately: about four bars after the Hold call, additional actors came onstage doing leaps, axles (a jump/spin combo), and cartwheels right over that desk. Had it been still standing, it would have led to some very confused and possibly injured actors.

The rest of the show finished seamlessly, I laughed some more, I cried some more, and I loved it all. But I will never forget the show I saw on Broadway where I was reminded that even on the biggest scales, with the most professional of professionals, live theater is just that: live. No retakes or post production editing; it’s all about being quick on your feet, making the split second decisions necessary for the safety of all involved, and keeping the audience informed and excited. No matter how many shows I see in my life, I’ll remember this one for that.

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Well, that was cool.

Yesterday, we took a day trip into NYC to visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer research center for what was actually a phenomenally interesting tour. It started with a bunch of presentations by various program heads about their particular research, including recent/ongoing projects as well as historical accomplishments. (Side note: one thing that is fabulous about this program, which I think most people don’t realize, is the fact that the important people themselves are giving us our tours. When we visited Stony Brook University, it was the head of the Chem department, not some grad student, who showed us around. I’ll talk a bit more about who, what, where going forward, but it blows my mind every time someone gets introduced to us. It is increasingly clear to me that this program isn’t just about providing an interesting educational opportunity for students potentially interested in nuclear and radiochemistry; it really is about finding for each of us the subset of nuclear/radio-/isotopic chemistry that fascinates us and giving us all the connections we need to really get into the field.)

At MSK, the head of radiological research came to talk to us; the director of the cyclotron took us around and answered all our questions; the head researcher brought us into the small animal lab and showed us every single imaging machine (even the brand new C-13 magnetic imager that hasn’t even been used in more than a dozen experiments yet).

On the one hand, MSK wasn’t all that exciting for me, because I’m not interested in cancer research. Nearly everything we got told about was the application of radioisotopes to diagnostic imaging and cancer treatments. That said, the tour of the cyclotron and the isotope production labs was awesome. This is where nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, radiochemistry, and organic chemistry have all come together to create an incredible process. Radioactive nuclides are created in their cyclotron – mostly F-18 from enriched O-18 water. (Water with O-18, which is stable but rare, instead of the normally occurring O-16.) F-18 is used in a half dozen commonly used tracers, which are used by oncologists to find and track the growth of cancerous tumors in various imaging modalities. (PET, MR, etc.) Once the nuclide is produced, it gets sent to hot cubes, which are basically lead lined 3’x3′ hoods where the radioactive nuclide is isolated and the organic chemistry gets done to put the nuclide into the molecule. The thing is, since they’re so hot (radioactivity, not temperature), most of this work is done using robotics where possible or by operators controlling robotic arms. Once the molecule is made, it gets tested in quality control and then sent upstairs to the hospital and used. They’re currently working on obtaining FDA approval to make a certain F-18 compound that is used in approximately 50 images daily at MSK alone – once they have that approval, they anticipate making the compound and selling it to hospitals around NYC and up the eastern seaboard. The combination of research and business all to find, diagnose, and cure cancer is truly incredible. (MSK runs an annual profit upwards of $2b…) So I guess, while the actual medical application wasn’t all that interesting, the technology that underlies all of it (literally – the cyclotron and accompanying labs are all in the basement) was fascinating.

It was also amazing to recognize how much we’ve learned in just two weeks. I can only assume that a relatively constant level of complexity was maintained throughout their presentations, but when the presentation was about specific biological uptakes in cancer cells or the mechanisms of cancer in the (human or mouse) body, I had no idea what they were saying. BUT, when they talked about the processes of producing isotopes and using them to tag organic compounds, it felt like they were talking below us. Even though its only been a couple of weeks, I’ve got a pretty solid understanding of a wide base of nuclear and radiochemistry. I can’t wait for what the other three weeks of classes will hold.

Wait, Kathy! I thought this was a six week program? But only five weeks of classes? Huh?

This week – Week 3 – is all tours and experiences and guest lectures. First of all, Friday is July 3, which is a national holiday, so no class on Friday. Yesterday, we went to MSK. Today, we had two guest lectures given by two scientists who have worked here for 30+ years each. They are senior scientists working on the linear accelerator (BLIP – Brookhaven LINAC Isotope Producer) and the cyclotrons (technically, there are three…) They each talked about their respective machines: their histories, their construction, their functions, and the research they are currently being used for. This afternoon, we’ll be going on a tour of them. Unfortunately, BLIP is currently running, which means we’ll only get to see the outside and the control room, but if its anything like the time I toured ATLAS, it’ll still be really cool. And then we get to see the cyclotron too! Tomorrow, we’re heading out to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant for a tour of that, which may very well be the one thing I was most excited when we got our six-week schedule on Day 1. Then, on Thursday, we’ve got a lecture from two professors at the University of Notre Dame about nuclear forensics; I know the same process can be used in geological dating, anthropological dating (mostly on ancient ceramics), crime analysis (for example, gunshot residue differs from one shot to the next) and “detonation materials” (bombs – you can tell who supplied the material based on its fingerprint). I’m excited about that one too, since a lot of these techniques, and the research into facilitating faster forensic analysis, is being used and funded by the IAEA.  And then next week we get back into hardcore classes with a professor from UNLV (I think…)

As we go into week three, I’m experiencing the 18-ish-day slump (whereby I get tired of being wherever I am somewhere in the middle of the third week). I’m a bit tired of living in a dorm again; tired of having to carry my shampoo to the shower every day and of having to carry my food from the mini-fridge in my room to the stovetop/microwave downstairs in the kitchen. As much as I love the people here with me, spending basically all day every day with them has made me a bit tired of them – some act young, some act out, sometimes I just want my space and my porch and my friends from school, or my farmer’s market and my street and my family. But I know it’ll pass; I’ve retreated into a book and I’m sure by the time I finish it I’ll be ready for another three weeks with ’em all.

For now, I’ve got a lab report and some research to finish up, not to mention a couple tours to go catch. More to come, I promise (I might even get around to our various trips into NYC on the weekends for fun…)

Bookshelves

I’ve always felt like bookshelves say something about their owners. The various English teachers for whom I’ve babysat always had bookshelves filled with classics; friends who are “closeted history buffs” almost always have a shelf or two devoted to historical fiction and historical non-fiction; many of my scienc-y friends have (no longer) surprising quantities of fantasy on their shelves.

I distinctly remember visiting a family friend about a week after they’d moved. Very little was unpacked – a few boxes of clothes, about half the kitchen, a box labeled “bathroom” half empty in the hall. The bookshelves were empty save three books – one she was clearly reading, one that was obviously his, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Now it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure that one out, but they were nonetheless surprised when they told me a few months later and I said “I know.” Even an almost-empty bookshelf says something about its owner.

But I’ve felt for the past few years that my bookshelf didn’t say much about me. I fly across the country and essentially displace myself and my life four or more times every year, and I have for the last four years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my choice to live on the East coast, but it does make having a personal library a bit more difficult. All through college, I’ve felt like my bookshelf was nothing more than evidence of that semester’s (or that year’s) courses. More than half of my shelf was usually textbook, or books required for classes. Sure, there have always been a few books that were there for fun, but they never meant much – they were there for convenience, or because I happened to be reading one the last time I got on a plane.

Today, my book collection is, naturally, limited since I’ll be in this location for exactly six weeks and one day. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t help but think it does say something about me.

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I’ve got two nuclear textbooks. (One chemistry, one physics) I’ve got a lab notebook and a chart of the nuclides handbook and the June edition of National Geographic. I’ve got a math book (Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem) and two policy books – Arguments that Count (about missile defense systems) and The Politics of Nuclear Energy (I think you can figure that one out…) To round it out, there are two books for fun – the beautiful and thought-invoking Invisible Cities and the somewhat horrifying House of Leaves.

I glanced at my bookshelf this morning, looking for my notebook, and something hit me. It was as if I was looking at someone else’s bookshelf. I read the person to whom it belonged as easily as I read the pregnant-but-not-sharing-yet-couple’s bookshelf years ago. This person was obviously passionate about nuclear science and nuclear energy, with a bit of time – but maybe not as much as they’d like – to read something else as well.

I glanced at my bookshelf and I realized who I am. Until this morning, I thought of nuclear energy as maybe just another phase. Like all my other passions, I’ve spent the last six months or so expecting to grow out of it. But the reality is that the more I learn and the more I study, the more questions I have and the more desperately I want their answers. The more I hear about where the reality of nuclear energy is, the more I want to fix the problems, and the more I worry that I’m a naive twenty-two year old with impractical hopes, the more I realize that my hopes aren’t that far off from the experts’.

I glanced at my bookshelf and I think I’ve found my future.

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