STEM undergraduates help improve radiological detection and response

Molly Wolfson and Sydney Shuk

In the U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Program, undergraduates Molly Wolfson (left) and Sydney Shuk conducted research on radiation to improve detection and response. A highlight of the internship for both participants was visiting the historical Nevada National Security Site (above) where nuclear testing took place from 1951 to 1992.

Clad in white HazMat suits, several individuals gather around an action plan drawn with dry-erase marker seconds before. The radiation detection devices in their hands suggest a sense of urgency: in this simulated event, the team is responding to a mock nuclear terrorist threat, and learning how to minimize radiation exposure is critically important. Their health, and lives, may one day depend on it.

Sydney Shuk, a senior in microbiology at the University of Michigan, and Molly Wolfson, a junior in physics and mathematics from the University of Chicago, spent last summer in Las Vegas, Nevada, participating in training sessions like the one above and conducting research to ensure both the general public and emergency responders stay safe from radioactive contamination.

As participants in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program, Shuk interned at the Counterterrorism Operations Support (CTOS) Center for Radiological/Nuclear Training, and Wolfson interned at the Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) on Nellis Air Force Base. Both CTOS and RSL are managed and operated by National Security Technologies, LLC, which also manages and operates the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).

The DHS HS-STEM Program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the United States.

Every year, the CTOS Center for Radiological/Nuclear Training prepares thousands of first responders such as public health officials, law enforcement and fire crews for their roles in preventing or responding to the deployment of radiological or nuclear materials. The center offers numerous training courses on radiological/nuclear awareness, radiation detection and nuclear response strategy. Attending these courses was a highlight of Shuk’s summer, and by the end of the summer she had successfully supported the development of an additional training course.

“Experiencing a simulated radiological event and seeing what it would be like to be a first responder was life-changing,” said Shuk, who envisions becoming an epidemiologist focused on infectious diseases and bio-weapon pathogens. “I am now relatively certain I would like to act as a secondary responder for biological incidents.”

Shuk’s time at the CTOS Center provided her the unique opportunity to help bridge the gap between biological and radiological workers.

“I often hear radiation specialists talk of their fears of biological threats, and the biological specialists talk of their fears of radiological threats, but now I feel I can be the go-between for the two groups so we can all work together to find a common solution,” said Shuk, who researched under the mentorship of senior project manager Donald Van Etten.

While Shuk collected these insights on radioactive contamination control, Wolfson conducted research on a tool that could be used by first responders to detect and differentiate between gamma and neutron radiation. These are two of the most powerful forms of radiation and are of serious concern to DHS. Gamma radiation can penetrate wood and aluminum; neutron radiation can penetrate lead and iron, but can be blocked by hydrogen-containing materials like concrete or water.

Specifically, Wolfson helped characterize a type of sensor called a Cesium Lithium Yttrium Chloride (CLYC) detector. The CLYC sensor is incorporated into a handheld device that is gaining popularity as a possible replacement to currently utilized detector systems, which rely on elements like sodium iodide and helium-3 to detect radioactive material.

By the end of the summer, Wolfson confirmed that the CLYC detector can differentiate between gamma and neutron radiation. In addition, its elements—lithium and chlorine—facilitate neutron spectroscopy, a factor that allows for discrimination between different types of neutron sources.

“My research should help radiation techs conduct more efficient radiation scans,” said Wolfson, who was mentored by senior principal scientist Eric Wagner, Ph.D. “This, in turn, could lead to safer spaces for the American public.”

While both participants primarily researched independently, they shared lunch hours, breaktime strolls and field trips with other employees and interns from across the United States. Shuk and Wolfson particularly enjoyed this social, educational component of the program and the opportunity to visit historical federal facilities.

“I met so many different, interesting people during my time in Las Vegas, and it was amazing to visit the NNSS where so much groundbreaking research and discovery have taken place,” said Wolfson, who is now considering a doctorate degree in nuclear physics. “I ended up having a completely worthwhile and eye-opening experience in the DHS HS-STEM Program, and I would certainly recommend the program to others.”

Shuk agreed. “Overall, I had a wonderful experience. The people I worked with were extremely friendly and very knowledgeable,” she said. “I would highly recommend the program to others, as it gives participants chances to visit places and engage in projects that only a few get to experience in their lifetime.”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.