Transcript of Todd S. Palmer, Ph.D
How OSU Grew Nuclear Science 50th Anniversary of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Graduate (NERHP) Program
LaSells Stewart Center OSU
Corvallis, Oregon on October 11, 2009
50 minute transcript edited for clarity by narrator
Ty Volin (TV): Interviewer, History and Education Senior.
Dr. Todd S. Palmer (TSP) Narrator, B.S. Nuclear Engineering (1983), Oregon State University; M.S. Nuclear Engineering (1989), Ph.D. Nuclear Engineering and Scientific Computing (1993), University of Michigan. Fields of interest: numerical techniques for particle transport and diffusion, computational fluid dynamics, reactor physics, general numerical methods, nuclear criticality safety, Monte Carlo methods, transport in stochastic mixtures. Physicist, Defense Sciences, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (1991-1994). Consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Siemens Nuclear Power Corporation. Member, American Nuclear Society. Lloyd Carter College of Engineering Teaching Award (2001). Research funding from Department of Energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory-West, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Portland General Electric, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At Oregon State University since 1995.
This is Ty Volin. I’m here at LaSells Stewart Center on the campus of Oregon State University. It is October 11, 2009, and I’ll be interviewing Mr. Todd Palmer, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Radiation Health Physics department.
TV So the first kind of broad kind of question I have is kind of about your background and where you grew up.
TSP Oh yeah, sure. So I was born in Salem. I spent most of my formative years growing up in and around north, northern Oregon and southwest, southwestern Washington, mostly Hillsboro, Oregon and I spent some time in West Union. My dad worked for Alberston’s so we moved a little bit with the company, up in Chehalis, Washington. So yeah, I grew up, would’ve graduated from high school in Hillsboro, Oregon but we moved to Omaha, Nebraska when I was a junior. I graduated there and I came back to Oregon State and did my undergraduate degree here in this department 83-87. And from there I went to Michigan for graduate school, University of Michigan, spent four years in Michigan then moved to Livermore, California where I worked at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. I was there for four years and then I joined the faculty here in 1995.
TV Yeah, so what exactly is it that drew you to nuclear engineering and sciences?
TSP That’s a pretty good story. It’s not a, not a typical story probably. So I definitely had an aptitude when I was growing up for math and science but I was also very interested in music and literature, so when I was in high school especially in Omaha, I was really kind of conflicted about what to do after I was done because I could have gone sort of maybe you know the traditional engineering or science fields or—I’m a guitar player so I was very, very drawn to music and was thinking about doing music and literature, but I hated Omaha. Absolutely hated it and wanted out very badly, had a great physics teacher when I was a senior and he actually got to the back of a textbook, physics textbook, where they talk about nuclear power, nuclear science. Did a little research toward the end of my senior year and realized that they had a program here at Oregon State in nuclear engineering and they didn’t have anything remotely like that in Nebraska, so I got out.
TV So being from the area, that’s why you chose to come back?
TSP Yeah, I wanted to come back to Oregon big time, back to Oregon and I knew I could, you know it was math and science and it was interesting and a little bit of a, you know there’s still, and this is still true today, there’s still a little of that you know that rocket science sort of ooh wow kind of thing when you tell people you’re a nuclear engineer.
TV Yeah, there’s a mystique to it as well.
TSP Yeah, yeah a little bit of a, you know people don’t, people don’t really understand what it is and so maybe they’re a little bit more impressed than they probably should be. What I tell people is it’s like any other technical degree, it’s a living you know, it’s fun. I like it.
TSP You know electrical engineers have harder jobs than I do you know sometimes so whatever. So that’s why I came back.
TV I get it, so why did you choose to go back across to Michigan for your Masters and your Ph.D.?
TSP Yeah, so and this is also something that students ask me a lot in my role as a professor. What I knew for sure when I was done here after four years was that I didn’t know enough yet. I knew that I really liked what I was doing but I knew that I had only scratched the surface and at the time in ‘87, our graduate program was not particularly big and I didn’t know anything about it and the faculty here at the time were talking to a couple of us about you know considering graduate school and they didn’t really try to keep us. I mean they really, I think Oregon State at the time was really focused on undergraduate degrees. I applied to a couple of different places, but I didn’t even apply to Oregon State. It’s mostly because no one told me anything about the grad program, didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know there was any research going on, really you know no information and I thought it would be good to go some place else because it would broaden me. And I still believe that’s good for students; that kind of restarting things and having to prove themselves over again is a good thing for students to have to do, they tend to step up and do more, do better if they do that. So yeah, that’s why.
TV So what projects in particular did you work on when you were doing your secondary as far as your Masters, your Ph.D.?
TSP Okay, I didn’t, so my area of expertise is computational methods, numerical methods. I do a lot of simulation and in particular you know solving equations that are specific to our field and so I didn’t do a Masters thesis at Michigan, I did a Masters just with coursework. So really I just took a lot of classes and passed my qualifying exam, got my Masters thesis along the way, my Masters degree along the way. Then when I got to into the Ph.D. program I started really getting focused on problems involving thermal radiative transfer. So this is where do high energy x-rays go in certain systems and it’s applicable to inertial confinement fusion systems and also to weapons work. But my focus was on how do I solve these equations fast and accurately, so part of me really studied those things. And by the way, I don’t know how detailed you want me to be on these. Do you want me to be very technically detailed…
TV You don’t have to be very, if you are, something that I wouldn’t think they would be able to understand, I’ll ask you to clarify.
TV And we have a sheet of some technical terms and things like that.
TV Can you just describe for us the kind of things you did when you were done with school as far as your work after the University of Michigan, at like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories as you worked, from 91?
TSP Yes, in fact I had been going out to Livermore every summer as a grad student, I left in May and I’d come back in late August and I’d spend the summer working on stuff at the lab and in 91, I just stayed there. I was a candidate for my Ph.D. and I didn’t have any more classes to take and they were going to let me just stay and work on my dissertation so I stuck around for the next four years. I was, I finished my Ph.D. in 93, spent two years as a student at the Lab and two years after that where I was a staff member. And mostly what I was working on was software for the simulation of nuclear weapons and in particular, the secondary side of the weapons so the hydrogen bomb part of it, so the fusion part of the device and it was great fun, I really liked it. The problem, a very complicated, very hard problem, requires a great deal of detailed and difficult simulation. So yeah, I really enjoyed it. I mean we had these big computers to work on and had great smart people to talk to and they mentored me a lot, they brought me up you know it was quite fun, quite fun.
TV Now Linda told me you had worked with a graduate student who is working on a way to detect a somehow a nuclear power plant had been used to create weapons-grade plutonium.
TSP Something like that, yeah, she’s not too far away from what we’ve been working on, it’s kind of a strange concept but there are these subatomic particles called antineutrinos, which are—first of all, I don’t know your background, so you know if I’m.
TV No, go ahead. You’re fine.
TSP Okay fair enough. When an atom, an unstable atom decays by emitting a beta particle, which is an electron from the nucleus, it shares the energy of the emission with an antineutrino and so there is a spectrum of, the antineutrinos are emitted in different energy spectrums, spectra I should say—Hi.
THIRD PARY I don’t mean to interrupt, I just going to take some pictures.
TSP Oh yeah go ahead. Okay sure. The betas come from the fission products, they’re associated with the fissioning of uranium or plutonium and it turns out the fission products are slightly different from plutonium than they are from uranium and that means the energy spectra of the antineutrinos that are emitted are slightly different. So if you have a detector that can detect an antineutrino or a certain number of antineutrinos and their energy, then you can try to tell how much of the fuel in the reactor at any given point in time is uranium or plutonium, so you can monitor the way the reactor has been used. You can also look at—the number of these antineutrinos will tell you something about the power level in the reactors so you can tell if people are changing the power up and down and yeah, I had this student, Alex Misner, who worked on this for his Ph.D. and his goal was to predict the source term of these antineutrinos as reactors were sort of operated in different and perhaps in nefarious ways to try to make things that you weren’t supposed to make or something like that. It’s pretty fun.
TV Yeah, it sounds very interesting.
TSP I just got funding to follow that up over the next two years with a couple of other graduate students.
TV Oh really? That’s exciting.
TSP Yeah, that’s cool.
TV So that’s progressing forward?
TSP Yep. Yep, they’re working on other detector designs and we’re now looking at simulating a variety of different types of reactors. We just looked at one very common reactor with Alex Misner’s Ph.D. but now we’re looking at several other different types of reactors.
TV And the research will be done on campus at Oregon State?
TSP Yep, for the next couple of years.
TV That’s very good.
TSP It’s funded by the Department of Energy’s nonproliferation division.
TV So what is it kind of brought you back to Oregon State in 1995?
TSP Yeah, so –
TV An instructor.
TSP So—Hi Shirley. How’s it going?
TSP Hi Shirley anyway.
TSP They can edit anyway.
TV Yeah, we’re going to have a transcript.
TSP Besides, I want them to know I’m friendly with you.
TSP Get that on record!
TSP Yeah, Shirley Campbell is here, I really like her. She’s awesome. So anyway, so when I was a student here I met my wife—my ex-wife now, but I met my wife in the dorms. She’s from Oregon and I’m from Oregon. We had our first child in Ann Arbor when we were grad students and we always wanted to get back here, I mean this is where we’re both from and there aren’t a lot of nuclear jobs in the state and when I was a student here I’d come back over the summer, I used to work in Portland area as a beer distributor. Basically I’d just drive beer out to stores and put it away and stuff when I was an undergrad. And I’d come back every once in a while and I’d stop in to the department and I’d hassle the secretaries and I’d talk to them a little bit and I boldly predicted that I’d come back and take the department head’s job here, as an undergrad. I told them, I’m coming back and I’m having that guy’s job. So the woman’s name, Dana—Dana Kramer was her name. She was wonderful and she’s still around. She’ll probably be at this thing this weekend, she’s great. Anyway, Dana just always kept track of me when I was in Michigan and then when I was at Livermore. And I’d come back every once in a while because I really liked the place. So, I had just bought a house in 1994 in Livermore, owned it six months, got a call from the department head at the time, actually he wasn’t the department head, Andy Klein called me, who’s on the faculty here still and said you know we had already hired this woman, Mary Kulis to do sort of the reactor physics and neutronics and the stuff I like to do, we’d hired her to take that job, she was going to be, she was going to replace Alan Robinson, who was on our faculty at the time and did that work. He was going to retire. Well, Mary decided she didn’t really want to do that job anymore, she decided she wanted to start a family and do that.
And they said we really want to talk to you about coming out and interviewing and you know it was terrible timing, I just bought this house, my wife at the time had just gotten a promotion at her job so we chatted about it and decided well you know we’ll go take a look you know and I mean it really, it just suits me you know, this place is, it’s suits me very, very well. And I’ve been here ever since. Since 95.
TV Great. So how about the change in public perception of nuclear energy and the use of nuclear things over time, how’s that affected you or your research or your work at all or your interaction with people in public, especially when you tell them that you’re a nuclear engineer?
TSP Yeah, well what’s really, what’s sort of humorous is so, I’ll get into the answer to that question but I’ll say first, my brother who lives up in Hillsboro is a director of Shakespearean plays. He’s a very different kind of, he’s a great guy and we’re very tight but he’s totally on the other end of the spectrum for me in terms of his career. When he introduces me to people, he says this is my brother, he builds nuclear weapons or he’s a baby killer or you know things like this, and he’s making a joke and it’s usually quite funny but you know there is this perception that when I left Michigan and joined the staff at Livermore that I had kind of gone to this dark side where I was supporting the development of nuclear weapons and there’s definitely a big, I don’t know, schism in terms of the public acceptance even of weapons, right? There’s some very staunch anti-nuclear people in terms of we don’t want weapons at all. There are some people who are saying you know these weapons are very important, they protected us against massive war for years so you know I came into the field, my first real job, dealing with that. How do you reconcile you know your desire to help your country or your desire to do something technically rewarding with this public perception that you’re, you know, you’re a bad person because you’re making weapons of mass destruction. And so I dealt with that mostly by realizing, maybe it’s a rationalization, but the truth is I was born into a world with nuclear weapons and my feeling is, while I would never want us to use one of those, they exist. And it’s in our best interest to take that, take the responsibility of their care and their maintenance very, very seriously and get good people to understand how they work so that they don’t just go off when you don’t want them to. So that’s how I dealt with that initially and of course over time, that really hasn’t changed, you know the people, there’s definitely anti-nuclear people in terms of weapons and there’s not as many people who are on the “we think nuclear weapons are important” side. But then what’s interesting is that then I made the transition from the weapons world to academia where most of what I work on is energy. And you know a lot of people don’t understand the disconnect between those two things and that’s been a huge thing over time, still happens, still you know still a misperception that a nuclear engineer either builds weapons or you know or is a Homer Simpson like automaton that pushes buttons at the nuclear power plant. So few of our graduates actually do either one of those things, it’s you know, there’s so much other stuff they can do but specifically the change in public perception, I’ve seen that change drastically since I came into the program because you know I became a student here at Oregon State in 83 and that was not long after Three Mile Island and it wasn’t too long, I was right between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island was tough on you know the students entering the field, I mean some pretty significant harm was done to the public perception of the industry in the country. I didn’t have, I wasn’t in a huge class of students. And then Chernobyl happened and that actually, I didn’t really notice a whole lot of change domestically because of Chernobyl, not a lot. I mean, we did have to sort of explain that that type of accident was not really possible in the United States because of the difference of design and operation of our plants and all that stuff. So that required some effort on our part to deal with potential public relations problems but then through the last five, ten years, it’s been very interesting. It’s definitely a waste question people are very interested in and the other thing that’s changed perception is the global warming, gas emissions, and my understanding is at this point you know public perception of nuclear is a lot more positive than it has been probably anytime in the last twenty years. I don’t spend a lot of time surveying people’s attitudes about these things but what I do find is that the number of people interested in asking me questions about it who have clearly a more positive perception of the field has increased so students, their parents, even folks who are not going into our majors – just other technical people, other young people – seem to have a much more positive impression of our field and of the technology than they did ten fifteen years ago. A very long-winded answer to your question.
TV No, no, very good.
TV Everything, I’m happy to hear it. So what are you teaching as far as your instructions here at OSU?
TSP Yeah, so I teach a variety of different things. I teach the freshman class, I’m teaching that right now, so that’s about 50 kids in that class, it’s the first thing they see when they come to campus in our major and you know, so it’s an intro class and what we do with that is nuclear history, go over that, and we do a design project. We do something technical with it so that they feel connected to their major a little bit. I teach Reactor Physics or you can call it Neutronic Analysis and Laboratory. I don’t teach the lab actually, mostly the theory and computation involved with where are the neutrons in a reactor. I teach General Numerical Methods so how to solve different types of equations, Transport Theory. It’s all sort of similar. Criticality Safety, and did I forget anything? I may, I may be part of a class in the spring on radiative heat transfer, which is a mechanical engineering graduate course but they haven’t taught it in four years and it’s real important for some of our students who are involved in a very high temperature reactor project. It’s also real important for a lot of mechanical engineers in terms of boilers, other coal plants and stuff like that.
TV So also as part of my research, I noticed that you’re on the list as co-inventor for the stable start system for nuclear reactor.
TV And I was just curious as to your work that you put into that and if you’re involved with the nuclear reactor program.
TSP So yeah the history there is you know there was an interest in trying to come up with a, with packaging some intellectual property that could form the basis of a request for money from venture capitalists. And you know, I’m not terribly involved in this to be honest but they needed some simulations performed of how a reactor would behave after shutdown and I can do that. I had a piece of software I could use to look at the, how the power would decrease over time, you know what happens when you start a reactor up and shut it down just in terms of how the power changes and so I provided those simulations to some other folks who then looked at that system and how it would behave and evaluated different types of start-up systems. So I didn’t really do a lot, just a little bit but they put my name on the patent. That’s about the extent of my involvement with NuScale proper. Several of us had a chance, in fact several of the other faculty listed on that patent application had an opportunity to decided what we want to do with the company and three of us decided that our jobs were in academia. We decided, you know, we didn’t really want any specific role in the company but if they had research that they might want to do that they could talk to us and we would put in a proposal and if they wanted to fund the research that would be great. And so I did have about $41K or so from NuScale last year to do some reactor physics studies and it supported my graduate student who just finished and is now on our faculty. And we’re expecting a little bit more funding from them to continue to look at some other reactor designs. They, you know NuScale has been an ambitious endeavor and they’re a small company, about 30, 35 employees and they’re competing against companies like Westinghouse and General Electric, which are companies with thousands of employees so they have their work cut out for them, and you know the good news is that they’re in a town where there’s a nuclear engineering department where you can get some cheap labor and some good labor. So we, that’s how I want to help. You know, I’m an academic and I wanna do research and I want to train students and you know if they’re willing to be involved in that then I’m willing to help.
TV So do you prefer working with students or as compared to doing research or would you say it’s more of a half and half?
TSP I gotta have it all.
TSP Actually I really do. I mean I really do enjoy the students very much. It’s a, you know every year, what’s interesting is every year I’m a little older but they’re all always the same I mean because it’s a new crop every year so it’s the same age range but it’s very invigorating to have new people coming in all the time and asking questions and thinking about things differently. Yeah but I like it all, I like the teaching aspect of it, I like the research aspect of it is very, very cool for me and I enjoy it a lot. It’s also the most stressful aspect of the job, the research because it requires me to put so much effort in on proposal writing and performing the research itself and then also writing it up and you know archival journal articles but it’s great. It’s really fun and forms the education we give the students. I mean without the research you know we’d be doing the same things we were doing fifty years ago. It would be very boring to teach that. And then the other part of my job is service. So there’s ten percent of my time that’s focused on professional and university service and I really like that, too. You know I serve right now I’m the chair of the mathematics and computations division of the American Nuclear Society and so I, that’s a role that I take very seriously. I’m also the chair of the academic standing committee at Oregon State, which is a committee where students who’ve failed out of the university can petition to get back in if they have extraordinary circumstances, so they come in front of our committee and I don’t know, try to convince us that they have, you know, that something’s gone on in their lives that is considered extraordinary and if we think that’s the case, we give them another chance. But I like that stuff. I think I’m actually well suited to that, that’s all of it, so it’s a good job for me.
TV So what do you see as your goals for the future you career at Oregon State that you want to try to accomplish?
TSP Well that’s a really good question. So, I can’t really, if you had asked me that a year ago I’d have a very different answer than I do now because my, I’ve, the last year has been tumultuous for me, very lots of change. As I said, I just recently been divorced and so my son is nineteen, he’ll be twenty so he’s sort of moving on with his adult life and my daughter is sixteen and you know the way I am looking at my future is very different now than the way I was looking at it a year ago. I’ve got some designs to actually travel a little bit more internationally. I’d like to, I won an award from the college of engineering this last year and it came with it $10K for whatever I want to do basically as long as I spend it within university or, I can’t buy a car with it you know.
TSP So I’d really like to go to the IAEA you know, I’d like to go Vienna and see what that’s like. I haven’t had a sabbatical yet and you’re sort of eligible for sabbatical every seven years and I’ve been here fifteen, so I’m eligible for two. I was going to take one this year but I—everything sort of changed and anyway I want to go to Russia, and Vienna. I’d really like to see some things internationally, kind of look at maybe a sabbatical some place you know I’m a tenured full professor. You have me down as an associate which was true about a year ago but now I’m a full professor and at this point there’s really no other promotion I can get in my job unless I decide to go into administration you know which Kathy Higley now has our acting head position and she’s you know I’ll say relatively young certainly especially if this is going to get transcribed and she reads it, I’ll be…
TV We’ll mark that part out.
TSP No, no, no. I want it in there. You can put quotes around the “relatively.”
TSP Anyway, she’s, she and I started here at the same time so I don’t know there’s really an opportunity for a while for me to have an administrative position in the department but there are you know, there’s some interesting things happening at the university that I admit kind of would take me away from the department a little bit. I applied for a position at the honors college last year. I was very intrigued by a position, which was a faculty liaison to the athletic department yeah so there are things that happen within the university that are very interesting and I don’t know that I really want to be department head or dean or anything like that you know. I still feel like there might be some good technical work needed and I’ll probably want to keep doing my job here like this for a while but I’d like to see us get a new building. I’d really like to see that happen. I’m wondering if there’s something I can do to help with that. We are absolutely just jam packed in the building right now and I just got to believe there’s somebody out there you know wanting to help us out so we’re just not finding them yet so I might, I don’t know, I might look into trying to help with that a little bit.
TV So what changes have you seen in the department and the program from when you first came here as an undergrad to now coming back as a professor teaching.
TSP Yeah, this is a helpful question, very helpful question because I’m supposed to talk tomorrow night at this event and I haven’t even started a talk yet I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I have a half hour. And one of the things I’ve been thinking of is you know I’ve been involved in with this place for twenty-six years, which is just over half of its existence so I can at least talk about the second you know half of the life of the department. One thing is you know as an undergrad you don’t really, you’re not really paying much attention to what’s going on around you in the department. You’re, you know, you’re very focused on every last point you can get on every last homework assignment because you think you have to compete for these grades with these other really bright kids. And so that was me in a nutshell I was just trying my, I worked my butt off to get every last point I could get and I probably missed out on a lot of things as a result of that. I try to encourage students to find a little bit more balance than I had when I was here. But you know what I do remember was that the number of faculty in the department was a little smaller, the emphasis on research and on graduate education was smaller. We had some excellent instruction I mean just phenomenal teachers here many of whom are still around and I had no idea how good I had it until I got to Michigan and I was you know, I was very impressed with the place because it was huge and they were using computers just to hold doors open and there’s so much stuff and they were so wealthy compared to Oregon State and when I got there and started taking classes I was very intimidated, very intimidated. I thought for sure that the rest of these kids were way smarter than me and you know I just came from this teeny tiny little you know university and there was two of us that went out there at the same time, myself and another Todd named Todd Waring and when he—we kicked butt. I mean we knew stuff we were sharp. And we knew how to work and yeah it was very eye opening and I remembered that very, very, very—I guess it stuck in my brain the whole time I was there and forever after just how much Oregon State had done for me.
TSP Oh yeah good.
And so you know there’s this period where I wasn’t really around all that much between 87 and 95. I’d come back every once in a while and I didn’t really know what was going on here but it seemed like there was an increased emphasis on the research, they were trying to grow the graduate program and during that time period Jose Reyes came to Oregon State. I left just before he got here and his sort of sky rocketing success really started pulling the department up at its draft I mean he you know this real small project from PGE was $20,000 project turned into this ten to fifteen million dollar cash cow for years and lots of things we’re still doing are a direct result of the, I guess, the fame and the notoriety he gave to Oregon State while he was in the hey day of his research. But after that, when I came back, I’ve watched us grow that research even more. Everybody we hire is really focused on that as well as continuing to support the undergrad program and write papers. We’re really trying to change the perception of Oregon State as primarily undergraduate institution to one that is balanced and is a peer institution with Michigan and Wisconsin and Texas A & M, MIT, and I think we’re getting, you know, we’re very successful with that. Our students are going everywhere and we’re getting students from other programs now. That didn’t happen very much, you know, we didn’t get graduate students from Texas A & M or these other places and that’s happening now so we’ve grown bigger, you know, more faculty. We have more graduate students, we have no space, zero space, so it’s all, all the sort of good and bad that comes with being a successful program. I really do feel like we’ve done that and we haven’t lost the thing that makes this place special. You know, there’s always a risk there because you change when you change things and grow you can lose that and I’m very sensitive to that because I remember what it was like when I was a student here. So I try really hard when I think about how I do things and how I want to do things, how do we maintain what is truly special about this place because it is different I mean it really is different. Michigan, you know, the collegiality of the faculty is fine but it’s nothing like what we have here and I don’t know, there is, it’s kind of an intangible but maybe that’s just the way it’s like you know throughout the campus could be, I don’t know. But I love the people I work with I mean just phenomenal folks and they all care about doing what’s good for the program more than doing what’s good for themselves and that’s pretty rare. You know, the school, I like it here.
TV So you talked about the kind of how personable people were here when you were an undergrad and the instruction so was there any person in particular that was—
TSP Oh yeah definitely.
TV Kind of a very important in you and your development.
TSP Oh yeah absolutely. You know several of the folks that are still in the department are you know really important in my formative years but the one who stands out is Steve Binney. So I came back in 95 and I don’t remember when Steve retired officially but I was asked to talk at his retirement banquet and it was tough because he’s a phenomenal guy, really great guy, but he taught me how to write FORTRAN, which is arguably a dead language at this point but still a very good thing for me to do. The fact that I knew how to do that basically put me on my career path I mean I could write technical software when I was a sophomore and I loved it. I mean it was, I had some background in programming and I you know learned some in high school but not the way you know I learned so much from him, both about programming but also about nuclear problems so I’d have to give him the lion’s share of the credit for facilitating my career. Alan Robinson was also a big part of it because he introduced me to reactor physics and made me want to come back here and have his job.
TSP So those two guys probably you know the biggest influences on me.
TV So do you have any like any funny stories or incidences or things that have gone on since you’ve been here your experience here?
TSP Yeah I guess. Well I have, one of my favorite funny stories happened when I was a student here and I want this one down in the archives because I hope that Alan gets a chance to read this at some point. So Alan Robinson was my advisor and most people who know Alan would characterize him as sort of crotchety and he probably if he reads this he will probably agree and maybe he would chuckle when he reads it. I was a senior and they had decided, the department head decided that they were going to require an additional design class for graduation so they’re adding a class to our already fairly busy schedules. When I was here, it was 204 credits to graduate. Now it’s 180. Okay so we were taking a lot of classes so anyway we, I got mad. I got really mad, you know you can’t change that on us but they weren’t going to grandfather us in, they were going to change it and make us take the extra class the last year I was here so I called The Barometer and I said you wouldn’t believe what these guys are doing you know they’re changing this deal and they can’t do that, we should be grandfathered. And they were like well, we’ll look into it see what and get back to you. So a couple days later I was in Alan’s office for advising it was that time in the term and he got a phone call, it was the Barometer. And his face just exploded in red, he was so mad—What! How are you, how do you know about this, you know? Who told you about this? And he just kind of hung up and he was mad and he said you wouldn’t believe this somebody called The Barometer and told them about this, I’m going to find out who it was. I’m like, I don’t know anything about it, yeah, so I was right there and I was so happy that I made him that mad, it was great. And he didn’t know anything about that for years but I actually told him after he hired me to replace him, then I told him all about it. We had a good laugh about it but that was one of my favorite stories and the other one was I lived on Western, just off of Western over by 9th or 10th and the department is off of about Western and 35th okay, or Jefferson whatever. Well the train track runs right along Western and actually it’s not along Western it’s a little further but anyway there’s a train track that runs there and one day I was, I decided I’m getting on that train and I was going to ride it down from where I lived down to the department and just hop off and go to class and it’s going slow through town so you can easily do that. So I could get up there and grab on and I’m riding and it was great you know it was cool, quick way to get down to the department, jumped off and went to class everything was fun. So I had the opportunity to do it again about two weeks later and it had rained a lot and I had forgotten a very important aspect of physics which is you can’t just jump off of the moving vehicle and not move, yeah so I just jumped off landed and slid, hit the mud, I don’t know, ten or fifteen feet in mud and you know I’m five minutes to class so I went anyway and it was Alan’s class and he didn’t like it when you put your feet on the desk or chewed gum or anything like that so he definitely was not happy with the way I looked when I came to class. He hassled me big time but yeah so those are the only two, my two stories from undergrad that I really like.
But in terms of, in terms of since I’ve been here one of the things I try to do when I was an assistant professor I tried to I don’t know inject some extra traditions, when I looked at Michigan and looked at A & M and some of these other programs I was also familiar with, one of the things they had that we didn’t which were you know things that had been going on for years that were really were traditional. This is specific to each department not just the university so Kathy Higley and I instituted the first year we were here we had a bar-b-que at the end of the year and we’ve done that now fifteen years straight. We buy all the food and we cook it out for everybody in the building. It’s the only event every year that the secretaries and administrative assistants don’t organize. We do it all and so they get the benefit of that. We’ve cooked for about two hundred people occasionally and everything you know we’ve done everything from had liquid nitrogen ice cream that we’ve made you know so it changes up every year, there’s always something interesting and new that’s happening but we’ve had a couple of live bands out in the back of the Radiation Center which is great. I actually play, I’m going to play in a band on Monday night at the banquet with a couple of students so you know that’s the kind of stuff I really want to do. Not only do the job but also try to make it a place that people have really fond memories of that they want to come back they you know because I had that here but not for the same reasons. I just you know I was so happy to be away from Omaha and I don’t know I felt like people were taking an interest in me and nurturing me and so I wanted to do the same sorts of things. Played some basketball, we actually rented a gym for a year and just had the students play against the faculty occasionally and that’s fun and just try to do that stuff you know. I’m not sure if I had any other good stories. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it and see if I can come up with anything but that’s a couple of mine.
TV No, those are great.
TV So is there anything, you say you’re familiar with these other campuses, in particular that sets Oregon State apart maybe from Michigan or Texas A & M?
TSP Yeah, I think the things that come to mind most are there’s a very strong core group of faculty here that are really supportive of each other and of the program. The bigger the departments get, the A & Ms, the Michigans, the MITs, the easier it is for the faculty to sort of get insulated from the department as a whole because they tend to have other folks in their same area so that they get a little bit fractionated and I’m not saying that that’s really what’s happened at these places but they just tend to focus in a little bit more on their own sub discipline of the department rather than the whole. I also think we still do an excellent job of teaching undergrads here. The bigger you become as a research institution, the harder it is to maintain your focus on that. We’re still doing that and I think that’s to our credit. Our students are very well sought after. I mean people see an Oregon State grad and they want them in a grad program, they know they’re good. Our kids are still going, so the top three or four programs in the country in terms of graduate school, MIT, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas A & M, we probably send half of our kids out every year, half of our graduates from the undergraduate program to grad school half of them go to those programs, half of them go to OSU. So you know it’s a, that’s a testimony to the fact that we, we want them out doing other things. We don’t want them all here. Some programs really try to keep their own and I think that’s to the student’s detriment. What else? I think a lot of times we emphasize real engineering work as opposed to more of the science aspect of things. A lot of students very much appreciate that you know they’re going to get their hands on stuff and build it and go out you know to different places and have internships and stuff so.
TSP I’m wondering if there’s anything else. Well okay there is something that is a little different here, this is my opinion all right, I really think that this department is the best department in our college of engineering bar none. I mean there are other good places in the college but I think this program does what we’re supposed to do better than any other program in the college. The college ranking nationally is not that high. The college of engineering is not what I would call a prominent college you know nationally. But our peer institutions, A & M, Michigan, Wisconsin, MIT, their colleges of engineering are very, very highly rated and their nuke programs are probably the smallest programs in those colleges so here you have a small program that is probably the best program in a college of engineering and there you have a small program is maybe not the best but in a very good college. That changes things a little bit you know you get kids coming out of here with a, their heads are held pretty high, they’re not cocky necessarily but they just know they’ve come from a good program and I think a lot of our kids really like it here because it’s small. They know us, we know them. That’s still true in some other programs you know around the country but that personal touch is very, very nice I think. We don’t ever want to get so big that we lose that. So that’s about it I guess.
TV No, it’s great. Do you have any other thoughts or comments, anything you want to share?
TSP No, I don’t know. I don’t think so, can’t think of anything else. I was trying to think of any other funny stories. There have been a ton you know. Fifteen years there’s a ton of stuff that’s been going on. I don’t know. Maybe I will try to write some of them out when it comes.
TV Yeah, well when you get the transcript, you can always add things you want to, to it, yeah.
TSP Okay, yeah it’s hard to go through fifteen years of stories in four minutes. Okay, cool, yeah that’s about it. That’s all I can think of.