By Casey L. Mills

Elizabeth Houser, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State, was named a Rising Star in Nuclear Science & Engineering by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Elizabeth Houser
Elizabeth Houser, Ph.D. candidate in radiation health physics, collects snails near Chalk River National Laboratory in Ontario, Canada.

During an awardee’s symposium at MIT in Boston, Houser presented her research “Radiation Dose-Effects Relationships in Populations of the Aquatic Snail, Campeloma decisum.” Her work explores the impacts of radioactive contamination on wildlife in an effort to determine the appropriate dose limits required for remediation of contaminated site. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane provided introductory remarks on career development and the future of nuclear science.

“The purpose of the symposium was to bring together promising nuclear science doctoral candidates to share their research, network, and learn about career opportunities, particularly in academia,” Houser said.

During the summer of 2012 Houser was a guest researcher at Chalk River Laboratory in Ontario, Canada where she collected snails from watersheds in one of Canada’s most contaminated sites.  Houser counted the radioactivity in her samples on-site, then returned to the United States to build a voxel phantom model to calculate radiation dose to the snails.

“We’re studying what level [of radioactive contamination] has an impact on the wildlife. It’s especially controversial here in the United States. Most environmental contamination in the U.S. today is found on sites managed by the Department of Energy and there are technical standards that include dose limits for wildlife at those sites. But non-DOE sites do not have to abide by those rules,” Houser said. “A commercial nuclear reactor or just any random stretch of the Willamette valley isn’t subject to those standards.”

Chalk River Laboratories, where Houser collected her samples, is the site where the Canadians conducted their research in nuclear power in the 1940s. Like many former reactor sites, a lack of understanding at the time resulted in radioactive contamination of the area. “It’s not as bad as Chernobyl or Fukushima but you wouldn’t want to eat anything from the site, continuously over a period of time,” Houser said. Today, Chalk River Laboratories produces radionuclides for medical therapies and continues to conduct nuclear science research.

She hopes to come up with a number representative of an acceptable radiation dose for the types of wildlife she’s studied. Such a number would better advise governments about which sites should be remediated and which ones should not. “What we call the ‘no-effects’ threshold — the radiation dose that we consider to be ‘safe’ for wildlife — has become a controversial topic recently. My goal is to help resolve the controversy by providing concrete data for policymakers,” Houser said.

Houser plans to defend her dissertation and graduate this summer.

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