“How OSU Grew Nuclear Science- 50th Anniversary of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics (NERHP) Graduate Program”

LaSells Stewart Center, Oregon State University, Corvallis Oregon

October 11, 2009

32 minute transcript

Doug Schulte (DS): University Archives staff member and History major senior who is the 2009 Western Association of Student Employment Administrators student employee of the year for both OSU and all of Oregon.

Dr. Wesley Frey (WF): OSU NERHP Instructor since earning his 2009 Ph.D. in Radiation Heath Physics at OSU. Master of Science in Radiation Health Physics, Oregon State University November 2005. Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, California December 2001.

DS This is an oral history with Dr. Wesley Frey.  I’m Doug Schulte.  Today is October 11th and we’re here at LaSells Stewart Center.  So thanks a lot for joining us today.

WF Sure.

DS Like I mentioned earlier, I’ll just be asking you couple questions about how you got involved with the program and how it’s kind of changed since you’ve been here and how you dealt with that.

WF Okay.

DS Where did you grow up?

WF I actually grew up in Fresno, California.

DS Okay, okay.  What was that like?  I mean, what was your family like?

WF It was, I mean, it was pretty standard. I mean I didn’t really realize it at the time but you know growing up later I realized sort of how functional we actually were, getting to more and more other people, yeah, I mean I had a pretty, very stable very happy kind of childhood and upcoming. My dad was a deputy D.A. for the county.  My mom was a schoolteacher, so all pretty standard.  I had one older sister and one cat in the family.

DS (laughs)

WF Yeah, I did elementary school, middle school, and high school all there and it was pretty normal, normal teenager sort of just screwing around with friends up to no good and couldn’t wait to get out of town to sort of you know go to the big city.

DS If you don’t mind me asking, when was your birthday?  Or what is your birthday?

WF It’s September 1st.  I was born in 1978.

DS Okay, perfect.  What originally got you interested in science?

WF I was always sort of very, yeah, just very inquisitive and growing up I wanted to be like a civil engineer and build bridges and things like that. But what actually sort of really got me interested in the nuclear sciences. First and foremost pretty much every nuclear engineer has a morbid fascination with nuclear bombs, I mean, it’s a dirty little secret—not that we want them to go off or anything like that, but just, sort of, very inquisitive of how does that work. Actually my dad was friends with, his name was Dr. Owen Gaylar, who was actually an alternate for the Manhattan Project and he was a retired professor, he taught at Purdue and I got to meet him a few times you know when I was younger. I mean he was just sort of this Einstein like figure. You know he was this older guy and had sort of wispy gray hair and was a little bit eccentric, I mean he sort of got me a little bit interested in, you know, nuclear physics and that sort of thing, so that’s actually how I got started out.

DS Well, okay great.  So was this kind of your plan early on, I know you mentioned that you were really interested in civil engineering but when did you really decide, you know hey I want to do nuclear science?

WF It was probably in the middle of high school.

DS Okay.

WF I don’t know, it just sounded like the neatest, most impressive sort of macho engineering I could think of and I wanted to do something a little bit different.

DS As an adult, you mentioned pretty early on that that was your plan but towards later into high school, college, and grad school and so on, have you ever doubted it, how you ever said, man this not what I want to do, in your head at least, you know said maybe being a sociologist would be fun or something like that?

WF The only time I ever really doubted it is when, it’s probably about half way through my undergrad when every sort of scientist reaches the point in their mad series of classes where it starts to become a little too much because not, even amongst scientists you know we’re not all mathematical geniuses, I mean, most of us are just fairly strong in math but not brilliant at it.  Yeah and there was a while when all my friends in business school were, had a lot more fun in their undergrad than I did and I was in class you know thirty hours a week and studying eighty hours a week to get Bs so yeah. I briefly thought about going into something like forestry or something that was more outdoorsy a little more, a little more tactile than just you know talking about abstract things like neutrons and protons and electrons and things like that so.

DS Okay.

WF But that didn’t pass, I think my parents would’ve been supportive but I always pictured them like both having simultaneous heart attacks if I switched majors, so…

DS (laughs) During your undergrad or early grad work, were there any professors that really kept you grounded, kind of influenced what your professional life is—

WF Not so much my undergrad.  I was a little bit more detached in my undergrad.  As far as grad school goes, yeah definitely.  My advising professor, Dr. Hamby was very, very significant.  I sort of, I came here after my undergrad, not sort of knowing exactly what I wanted to do because even in the field of health physics you know it sort of subdivides a lot.  Yeah, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and he was an instrumentation person so he would develop new kinds of instrumentation for various kinds of purposes and—

DS Okay, great. What I have written down here a little bit about your college career.  I was wondering if you can just kind of detail that.  It says you went to Berkeley for undergrad and then you came here afterwards.  What really brought you here as opposed to keeping you in California?

WF There weren’t, I actually didn’t want to continue along my education in the same field and they sort of deter that at Berkeley and I had spent four and a half years there, I felt it was time to move on to someplace else, not that I you know didn’t like it there, it was okay. But there’s really not too many schools in California that do nuclear engineering. This was sort of at a time when enrollment was at a minimum and I think Santa Barbara closed their department, UCLA had a medical physics department but I didn’t really know if I wanted to do that or if I could get in.  So ultimately I looked on the map and you know saw where all the departments were, saw that the vast majority of them are in northern Midwestern states where it’s extraordinarily cold and I had had a few friends that had lived in Oregon and said it was really cool, so I said hey Oregon State looks like it’s got a pretty good program and it’s not that far away and so yeah. They paid to fly me up and check out the department and everyone was really nice and I was just absolutely floored with how young the faculty was.

DS Really?

WF I mean I think the faculty hasn’t changed too much, the actual tenure faculty, I think two people have been added in the seven years I’ve been here but yeah, I mean it’s the same people except seven years ago they were all seven years younger and they’re still like, I think we’re still the youngest faculty in the country, which is pretty amazing.

DS How many other schools were you looking at at that point?  Was it kind of like OSU was it?

WF There were a few other schools that sort of, I was sort of, I applied to a few schools for environmental engineering because I thought about going into that as well, sort of the nuclear environmental, teaming those two together. And none of the other schools seemed terribly interested in me. Oregon State showed a lot of interest and I just felt very welcome and the other schools were like, yeah you can come here if you want and you can come and check us out if you want but Oregon State was just really welcoming here, they were like sure you should come here because it’s a great school.

DS So it just seemed like a pretty good fit?

WF Yeah it did seem like a pretty good fit.

DS Okay.

WF Good vibe right from the beginning.

DS Since you’ve gotten here and kind of through your later grad work, what’s been your main interest and your main goal?  Have you been more interested in the instruction side of things or the research side of things?

WF Originally, yeah, the instruction part was never on my radar and I mean, it’s sort of ironic now that I pretty much make my living public speaking and I despised public speaking up until I had to defend my masters thesis and it was such a terrifying experience, I was so worked up and so nervous and it went just fine so everything after that was just not a big deal so sort of in one fell swoop I got you know, that was that fear was overcome. Yeah, so now it’s mostly teaching, I’d like to get a little bit more back into the research and I’d like to be able to sort of do it fifty-fifty because I like the interaction with the students and lecturing can be fun but the research is also really rewarding too. It’s kind of very gratifying to get an idea that other people see value in and that nobody’s done before.  Is it still recording?

DS Yeah it’s going just fine.

WF Okay (laughs), you gave me a nervous look there.

DS Well, you know I just wanted to make sure everything was going good because I’d hate to lose this.  Is this, you feel pretty comfortable with the instruction right now I mean so is that something that you ultimately you know for the rest of your career would you be happy with you know thirty years of kind of fifty-fifty instruction fifty-fifty research?

WF Oh yeah.  I definitely think so.

DS What are your ultimate career goals?  Do you want stay here and get tenured?  Do you want to try to go somewhere else?

WF It’s probably going to be, yeah it’s, it’s going to be fairly difficult to get tenured here because they just recently expanded the department and they, so yeah, staying here a very long time might not be totally possible but I am interested in you know, being a tenure track professor somewhere or possibly going to a national lab as well to do…The draw back to that of course would be, would essentially be all research and then you know some presentations and that would sort of be the extent of a teaching thing.

DS That’s kind of interesting that it’s changed kind of your interests having to go through grad school that way.

WF Yeah.

DS What was your first major research project?  Was it your thesis research?  Or was it something before that?

WF Other than like large sort of class projects, yeah, the first major research thing was my masters thesis and that was a project to see that if you for the first sort of portable you know power plant either on the moon or Mars for a permanent base, if you could fly the bare reactor and have it be unshielded and drop it in a crater and the crater would shield it sufficiently where you didn’t have to, you know, bring the two thousand pounds of shielding with it and it actually, sort of thought of the experiment myself and you know simulated it on computers and actually it turns out that it’s a bad idea but the little lip at the top of the crater will deflect radiation along the path of where you’re, where the little encampment would be.

DS Oh.

WF Over the course of you know a year or so you’d give the people you know a huge radiation dose that would be very unpleasant and possibly like catastrophically bad.

DS Well, it’s good that we know that.

WF Yeah, yeah.

DS How long did that take you?

WF That took me, it was about nine months but a fair amount of it was, I mean, the simulations ran for months and months and months on the computer.  There were a few power outages where I had to restart and building like I think yeah, like lightning hit next to the building one time and cut the power out.

DS Wow.

WF A few things like that so it was a fairly long term project, much more in depth than anything I had done in previous course work.

DS Was that simply, you know for your masters degree or simply for your Ph.D. or did it kind of flow into one and then the other?

WF They were separate.  I sort of switched gears and moved to doing just research instrumentation work after my Master”s defense.

DS And you got your, it says you got your masters in November of 2005 and then your Ph.D. this last March of 2009.

WF Yes.

DS Okay great.

WF So I took my time (laughs).

DS Fair enough.

WF (laughs)

DS What kind of experience have you had as an instructor?  Is it what you were thinking it would be as a grad student and then how’s that kind of influenced what you thought of the research here, you know are the conditions everything you thought they’d be and basically what preconceived notions remained true and what didn’t?

WF Yeah I really, yeah I mean you sit behind you know, you get lectured to so much that yeah, I really didn’t know what it would be like. I thought it would be very, very uncomfortable the entire time like you know it would be just moments of awkward silence and this and that and really every time you know sort of a bit nervous for a minute or two and then it just passes and that sort of, it felt a lot more natural than I thought it would be but my dad had done a fair amount of teaching and my mom was a teacher so I think they were both pleased that I was you know sort of going into academia teaching as well.  Yeah, the one thing I that I thought was the most different that I didn’t realize is that in a large classroom it’s very obvious, you can pick out each and every person who’s not paying attention very easily and if someone is sleeping in a very large classroom, it’s extremely obvious. So I never really realized that until I was up in front of class teaching but for the most part it’s, yeah, I think it’s pretty good and I try to keep the class sort of light and entertaining and not too dry because sometimes the subject can be a little bit dry.

DS Okay.  What have you found in terms of kind of once again the preconceived notions as far as research I mean do you have more time than you thought you would less time?  What are the conditions like?

WF It’s sort of, I always figured research would be very sort of gradual and it would slowly you know progress at a very steady rate but I think it’s more of a punctuated equilibrium where there’s long periods where like nothing happens and you can’t think of a new idea or you can’t figure out a way to get around a problem or a new way of doing something. You know, months go by and very little is accomplished and then boom all of a sudden you’ll, it will click and you’ll figure something out and within a matter of a week you’ve you know, ended up producing a huge amount and solving many problems and so I kind of didn’t anticipate that it would be like that.  I thought it would be very steady kind of step by step by step by step but you know looking back on it, I don’t know why I thought it would be that way because you know if you’re doing new research sort of by definition the steps aren’t really written down.

DS Definitely.

WF So yeah, I thought that was quite a bit different than I originally got into and like. Also sort of how much time you spend sort of you think about the research like even when you’re not at work.  It’s sort of like you know daydreaming or something like going for a run I mean it’s you know that’s what I think about (laughs) a lot.  It’s kind of embarrassing to say but like when I’m off doing other things I’m always kind of thinking oh yeah, how could I do that? You know, and that sort of thing. I know that makes me sound horribly nerdy.

DS Not at all.  Within your department what’s kind of the pressure like to publish I mean you know, do you ever feel like man I have to get this research done.

WF It’s not too strong. I finally started publishing a fair amount, I’d never published actually while I was a graduate student because I was, the idea was to chop my thesis up at the end but now they’re coming pretty quickly and I think I’m going to publish I think seven I’m primary author on.

DS Wow.

WF Hopefully this year, I’ll get them all turned in even though like a lot of them you know three or four will be just for one research thing but you kind of chop them up to get more publications so I’m kind of excited about that and hopefully when the first one actually publishes because there’s about a year lag time I’ll send it to my parents so that they can see that their son’s a published author, they’ll probably get a big kick out of that.

DS (laughs) That would be fun.

WF Yeah but my role as an instructor if I can do side research projects and publish you know the department is very encouraging about that.

DS Great. Cool. I know you’ve been kind of in this role for not too long a period but have you had the opportunity really serve on any boards that you know offer grants or other funding or just any general boards like that you know.

WF No, not yet.  I am starting to sign up or volunteer to be asked to serve on defense boards.

DS Okay.

WF So that’s kind of exciting, I’m looking forward to it and at the same time I think I’ll probably be, for my first one or two, I’ll probably be more nervous than the person actually defending you know because it was not that long ago that I was on the other end of it and you know was defending my dissertation.

DS Okay.  That will be cool, that will be fun I think.  Do you have a family right now?

WF No, it’s just me and my cat, Mr. Bill.

DS Okay.

WF And then a girlfriend who I actually met in the department, she’s a student but for the record she was never in any of my classes. People give me a very, very bad time about that like oh really taking advantage.  It’s like, no we’ve never, I’ve never, I was a student when she was a student and then I graduated and so people like to give me a bad time about that I go out with the students but that’s not true.

DS (laughs) All right.  If you had to name a few, this is kind of a change of topic here but, if you had to name a few primary source documents that you would really think might help historians understand what you’re doing now what do you think those would be?

WF In terms of research or—

DS Just over all, basically what you and the department are doing you know would you encourage them to look at notebooks you know computer records?  What do you think the most useful tools would be to understand your job?

WF Probably the scientific publications would probably be the most interesting.  The class notes might be kind of fun, too. Just because, yeah, it’s I’m sure it’s mostly PowerPoint slides printed out with you know with doodles on the bottom, interesting what the students would say. And I think in terms of the teaching (laughs) I think in terms of the teaching the class notes would probably be the most interesting things, maybe some of the projects that the students do and yeah as far as the research goes yeah I think the publications would probably give them a really good idea of the kind of work that’s done here.

DS Okay.

WF Especially with the instrumentation kind of stuff, what instruments have been developed here and that sort of thing.

DS Sure.  Well so we’re here celebrating the department’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m kind of wondering do you hear a lot of stories from you know the other professors here you know the emeriti kind of walk around I mean do they show up frequently what’s kind of the situation regarding the department’s past.

WF Yeah, some of the emeritus Steve Binney still teaches actively and comes around a lot and John Ringle goes back in his office and smokes his pipe and it’s always kind of funny, there’s weather stripping around his office door, it’s kind of funny. Yeah, I mean people, when you hear the most history about the department is usually at the national conferences like the Health Physics conference, that’s when you get all the good stories of you know what you know this ex professor is doing now and they’re just mostly embarrassing stories where everyone is trying to take each other down a peg sort of thing but I mean they’re very light hearted is the thing and yeah, that’s usually when you get a lot of the alumni together. I mean people that three or four people that graduated each year, I mean there will be dozens of people from OSU.

TODD PALMER You didn’t say anything about me, did you?  I’d like to read his statements before—

WF Oh, okay that’s fine.

TODD PALMER (laughs)

DS It’s pretty busy in here today.  So national conferences is where most of this stuff happens?

WF Yeah, yeah.  I mean it’s not a terribly formal department but it’s a little bit different when you’re away from campus and everyone kind of lets their hair down a little bit but yeah the national conferences is definitely where you get a feel for you know actually dawns on you that people went to the department and the department existed long before you got here and the department will exist long after you leave sort of thing because you actually get to see people you know graduated in 1977 and wow, that’s a year before I was born sort of thing (laughs) so that does really give you a good sense of the history.

DS And these are annual conferences?

WF Yeah, yeah I mean there’s the Health Physics Society is for the radiation health physics side and the American Nuclear Society is obviously for the NE side.  So some people go to one some people go to both sort of thing.

DS Cool, cool.  Do they move around the country where the conference is?

WF Yeah, yeah, the last one for the Health Physics Society, the one that I go to, was in Minneapolis.  Two years ago it was actually in Portland that was really nice everyone just had to drive up for it.  And then next year it’s in Salt Lake City so everyone is like see you next year in Salt Lake City and it’s kind of fun too to hang out with you sort of make new friends with the old alumni and that sort of thing, it’s pretty cool.

DS Kind of shifting gears back to you back to the department here, you mentioned earlier it’s a pretty young department over all is there kind of any one professor that’s been there or maybe a couple even that have been here for a long time that kind of that link the two generations?

WF I think probably yeah Dr. Reyes, yeah he’s been around for quite a long time and he’s, I think he’s the oldest you know, fifty years old however, I don’t know, he might be older than that, he looks like he’s forty, he’s looked like he’s forty for ever since I’ve known him seven years ago.  Yeah but him and Dr. Andy Klein came back too and they’re sort of the two that are a little bit older but most of the other faculty have been here for sort of ten, twelve years or so.

DS Okay.  So still reasonably experienced though?

WF Yeah, oh yeah.  Most of them just started their career in academia like fairly early.

DS Okay.  Wow.  This is kind of an abstract question but I was just kind of curious if you had to really pick it out, what’s the kind of the craziest nuttiest thing that’s happened to you since you got to OSU even way back when you were working on your masters?  Any funny stories that you have?

WF Any funny stories?  I guess enough time has passed that I can tell this one and I hope this doesn’t appear on the front of the Barometer (again).  Several years ago I got an email from the graduate student council saying I had been elected to the chair of the graduate senate.  This was a surprise to me because I didn’t recall running for the position.  It turns out one of my friends decided to get people to write in my name and get me elected.  Eighteen votes is what it took.  Then I got another phone call from a student who said he also got eighteen votes and let me have the position because he was still and undergrad but if I did want the position he would accept.  Strange I know.  After I thought about it for a few days I decided I needed to finish my PhD. more important than I needed to be the grad senate chair, so I called the other guy back and said he could have the position.  Two days later the top story on the barometer was how I have gotten muscled out of the senate chair by some threatening undergrad.  The paper was very critical of the other guy and basically fabricated a story and someone in the student government released private emails to the paper without my permission.  It was at this time I decided to wash my hands of the whole thing, this ended my long a distinguished political career.  The irony is the barometer essentially made up a story with private emails while the actual story of the reason why I was elected [as a practical job] would have been a much bigger story.  On top of that, the planned top story for that day was about a new play coming to OSU directed by the brother of one of my committee members.  It got bumped for my political scandal.   I still have several copies of the paper that day.  I should frame them with my diplomas.

DS Okay.

DS We you know have a pretty progressive program and definitely seems to be at least historically kind of ahead of the curve here, I’m wondering has that kind of given you a certain point of view that your peers across the country as young instructors and professors might not have?

WF Yeah I think so, I think it just lends itself to a little bit less formal atmosphere.  A lot of the old sort of traditional powerhouses in this field, you know the Michigans and the MITs and schools like that, yeah they have a very sort of, I don’t know, competitive no holds bar kind of attitude and I think the biggest advantage here is that there’s not that attitude.  I mean you know I like to joke that you know they have the same you know we have the same neutrons that they have and the University of Michigan, which is you know ranked first in the country, I mean I think it’s a pretty good point that sort of the idea here is that that sort of you know needless sort of strictness or competitiveness doesn’t serve a purpose and it’s not really needed.  I think that really does come from the faculty that you know the material, this is the material, this is what you need to know to be successful in your career and if you learn it then that’s it, that’s all that’s important not so much the hierarchy, except for Dr. Palmer, he’s very strict.

DS Oh really?

WF That’s who just walked by (laughs).

DS Oh, okay. That’s great. Is there anything that you feel you want to touch on that maybe I didn’t get a chance to ask you about today?

WF I’m still trying to think of a good story.

DS (laughs)

WF Yeah I think one of the other things is probably the things that I’ve seen change the most in the department is just first and foremost the size, it’s just a very, very rapidly expanding department.  When I first came here about seven years ago I mean it was I mean the office that I was put in they were like oh, where do you want your desk to be?  You can have pick any one you want because there’s you know eight desks in there and there were two grad students and they were both leaving that quarter.  I mean back then there was maybe a dozen grad students in both departments put together and now I mean there’s you know seventy-five grad students or something so the department has grown very, very rapidly and hopefully it’s, hopefully the industry will be sort of growing at the same rate.  What it really means is that the people in industry will be retiring (laughs) rapidly because a lot of the national labs I mean the average age is, the average age of a worker or scientist is you know fifty, fifty-five years old so a lot of them are getting really close to being retired.

DS Do you think that’s kind of a shift then that will happen in the field, just in general scientists kind of become younger as technology kind of grows at a more rapid pace?

WF Yeah, I mean in this industry I mean there was a big boom early on and a lot of departments sprang up and sort of got that big slug of people first educated and through I mean they’re getting to a point in industry I mean there’s so many people that were educated in the seventies sort of you know before Three Mile Island and now that like they’re very close to retirement you have a massive amount of the workforce that’s going to retire I mean theoretically really soon unless you know the stock market drops in half again and they don’t retire. So yeah very, very quickly I think we’re going to see the actual workforce of this field sort of become a lot younger and you know as the big slug now moves into through to the younger people, you’ll probably have the exact same thing going on thirty years from now where you know they’ll be talking about my generation you know needing to retire so the new people can come in and that sort of thing.

DS What do you think would be the next kind of big step for OSU, I mean is there something that is holding our department back or I mean just in your opinion?

WF I think that there’s a couple of things I know that the, probably the rest of the faculty that are interviewed will say similar things, the big push right now is to try to graduate more PhDs from the department because right now it’s mostly masters students or graduate students and they just want to, they’d like to produce more PhDs because they tend to publish more and it’s a little more prestigious and if you’re a professor, you can have your PhD student teach classes for you and that sort of thing.  And then the other thing, I mean which is always going on is that they’re looking to bring in more sort of large, prestigious grants you know multi-million dollar grants that will be sort of well known that out of all the NE schools, OSU got that grant versus you know anybody else and you know those do come in every once in a while.  I think Dr. Woods’s high temperature reactor model is I think ground broke on it last week, so history in the making (laughs).

DS Cool well that’s kind of all I had prepared but once again, do you think there’s anything that you wanted to say that we didn’t already cover?

WF Yeah, off the top of my head I can’t think of too much more.  I think the other change to OSU as a whole is that our football team wins now.

DS Yeah, that’s weird, right?

WF (laughs) Versus that twenty-six year losing season streak.

DS All right.  Well thanks for coming in today and you know this is a big help to social history at OSU.

WF (laughs) Thanks.

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