1994 Catawba College Alumna Enjoys Career as Radioecologist
May 30, 2017
Dr. Wendy Kuhne '94 says you can tell a lot about the health and state of a forest by the diversity and number of woodpeckers living there. She should know, this radioecologist has spent her career assessing the health of various environmental habitats in and around nuclear sites.
Since 2009, Kuhne has worked at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), located just south of Aiken, S.C., on the Savannah River Site. The Savannah River Site was built in the early 1950's to support the Cold War effort, by producing plutonium and tritium in support of America's nuclear weapons program. The Laboratory during that time provided support to the various operational groups on the site. The site operated five production reactors and two chemical separations facilities. The reactors were mothballed in the mid-1980s, signaling a political end to the Cold War. Several reactors are now totally decommissioned, and several more have been repurposed as storage facilities for used fuel rods.
Today SRNL is DOE's Environmental Management laboratory and a primary focus is in Environmental Stewardship and Restoration. As a Principal Scientist she shares that she was "literally" hired because of her diverse educational and research background. "They needed a good all-around scientist that could be flexible to work on a wide range of complex projects." Much of today's research is focused on generating new ideas, instruments, and methods to help clean up legacy waste remaining across the DOE complex. Kuhne started her career in the Environmental Sciences and Biotechnology Group but transitioned into the National Security Directorate in 2016.
"The Savannah River Site is a unique site where you have multiple generations of family members who have and currently work here. There are many stories of co-workers talking about their grandpas and grandmas who worked here during the Cold War. Their mission was to build the reactors and produce material to help protect our country. For me, my mission is, I'm completing what they started. And, we must ask: ‘How do we complete their mission and clean up those waste tanks and address any contamination in the environment?'
"As they were operating, there were some releases to the site – seepage basins and burial grounds for the waste, and some of it leaked out. Now, it's our job to look at those areas and assess what is the best way to clean it up or immobilize it. And we must ask: ‘What are the risks to the public, the workers, and the environment?' "
Kuhne's Ph.D. from Colorado State University is in radiological health science and her specialty area is radioecology. "I look at the fate and the transport of the radionuclides. I ask, ‘Where did it go?' ‘How quickly did it get there?' and ‘What are the pathways and risks to humans and non-human biota?' "
"For radiation protection, we've always had a good framework for protecting people, but it's only within the last 10-15 years that we've started to say we need a framework for the environment. The underlying assumption in the past had been that if we protect man, we automatically protect the environment, but that's not always the case if you sensitive species or have areas where people don't live."
The fact that SRNL is remote is just one of the distinctions about the place where Kuhne works. Much of the site is not developed and remains as natural habitat undisturbed by man. In many of these locations you can find an abundance of wildlife. You get a chance to see them undisturbed by humans. Occasionally though, as she is doing environmental monitoring at the site, she will pass remnants of concrete curbing in the woods or an old structure, an odd and distinct reminder that there were once people living there.
Two towns that were originally on the site were relocated so construction could begin in 1948. The first reactor there started up in 1953.
The story of exactly how Kuhne, a tennis player who graduated from Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, N.C., went from being a Catawba College alumna to a scientist at SRNL is one she describes as "a series of good luck." As she looked at colleges, she recalls not being really interested in a big campus. She does remember Dr. Charles McAllister, a now retired professor of history, attending a college night preview and talking to her about attending. She applied, was accepted, and offered a tennis scholarship, several academic scholarships, campus employment, and the ability to complete her science degree in four years.
"When I started here [Catawba College], I honestly thought I was going to medical school. I always had an interest in it, but I loved the outdoors and things changed. I decided to major in Biology because it was extremely broad and through that program I took ecology, ornithology and more.
"All of my professors were passionate about their courses; they liked what they did. Their enthusiasm in the classroom kind of translated into me wanting to learn what they loved and I ended up with a diversity of courses."
Thanks to a connection that then newly hired Catawba Professor Dr. John Wear had, Kuhne was able to land a post-graduation summer internship in Washington, D.C., working for the National Biological Service (NBS). When her internship concluded, she was offered a full-time job with the NBS, a newly created agency in the Department of the Interior that was later folded into the U.S. Geological Survey to become their fourth division, the biological resources division.
"The USGS has what are called cooperative research units and these sit at various universities across the country. I was able, through my working network, to earn a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Science from one of these coop units at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
"My master's project was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The mandate was to look at contaminants coming from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) down the hill to the Rio Grande [River]. One contaminant of interest, as identified by LANL, was depleted uranium which was at that time residing in the dirt and the grass in a field on the site. They wanted to know if there was a fire and it burned away all of the grass that was holding the contaminated soil in place how quickly would the soil be moved by wind and rain erosion, and what consequences would there be to biota if it ended up in the river.
"We knew that with depleted uranium, the risk is not the radiation, but that it's a metal, and the concentrations were important. My work focused on the amount of depleted uranium at this site and the potential concentrations in the river. I knew nothing about radiation or depleted uranium so I had to do all sorts of research."
As she was reading through peer-reviewed publications, Kuhne kept seeing one professor's name appearing and reappearing – that of Dr. Ward Whicker, a professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins.
"I emailed him and asked him my questions, explaining to him I was a student," she remembers. "We started talking back and forth, and I started realizing who he was – basically the father of radioecology. I was impressed that a man of his stature within the research community would take time out of his day to talk to me. When I finished my graduate degree, I was going backpacking in Colorado with friends and going through Ft. Collins. I called him and told him I was coming through town and wanted to meet him face-to-face to say thank you for all of his help and support through my project."
When Dr. Whicker met Kuhne, he asked if she wanted to do her Ph.D. at CSU. He offered to bring her to the campus to present a seminar on her research and interview for a Ph.D. candidate position. Kuhne landed the full-ride position and became Dr. Whicker's' last Ph.D. student before he retired.
"Switching from a biology and wildlife science background to a health physics program was hard. My first year for my Ph.D. was really hard – by far it was the most difficult degree to get," she shares. "But I didn't quit. I gutted it out."
Kuhne took a post-doctoral position funded by a National Institute of Health Fellowship at the Medical College of Georgia (Augusta University). She was fortunate to receive a National Research Service Award, the Ruth L. Kirschstein Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship. In the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, her research was to use fish as a model to study DNA damage and DNA repair. Through her postdoctoral fellowship, she began collaborative projects with SRNL. She was hired to work at SRNL in fall of 2009.
What concerns Kuhne now is the decrease in the number of faculty across the country who are knowledgeable about radioecology. As faculty like Dr. Whicker retires, she and her colleagues are pondering who will train the next generation of radiation professionals. Today, the National Center for Radioecology, an initiative created at SRNL, has established memoranda of understanding at various universities to sustain and grow this important specialty science.
Being at SRNL for a little over seven years now Kuhne says, "I'm still learning seeing new opportunities within my current career. The National Laboratories offer a lot of opportunities for collaborations and there's more to learn about the various program areas."
Her advice to those who aspire to follow in her "lucky" footsteps. "Keep working hard. You don't have to be valedictorian of your class to be successful. You just have to keep working and out work everybody else." And, "Don't be afraid to reach out to the Dr. Ward Whickers of the world. You never know when they will answer your call and where it will take you."