Science Notebook: I’m Not in Kansas Anymore – Confessions of a Radiation Communicator

About the Author: Jessica Wieder is a communications specialist with EPA’s Radiation Protection Program and member of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team. When not doing emergency response work, she helps develop radiation education products like EPA’s RadTown USA.

image of authorIt is 2004 and I am a proud University of Maryland Terrapin senior, majoring in communications and minoring in British and American literature. I am jumping up and down in my dorm room because I just got an offer to work for EPA’s Radiation Protection Division.

Did I ever think I would work for EPA? No.
Do I know anything about radiation? No.
Do I care at this moment? No. I GOT A JOB!

My very first assignment is to “play” in an emergency response exercise called Ruby Slippers. The exercise scenario involves a satellite crashing in Kansas (hence Ruby Slippers) and scattering pieces of its radioactive power source across the state. The power source is called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (Try saying that five times fast)

image of person from the back in an orange vest with information officer labelMy role in this exercise is Assistant Public Information Officer. My job is to help communicate EPA’s role during a radiological emergency, potential health effects from radiation exposure, and protective action decisions.

NOW do I care that I don’t know anything about radiation? You better believe it!

With two weeks to prepare, I turn to my new coworkers for help. This is what I learned: 1) Many radiation health physicists communicate well with each other – not so well with non-techies, 2) My coworkers have amazing patience for, what I assume are, some pretty stupid questions, like “What is a gamma spectrometer and do I really need to know this?” 3) Radiation is a difficult topic to understand and even harder to explain, and 4) This job isn’t going to be easy.

You will be happy to know that I survived the exercise and have been with EPA for almost five years. Communicating radiation information to the public continues to be rewarding and challenging. Just last week I learned that “to frisk” in radiation terms means to use radiation detection instruments to scan a person for contamination, as opposed to an intrusive pat down. (I would hate to be the nuclear power plant worker to make that mistake.)

Looking back, it was my first assignment that made this job a career. I learned that the question isn’t “Do I care?” but “WHY do I care?” The answer is why I love my job: Because it is the knowledge of the experts, the science behind decisions and the technology we use that protects the people. It is communicating that information that empowers people to protect themselves.

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