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Student Spotlight: Raissa Chunko

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Our center stands on three pillars: Research, Education, and Practice. One of the many ways we work to protect workers is through educating and training future leaders in occupational safety and health (OSH). As part of our Student Spotlight series highlighting our trainees, we interviewed Raissa Chunko, a Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center (MAP ERC) trainee earning a Master's in Health Physics from Colorado State University (CSU).

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How did you find yourself in the field of OSH?

I often get asked the question of how I switched from a professional dressage career to health physics. One of the things I loved about working as a professional dressage instructor and professional equine groom was the interactions I had with people. Getting to know people from all over the country with so many different experiences has always been very rewarding for me. However, I always knew I wanted to go back to school and find new ways to not only interact with people and their stories, but also to positively impact the people around me.  

What piqued your interest in studying health physics?

I had originally been interested in medical physics when I was researching graduate schools and fields of study. I was not aware of health physics as an area of study until a family friend, Dr. Clay, prompted me to look into the program at CSU. After doing some research and meeting with Dr. Sudowe, I was really excited to learn more about how math and science collide in a way to solve radiological problems as they apply to people, the environment, and all of the interactions between. 

In addition, I talked with Dr. Sudowe about some of the projects available in the program, and I was deeply fascinated by the urban debris project as it relates to nuclear forensics. I found the idea of applying health physics and radiochemistry principles to solve complicated questions to help safeguard the U.S. population incredibly thought provoking and intriguing.  

What attracted you to the MAP ERC?

I have had enormous opportunities to work on a variety of different projects since starting this program. I have been lucky to work on the urban debris project and assist with experiments on americium and curium separations, conduct cesium analysis in tissue samples, and research optimal methods for electrodepositing americium.

One of the most impactful projects I have worked on has been assisting with the americium and curium separation project under the guidance of a previous MAP ERC trainee, Dr. Samantha Labb. Throughout the time I spent working with Sam I learned some very valuable lessons, such as always being curious and asking questions, no matter how silly they may seem. I have also learned that seeking out expertise can be extremely valuable. This led me to seek help on a different project from another MAP ERC trainee, Michaella Swinhart, who showed me the value of having confidence in my work. 

Training Exercise Health Physics

Did you have any misconceptions about this program, field, or project that have since been resolved?

When I started in this field, I did not think there was any crossover between health physics and medical physics. I was not aware of the breadth of the health physics field. I have since learned that there are many applications such as medical isotope production, internal dosimetry, radiological engineering, radioecology, and nuclear forensics. 

How will your training/experience impact the larger body of workers, families, and communities?

Radiological hazards tend to generate a fearful response in the general population. I hope to use the skills and knowledge I have gained to help assuage fears of excess radiological exposure and help demystify common misconceptions around radiation. I also hope to use the knowledge I have gained to lower risks of radiological exposures to workers so they can go home to their families every evening.

Additionally, I am very excited to begin experiments on my project on analyzing and optimizing standard techniques of separating plutonium from asphalt samples. The techniques I plan to work on will be adaptable to be used in assisting with issues related to nuclear nonproliferation and stockpile stewardship. These principles are deeply rooted in maintaining the overall safety of communities from nuclear disaster. 

What is the next step for you after exiting the program?

I am not entirely certain of my next step after exiting the program, but I have truly enjoyed learning so much about the field of health physics. I am hoping to earn my Ph.D. before entering the workforce. However, I relish every opportunity I have experienced, and am excited to go directly to practical applications if that is where I am meant to go. 

Anything we forgot to ask?

I was very excited this summer to have had the opportunity to take an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). During this excursion, I was able to learn about health physics applications utilized at this type of facility, and conduct research under the supervision of Dr. Evelyn Bond. I was thoroughly impressed with the care taken to ensure the health and safety of all workers at the laboratory. I hope to continue working at a facility like LANL in the future where I can constantly continue to learn as wells as positively impact the people around me. 

Raissa Chunko LabLSoP