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CAREER: The making of a nuclear scientist

Monday August 27 2018

Evalyne Rotich

Evalyne Rotich is a Radiation Protection Officer. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Evalyne Rotich, 28, is a Radiation Protection Officer. Currently, she is pursuing a Master of Science in Nuclear Science at the University of Nairobi.

Her journey to become a nuclear scientist started in 2003 after she sat her KCPE at Sergoit Primary School before joining in Sing’ore Girls’ High School, both in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

In 2013 after graduating with a BSc in Analytical Chemistry from Kenyatta University, she got a laboratory analyst job with Crown Beverages Ltd in Molo, Nakuru County. A year later she joined the Kenya Radiation Protection Board. It was while she worked with the Board that she got a sponsorship from the International Atomic Energy Agency to study a short course at the University of Ghana, from February to July 2017.

Evalyne says that after her Masters, her eyes set on pursuing a PhD in Nuclear Chemistry or Nuclear Physics. Her next dream is to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, a world renowned nuclear institution in the world.

Who is a Nuclear Scientist?

Basically, this is a person who deal with the study of the atom and the nucleus. An atom is a fundamental constituent of everything we see around; so when we understand an atom, we understand many other things.

Why did you choose to study nuclear science?

I was curious about the chemistry field. I then saw an advert about government scholarships for MSc Nuclear Science and got interested. I already had practical experience on chemical analysis as a Radiation Protection Officer so I applied for it and got awarded.

Where can one study a nuclear science course in Kenya?

Currently, we don’t have a bachelor’s degree programme in nuclear science, except at masters and PhD levels. One needs to have a bachelor degree in Physical Sciences or Engineering to pursue the two-year MSc Nuclear Science.

How did people react to your decision to study nuclear science?

Some believed that I had been recruited by a terror group to create nuclear bombs. However, after I explained to them that if applied for peaceful means, nuclear science has very many benefits, they supported my decision.

How important is a nuclear scientist to the developing countries?

Nuclear science is a wide field with a lot of benefits like nuclear energy for sustainable socio-economic growth, power supply, treatment and diagnosis of ailments, non-destructive testing and industrial radiography.

Developing countries are currently struggling with challenges such as cancer, industrial and economic growth, infrastructure development, energy needs and food security. A Nuclear Scientist can apply irradiation to keep food fresh until the next harvest.

This will regulate market prices throughout the seasons. With the growing cases of cancer, developing countries can install a nuclear reactor to get radio-active sources for treatment and diagnosis of cancer, instead of importing them.

This will save lives and spare the money exported to get medication abroad. For economic growth, a nuclear power plant can produce power for more than 60 years, which makes it ideal in reducing the level of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Nuclear science is also applied in agricultural research and development, oil exploration, construction, manufacturing, integrity of materials inspection, and other applications.

What do you do at Radiation Protection Board?

The Board regulates the use of radiation in different industries and users. I inspect and license facilities with radiation materials such as hospitals and industries.

What is the importance of radio analysis of various chemical samples to human life?

The human environment is radioactive in nature and human beings are exposed to radiation arising from various sources including sun rays and natural radionuclides in water, air, soil and plants.

Other forms of radiation could come from artificial radioactivity such as in medical and industrial applications, and mining. It is important to determine the radioactivity in these samples for environmental monitoring and to find out the status of the environment at a particular time so as to detect any changes, if they happen.

What kind of radioactive materials or chemicals are used by industries in Kenya?

The cargo scanners use radiation generators (x-rays) for determining the contents of the cargo without physically opening it. Hospitals use the radiation from Cobalt-60 (teletherapy) for treatment of cancer and tumours, and Iridium 192 among others for brachytherapy. They also have equipment such as x-ray machines, CT Scans, Fluoroscopy and C-arm equipment which produce radiation. In nuclear medicine, where the radioactive material is introduced inside the body, they use Technetium-99, Iodine-131 among others. In mining, construction and manufacturing industries, Americium/Beryllium is used for nuclear gauges to check quality and process control.

Which risks can one be exposed to in a radio-active environment?

It depends on the level of exposure to radiation but generally there are two probable outcomes. If exposed to low levels of radiation, the symptoms take a long time to manifest or show. If exposed to high levels of radiation symptoms like radiation burns, nausea and vomiting show within a short time. However, with proper training and use of personal protective equipment, the level of exposure to radiation can be kept as low as reasonably achievable.

What entails workers’ training when handling radioactive materials?

It involves safety, security, emergency preparedness and response at the facilities with radioactive material. The workers are also required to draft and document their emergency plans and responses. This includes what to do in case of emergency, who to contact and the role they play in the response.

What challenges should one anticipate in the pursuit of becoming a Nuclear Scientist?

A job in nuclear science is exciting when you are genuinely interested and passionate about it. One must be ready to put in long study hours, be good in mathematics and physical sciences, be responsible and always ready to learn new concepts.

Some of the challenges they might face is inadequate equipment at the universities especially in Kenya. Sometimes, students end up doing their projects and thesis outside the country where facilities are better equipped.

Which opportunities exist for career growth as a Nuclear Scientist?

One can work in different fields like hospitals, research and academia, bureau of standards, regulation, non-destructive testing, manufacturing industries, laboratories that use nuclear techniques, nuclear power plants, mining and exploration, agricultural sector, among others. One can also consult for the facilities that are setting up to use radioactive materials or radiation generators. You can also provide other services like training, safety assessment or audits.

How do you spend your free time?

I engage in community work, I enjoy watching movies, reading fiction and non-fiction books and spending time with family and friends.