A Critical Career
While growing up, Lexi Detweiler (PHYS, ASPY, M.S. HP ’21) listened to her father spout random tidbits of information from his various STEM-related careers. He’d gone from being an architect to working in information technology to artificial intelligence. They’d watch space shuttle launches together, and always seemed to be starting a new project together.
“He always had lots of cool facts up his sleeve,” Detweiler says, and that barrage of arbitrary information ironically caused her to focus on one field of science.
“Everything boils down to physics. It always felt like the most elementary science to me,” she says.
Now, just two years after graduating from Illinois Tech, Detweiler’s career has become critically important.
She works at Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was built as part of the Manhattan Project, and houses facilities that specialize in the processing and storage of uranium. Those working at Y-12 have three primary missions: to fuel the nuclear-powered United States Navy, to help maintain its nuclear stockpile, and to conduct nuclear non-proliferation work.
To call her focused would be an understatement.
An employee of Consolidated Nuclear Security, which operates Y-12 in support of the National Nuclear Security Administration, it’s her job to help make sure there are adequate protections in place to house and process all that uranium. Those protections can include everything from gloves and respirators to several feet of lead, depending on the type and quantity of the radioactive material being dealt with.
“Health physics has many facets. It’s not just worker safety, there’s a lot of other concerns,” says Craig Schwartz, Detweiler’s manager. “There’s also environmental issues, discharge, decommissioning, and decontamination.”
With so much work to cover, Detweiler’s enthusiasm for the field has been a breath of fresh air, Schwartz says.
“She’s taken the opportunity in just over a year’s time to take on as much as she can to learn the different facets of radiological engineering,” he says. “She’s very inquisitive, asks good questions to really learn the profession.
“There are a lot of people nearing retirement, you are worried about that knowledge base disappearing,” he adds.
Detweiler has made her mark in other ways.
Last summer, she traveled to a test facility in Nevada with dozens of scientists from other labs across the globe to participate in a “criticality” measurement exercise. They used various methods to determine how much radiation was put out by a contained atomic chain reaction—or what’s called a “criticality” in her line of work.
“I’m really lucky that Illinois Tech had that health physics program because it’s not very common,” Detweiler says. “There’s not a lot of programs like that, and it really covered exactly the type of work we’d be doing, and exactly what I wanted to do.”