Shih-Yew “S. Y.” Chen, the first full-time director of the IIT Professional Master of Health Physics program, says that he will likely never win a Nobel Prize. But that realization is fine with him. Chen is content with a more intrinsic type of reward.
“I’m firmly committed to the health and safety of people,” says Chen, who knew he wanted to work in radiation protection soon after obtaining his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I have peace of mind knowing I’ve helped those who have come to me for advice.”
The field of health physics focuses on how to best manage the beneficial use of ionizing radiation—emitted by instruments ranging from a CAT scan to a nuclear reactor—while protecting employees and the public from its potential hazards.
“As more and more advancements in science and engineering benefit us, we can’t take for granted that, inherently, they are all safe. Who is there to tell you what is safe?” poses Chen. “Members of our profession are the vanguards of advanced technology today. Our important role is safeguarding the usage of these advancements. Deleterious effects take time before they show themselves.”
Being a credible source of information for the public as well as for business is another important role of the health physicist. When the plume from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster swept over California, a pregnant woman sought the advice of one of Chen’s colleagues as to whether or not to abort her baby because of potential radiation risks. Locally, two Chicago news syndicates came to Chen to help quell fears about levels of iodine 131 detected in the Midwest as a result of the plume.
Christopher White, professor and chair of the Department of Physics, says that Chen possesses the qualities of the ideal candidate—an experienced health physicist with strategic vision and entrepreneurial tendencies who could be an effective teacher and mentor.
Recently named a Health Physics Society fellow, Chen is busy living up to those claims. He has been connecting with industry leaders to determine how the program could best serve their needs and laying the groundwork to elevate the program to national status.
IIT Professional Master of Health Physics program: science.iit.edu/programs/graduate/master-health-physics
Health Physics Society: www.hps.org