Sep 1, 2020

Ep 276: Gabriele Voigt - President, Women in Nuclear Global

Women in Nuclear Global
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Show notes

Overview of Gabriele’s career (1:11)
1:11-17:06 (Gabriele shares an overview of her scientific career)

Q. How did you get to nuclear space
A. Gabriele’s background is in genetic engineering. She finished her PhD in Bayreuth, Germany and got her first job in Ministry of Health in desk researching the bio-kinetics of radionuclides in animals in order to deduce the data for humans. She was not satisfied with desk work due to her interest in experimental work. She initiated her own tests starting with rats and comparing radionuclide transfer in the bodies of young and adult animals. The results showed that younger rats absorb the radionuclides more efficiently. Next, she started working in radionuclide transfer in cow’s body. Since then, she stayed in radiation protection and radioecology, After Chernobyl accident she became more involved in researching transfer of radionuclides in environment: plants, soil etc, She worked in Chernobyl zone, Mayak zone and other affected areas. She was involved in many European Commission projects, She considers herself as environmental radioprotection person because radio nuclides can be used to trace transfer of substances in environment. Next, she took over preparation of a program for a laboratory of IAEA in Seibersdorf, Austria and ultimately she became a director of agency’s nuclear laboratory in department of sciences and applications. As one of her achievements she mentions establishing IAEA’s program for environment and radioecology on terrestrial research. She i the only director in IAEA that abolished his/her own position as a result or restructuring that she led. Finally, together with her colleague she founded a consulting company that takes care of training in environmental modeling. Apart from that, she’s also focused on radionuclide transfer in arid areas, the topic that becomes important with climate change and progressing desertification of lands. Apart from that, she is an editor of a scientific journal, which keeps her updated with the latest research. Outside of her job, she promotes gender equality in a workplace, since very often she used to be the only woman in a team and in IAEA for several years she was the only female director in the agency. Now it is improving and committees were created to support gender equality. Women in Nuclear in IAEA is also boosting and Gabriele is a president of WiN Global.

Radionuclide transfer in animals and humans (17:06)
17:06-22:26 (Gabriele explains the relations between the transfer of radionuclides in animals and humans)

Q. How does research on radionuclide transfer in animals relate to humans?
A. The studies that Gabriele did on the cows was focused on how radionuclides introduced in animal’s food can reach human in the form of food, drinks, direct exposure to skin, inhalation. However, as for direct translation between animal’s response to exposure and human’s exposure, it is not possible to realize in a simple way. However there are studies that try to find relations between different animals, Ideally, we would need to have comparison studies on humans, however this is obviously impossible due to ethical reasons. There is some data from epidemiological studies in e.g. Bikini atol inhabitants, Hiroshima. For humans there are models created by ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) that take into consideration the structure and mass of the organs, type of radionuclide. The models tend to overestimate the dose, to be on the secure side.

LNT and conservatism in radioprotection vs. general public (22:26)
22:56.-28:54 (Gabriele shares her insights into the influence of conservatism in nuclear on general public)

Q. Sometimes this conservatism can be problematic, for example when it leads to applying LNT (linear no-threshold model) in radiation protection. How do you explain it to people asking you about this?
A. People get suspicious when explained in too much detail. Gabriele points out that so much research has been done to find out the details, but with progressing knowledge, we also get more worried. People are worried about tiny amounts of radiation that they receive during a release, but they do not compare the magnitudes with what they receive during medical tests. After nuclear accidents many reports were published trying to establish the number of deaths, But it is not that easy, taking into account how small the doses absorbed are. For example, the liquidators in Chernobyl after finishing work were often marginalized due to their experiences and many ended up with alcohol addiction and dying of liver illnesses rather than cancer. So their deaths was radiation-related, because their job stigmatized them and caused personal hardships, but it was not radiation that killed them. It is very emotional discussion, and Gabriele together with Women in Nuclear works on re-establishing facts, because the statistics can be interpreted in any different ways, not always correctly. For example, in a small community around a NPP in Germany, there was a rise in leukemia rates among children. However, in a small sample, these rates were generated by two sick children instead of one, which is a high increase, but it cannot be said that it comes from radiation in NPP. This information has to be explained to people. 1,5y ago Gabriele took part in Clean Energy Ministerial, where for the first time nuclear was considered as a part of future energy mix. Gabriele hopes that in the future nuclear will be part of the energy solution, like SMRs.

Scientists and public education (28:54)
28:54-30:02 (Gabriele shares about the importance of government and media in public education)

Q. For this to happen we need to start with proper education of the public.
A. Gabriele says, that what we also need is politicians who are fighting for it and proper coverage of media. People don’t read scientific journals but mass media. Scientists have ignored it for too long to speak in an understandable language to press and TV. If they cannot do it, they need a so-to-speak translator to do it for them.

Trends in radioecology (30:02)
30:02-34:43 (Gabriele explains the latest trends in radiation studies)

Q. What do radio-ecologists work on in 2020?
A. There is still some studies after Fukushima – how the radionuclides work long-term. More and more modern tools are developed to combine geophysics and radioecological studies, to determine areas for emergency preparedness, direction of countermeasures, high-population areas, or lands rich in natural habitats. Apart from it, waste management is researched now, on how will the waste behave in a repository, the impact of climate change on radionuclide migration possibility of entering water and food chains. The marine environment is still a major sink of radionuclides, so it is studied now. Moreover, the self-healing potential of nature is being analyzed now. In Chernobyl exclusion zone the environment is changing with reduced human impact. Some species that were practically extinct, came back to this area. Long-term radiation or low radiation zones are interesting, also in relation to the hormesis theory. Gabriele, as a geneticist, points out, that a pressure put on organism causes protective reactions. In result, this organism is potentially more resistant than others. There is no proof of hormesis, that Gabriele is aware of, but from the biological point of view it could exist.

Studying the hormesis theory (34:43)
34:43-38:08 (Gabriele talks about a possible way to study hormesis theory)

Q. Is it possible to prove hormesis?
A. What is needed is a very low radiation area, with a dose that is hardly measurable. There was an idea to lead an experiment in a deep geological repository with bacteria, to check on survival rate and other parameters. We need deep geological isolation, because on the earth’s surface we are exposed to all kinds of radiation, starting with sunrays, through geology of the terrain.
The most pertinent directions of development of nuclear industry (38:08)
38:08-44:24 (Gabriele shares her opinions on the need for development of the nuclear industry)

Q. In IAEA you abolished your own position. Is nuclear industry ready for such restructuring or you were an exception?
A.IAEA is a special organization. On one side it’s a watchdog, taking care of nuclear safeguards. Another side of IAEA are applications in power sector, agriculture, and security and safety. Nuclear industry is now mostly developing in the branch of SMRs, as they present different advantages like water desalination, mobility, improved safety. The regulatory framework will need to progress, but there are some steps taken e.g. in Canada. Nuclear industry has to focus on issues like in Gabriele’s home country, Germany, where the government decided to shut down all reactors. When Gabriele was a teacher of radioecology, she used to have around 20 students, but ultimately she was left with only 5 people, as youngsters didn’t see future in nuclear sciences. In other countries, like in UAE, they get experts from the outside and train local staff.

Gender equality advantages and needs (44:24)
44:24-51:00 (Gabriele explains the features of an industry with gender equality and what needs to be done to foster it)

Q. What is the added value of having gender equality in nuclear industry or any technical industry.
A. Mixed team is the best solution. In the past it was men-dominated and small fraction of women working in the sector was rather doing the work in the laboratory, but it was men going to conferences to present the work. This is now slowly changing. The atmosphere is friendlier, the competition becomes more healthy. Gabriele recalls that her best employees were women after having kids, showing the best timeliness, efficiency and quality of work. In the end, all the diversity components are needed: all ages, all genders, no discrimination is allowed. It pays off, because the results of cooperation will be better. The gender inequalities show the most in the highest levels of decision making bodies. Right now, in the governance of IAEA there are 2 female directors out of the total of 6 people. Very often women don’t reach the highest level positions because they are too modest to foster their career. Apart from that, family life competes with successful career, a supportive partner is very important for a successful woman. Gabriele was privileged, because her husband supported her in her career choices. Gabriele mentions that in her former institute they had a program encouraging women to re-enter their career after having a child. However such women are lacking important time in their career path when they can climb the ladder, therefore they can never reach the top or get discouraged.

Systemic issues of gender inequality and WiN’s response to it (51:00)
51:00-53:48 (Gabriele enumerates the actions that WiN takes to support women in their careers)

Q. Can the problem of gender equality lie in the system, for example the unsuited recruitment process or other systemic obstacles that stop women from climbing the ladder?
A. In WiN there is a mentoring program between the female professionals to teach younger employees about the professional life, there is also a lot of contact with recruitment companies, because it’s a very good moment for women to apply for technical positions. The possible discriminations are related to specific institutions, but WiN is able to make women aware about it. In IAEA Gabriele is also working on providing better access to competent women, who would normally not apply for agency position. It is also important to prepare women for the job interviews, because women tend to undermine their achievements, while men tend to point them out, even by only using correct sentences, writing CV etc. This is where WiN can help.

Projects of WiN (53:48)
53:48-55:05 (Gabriele talks about the actions of WiN)

Q. Any other projects that WiN is proud of?
A. WiN is trying now to create more partnership agreements providing opportunities for the organization. Improving WiN’s website is also a priority.

A day in the life of WiN president (55:05)
55:05-58:50 (Gabriele shares soe insights from her everyday life a WiN president)

Q. How does a day of the president of WiN look like?
A. It is volunteer work, but everyday Gabriele works a couple of hours on WiN. At the moment new chapters in Africa and Latin America are being opened. They need support. Annual conference is planned, so Gabriele supervises scientific program preparation. She also acts as mentor to other women. She will hand over the presidency at the end of the year.

Gabriele’s future goals (58:50)
58:50-1:01:42 (Gabriele shares her next plans)

Q. Can you tell us about your plans for the future?
A. Gabriele has a lot of traveling plans for the coming future, very often she tries to relate it to work as well. The beauty of WiN is that the network is so extensive that you have a friend to show you around.

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