Nuclear science first penetrated American consciousness with the building of the atomic bomb. It has become both a beneficial and destructive force that influences many aspects of human life from energy, to the environment, to medicine. Yet this field of study —that peers into the atomic nuclei — is something people generally don’t teach or talk too much about. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL) Physics Professor Shelly Lesher is working to change that. Lesher launched a new podcast, “My Nuclear Life,” in December that explores the intersection of nuclear science and society through interviews with historians, policymakers, and other experts.
“I wanted to share my love for physics and the excitement of the field with the public, and I hope they become excited about physics too,” she says. Episodes of the podcast series cover topics such as: nuclear sanctions, the start of radium therapy to treat cancer, and the beginning of the environmental movement in the U.S. They don’t require a nuclear science background and can be accessed for free at: mynuclearlife.com.
Lesher, who was elected 2020 American Physical Society Fellow, is an expert in nuclear science and has taught the course, “Navigating Global Nuclear Issues” at UWL since 2015. In 2019-20, she brought her unique UWL class about the history of the atomic bomb and its implications on society to Yale University through a prestigious fellowship. While colleagues encouraged Lesher to write a book on nuclear science, she opted for a podcast instead. The format allows her to bring diverse voices in the field to the table, she says. And the pandemic has made those experts more readily available for interviews as they are now home instead of traveling the world for speaking engagements.
Among her first six episodes is an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, who wrote, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” She interviews Dr. Leslie Dewan, co-founder of Transatomic Power, one of the first startup companies attempting to bring a Generation IV reactor to market. In another episode, she connects with Richard Nephew, former principal deputy coordinator for the sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department and lead sanctions expert for the U.S. negotiating team with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. “It really is a dream to ask people I admire to come on the show, discuss topics we love, and then share it with others,” says Lesher.
The podcasts have received positive reviews, and the initial programs have become a good basis to attract potential guests. “When I contact new guests, they can listen to the show and see what it is all about and decide if they want to take part,” she says. “When a prospective guest listens and thinks it’s good, then I know I’ve done something right.” Lesher’s fascination with nuclear physics started in college. As a sophomore at Indiana University South Bend, she was involved in a nuclear physics research lab at the nearby University of Notre Dame. While studying nuclear physics, she and other students were challenged to think about the implications of the field and whether they would or would not eventually pursue a career involving the development of nuclear weapons. Lesher spent time at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory but later opted to pursue teaching about nuclear physics. It is a path where she has been able to convey her own curiosity and knowledge about the field.
Lesher encourages her students to ponder the history of nuclear science and the ethics of scientific decision-making. Her podcast is adding to their hands-on experiences in the field. An undergraduate physics student, Lexie Weghorn, has been key in producing the series. Weghorn had an interest in physics and society and is now researching topics, finding guests for the show, and adding a unique perspective. She will soon join conversations on the podcast as well. Lesher hopes to keep student involvement in the program as part of the podcast in the future. Listen in now!
UW-La Crosse Physics Professor Shelly Lesher’s new podcast series — “My Nuclear Life” — explores the intersection of nuclear science and society through interviews with historians, policymakers, and others. Access the first season of six episodes at: mynuclearlife.com. The second season is scheduled for release on Tuesday, March 2. A snapshot of several episodes: • Saving the world with nuclear energy: Is there another way forward in nuclear science to help decrease our carbon footprint at a time when the world is desperately trying to prevent a climate disaster? The answer maybe with the Generation IV reactor. The co-founder of a startup company attempting to bring one to the market shares what’s on the path ahead. • How it all began: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Making of the Atomic Bomb” shares the beginning of nuclear science as a field until the Manhattan Project was approved. • Thwarting nuclear ambitions with sanctions: The lead sanctions expert on the U.S. negotiating team for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — also known as the Iran nuclear deal — discusses the JCPOA, sanctions, and what to expect from President-elect Biden’s administration.
Making waves in nuclear physics, APS Shelly Lesher was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $396,747 to develop a detector array at the University of Notre Dame with help from several UWL students. Lesher is also director of the Conference Experience for Undergraduate (CEU) program for the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) at the American Physical Society (APS).