WPI Receives More Than $1.1 Million in Awards from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The funding will help fill a critical global need for a new generation of nuclear engineering and science experts and support important medical imaging research
December 15, 2014

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has awarded Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) four nuclear education grants totaling more than $1.1 million for scholarships, fellowships, curriculum development, and medical and health physics research within its revitalized Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) Program.

WPI was one of 37 higher education institutions to benefit from $15 million in grants that the NRC awarded recently for scholarships, fellowships, and faculty development through its Nuclear Education Program.

"WPI will use the use the majority of this funding to support the national objective for reinvigorating the nuclear power industry," said Germano S. Iannacchione, head of the WPI Department of Physics, which houses the department NSE Program. “The other funding will go towards research into improved radiation therapy for cancer patients, as well as improving medical imaging technologies.”

WPI received the following awards:

• $367,000 to support faculty development for—and research in—–WPI’s NSE Program

• $400,000 to fund two graduate students per year for four years.

• $196,000 to fund eight undergraduate student scholarships per year for two years.

• $198,000 to fund the development of new curricula for the undergraduate and graduate components of the NSE program.

The awards topped WPI’s expectations, Iannacchione said. "We were hoping to get one of the four awards we requested. It’s almost unheard of to have a 100 percent success rate."

"There is both a domestic and worldwide need for highly qualified nuclear professionals to keep nuclear power plants and nuclear materials safe and secure," NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane noted in a news release announcing the new awards. "The NRC is pleased to sponsor these grant programs as they offer college and university recipients an opportunity to encourage their best and brightest to pursue careers in nuclear engineering, health physics, radiochemistry, and related sciences."

With the decline in the domestic nuclear power industry, WPI's original nuclear engineering program was discontinued more than a decade ago and the university's 10 kilowatt research reactor has been decommissioned. However, with the aging of the nuclear engineering workforce and renewed interest in nuclear energy as a greener alternative to electricity generated with fossil fuels, the demand for graduates prepared to work in various facets of the nuclear industry is growing.

WPI has responded by establishing the NSE program, which currently offers a concentration within the physics major at the undergraduate level and a graduate certificate. The program is directed by David C. Medich, assistant professor of physics, who joined the WPI faculty in 2012 after serving as director of the Radioactive Materials Program and director of radiation safety at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

WPI’s NSE program focuses on energy, medicine, the environment, and economics, Iannacchione said. It draws on the university's traditional strengths in mechanical engineering (thermodynamics, materials, power generation and transfer), electrical and computer engineering (power controls and distribution), and chemical engineering (processes and materials), along with its expertise in the life sciences (medical physics, radiology, biomedical engineering), environmental engineering, and sustainability. "From climate change to economic development to health to security—these are all challenges that come together in the area of nuclear science and engineering," Iannacchione said.

In addition to providing undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships to students in the NSE program, the NRC funds will support the development of new undergraduate and graduate courses for the program. Under the direction of principal investigator Izabela Stroe, assistant professor of physics, the Physics Department will develop four new courses to augment the existing NSE curriculum and begin to build the foundation for a program that will ultimately enable WPI to award bachelor of science, master of science, and PhD degrees in nuclear science and engineering, as well as undergraduate minor.

The new NRC awards will also support research on radiation therapy and medical imaging by Medich. An expert in brachytherapy physics and nuclear diagnostic imaging, Medich holds a PhD in physics/health physics/radiological sciences from UMass Lowell. The NRC award will enable Medich to continue to pursue work on computer simulations of brachytherapy using ytterbium-169.

Brachytherapy is a form of radiation treatment for cancerous tumors in which seeds of a radioactive material are implanted in the tumor; ytterbium-169 is currently under study as an alternative radiation source that may be more potent and less harmful to healthy tissue than materials currently used in brachytherapy. Medich will also continue work on a novel type of functional medical imaging that uses neutrons that has the potential to produce images that are higher in resolution than even MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) images or PET (positron emission tomography) scans.

Iannacchione said Medich's experience and expertise (he is a qualified expert and consultant for the International Atomic Energy Agency who earlier in his career conducted research on the efficacy of high-dose-rate brachytherapy treatment while a senior radiation physicist at Implant Sciences Corporation) has allowed WPI to quickly launch a "reimagined and revitalized" nuclear sciences program.