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Radiation Explored at the Spectrum Lecture Series

When you think radiation, do you think food, or packaging, or medical treatment? Well according to Dr. Marc F. Desrosiers, speaker at the Spectrum Lecture Series, radiation is used for all sorts of purposes, good and bad, but too much of it can be lethal. Desrosiers’s lecture on Thursday, October 10th, explored the effects of radiation on humans, its role in our society, and the importance of radiation research.

Dr. Desrosiers listed several uses of radiation, but he largely focused on two types of package processing. The first form of processing discussed was gamma ray processing, a collection of isotope Cobalt-60 that absorbs photons from water, giving off UV rays. In water, Cobalt glows a beautiful bright blue. The second form of radiation processing mentioned was electron-beam processing. With this method, electrons are accelerated to the speed of light, producing sufficient energy for radiation. Sounds straight out of a sci-fi novel right? These two forms of radiation production have existed since the 1980s.

So what is so important about these forms of radiation processing? Gamma ray processing and electron-beam processing were the causes of two major accidents that Dr. Desrosiers studied. One accident took place in San Salvador in 1989. Three men were exposed to gamma ray radiation; one died, one lost a leg, another had severe tissue damage. The second accident was in our neighboring town of Gaithersburg in the 1990s. A man suffered severe tissue damage from electron-beam processing in his hands, feet and scalp, leading to the loss of his fingers. Upon seeing photographs of the victims, a collective gasp was heard from the audience.

Desrosiers detailed the science behind radiation and its effects on humans. Radiation interacts with water in cells and alters its DNA. This interaction changes how the exposed DNA functions. We are exposed to radiation regularly. Sun exposure is a form of radiation. However, our bodies can handle only so much radiation. Major radiation exposure would be cause for concern.

Though the mentioned accidents are horrible, new knowledge was obtained. Dr. Desrosiers studied radiation exposure in the victims’ bones. This helped produce a better understanding of what safe levels of radiation exposure are.

Who knew man-made radiation was so prevalent? Therein lies the interest of the Spectrum Lecture Series. Professor Susan Bontems said the series is a way “to expose students to real-world science. Many science students only think of careers in nursing or becoming a doctor, dentist or pharmacist.  They don’t consider other exciting career options where they can similarly impact the world in a positive way through science research.”

It seems as though this goal was met. Chemistry student Kodjo Messan said “The lecture is good, it helps to know what kind of jobs there are. I am interested in radioactive research, this helped.” he said. For Saba Safa, though finding the lecture interesting, radiation research is not for her after seeing the pictures of the victims, she said.

If interested in a science-oriented career, keep an eye out for the next Spectrum Lecture. Who knows, you may find your dream job! “A couple of years ago, a speaker hired one of our students to work in his laboratory. They would not have met without this lecture series.” said Professor Bontems. And if no job comes of it, you will at least learn something new.

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