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Dr. Donald WallDr. Donald Wall: The Making of a Nuclear Scientist

Dr. Donald Wall graduated from EMU in 1990 with a chemistry degree.  He received the Bert W. Peet Award in 1990 which is presented to the top graduating major.  He subsequently completed his Ph.D. at Florida State University and is currently the Director of the Nuclear Radiation Center at Washington State University.  Recently, he shared the following stories with us regarding his experience as a student at EMU.

My original educational goal was to go to law school after finishing at EMU.  In fact, I still think that would be an interesting career choice.  I like a challenge.  I had already taken some of the classes that I needed to go in that path, and in the fall semester of 1986 I had to take a laboratory science course to meet the general education requirement for my degree.  I had taken AP biology a few years earlier when I was in high school so I thought that would be a good choice as I was already familiar with the subject and so it would not take up too much of my time that I would otherwise need for other classes.  As it happened, the biology class did not fit into my course schedule.  In fact, the only science class that did fit was chemistry.  I was really chagrined.  I had chemistry in high school and I HATED IT.  Probably it was one of the courses that I disliked the most.  Anyway, I sighed a sigh of resignation and figured I could tough it out for one semester so signed up for the first-semester general chemistry class.  Ronald Scott was the professor for the class.  I was very surprised.  Very, very surprised.  I found the class extremely interesting and thought that Ronald Scott was a really good professor.  This was not enough to get me to change my major, but I did decide to take the second semester of general chemistry, even though I was not required to do so.  I thought it was interesting and challenging and I wanted to learn more.  I found out that science is cool.  I had a part time job over at the U of M, and between the semester break one of the things that I did was stay all night in the Ford Reactor/Phoenix Memorial Laboratory building during the holiday shutdown.  Most of the time I sat at the front desk in the reception area, then walked through the building once per hour to check on things.  I was the only person in the building all night long, so I had a lot of time on my hands.  I brought the general chemistry textbook with me and studied it all night, night after night during the semester break.  It was so interesting that I could not resist!  There I was, studying a textbook all night, completely absorbed in the material. I could not wait for the spring semester to begin.  Looking back on it now, it is also an amusing coincidence that this took place at the FR/PML facility, since I work in a similar facility now.

WSU NRC reactor at full powerThe second semester class was taught by Professor Masanobu Yamauchi. I really liked this class too.  So much so that at the end of the Spring semester of 1987 I checked the course schedule and found that CHEM 281, Quantitative Analysis, was going to be offered over the summer and it looked like it would be really interesting, so I signed up for it even though chemistry was not yet my major.  Probably I was the only non-science student who was in the class just because it was interesting.  Well, that summer Charles Anderson was the professor for the class and laboratory.  We used the book written by Professor Steven Brewer, which I still have and occasionally use.  That summer I decided to switch my major to chemistry and I followed the professional chemistry curriculum with the group minor in mathematics and physics.  I have always been glad that I made that decision.  I regularly tell that story to undergraduate students as a way to encourage them to keep their minds open to possibilities that they may not have considered.

Here is another anecdote that I usually keep to myself.  I started a course here at WSU in nuclear reactor operations.  The goal is for undergraduate students to study the fundamentals of reactor behavior, along with some basics of radioactive decay, standard operating procedures and other things that are necessary to know when working in a reactor facility.  The goal is to prepare student to take the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission examination to become licensed as Nuclear Reactor Operators.  I teach the lecture section two evenings a week from 6:00 – 7:30.  It’s a little tiring coming right after a normal workday.  The students also come to the facility during normal business hours to learn/train/study with full time staff members.  Every once in a while a student will ask me why I do that.  I only tell them if they ask me directly, which is not very often.  I tell them that when I was an undergraduate I wanted to learn more about how to do research so I went to a professor and asked him if he was working on a project that I could assist with.  I did not want any pay, I just wanted to learn about experiments, laboratory equipment and so on, and I would be glad to do anything that there was to do.  He was a very kind man, and did have some work doing x-ray fluorescence (XRF) on some medieval coins.  It was very interesting and I really liked learning about XRF and x-ray diffraction (XRD), too.  The Professor was Giles Carter.  I asked him what graduate school was like, and did he think that would be a good idea for me.  He was very encouraging, and due to our conversations as well as the fact that I liked working in the laboratory, I decided to go to graduate school.

Dr. Wall with a nuclear fuel caskLater I was in Professor Wade Tornquist’s Instrumental Analysis class.  That semester we went over to the Ford Reactor facility to do a neutron activation analysis (NAA) experiment.  By that time I had already been in the reactor facility many times, but had never done an NAA experiment there.  I really started to like the idea of working with radioactive materials and it did not make me nervous the way it does to some people.  Maybe that was partly due to having had experience with XRD and XRF in the basement laboratory in Mark Jefferson.  So, when I found out that I could study actinide chemistry at Florida State it was easy to decide where to go to graduate school.     

Last summer, I went to Bowling Green State University to confer with a colleague and give a seminar.  I was scheduled to fly back to Washington late in the day on the Wednesday after Labor Day.  I had most of the day available, so I drove over to Ypsilanti and walked around the campus for the day.  I had a really enjoyable time just walking around.  I wanted to see the addition to the Mark-Jefferson building so I walked around in there for a while.  It’s really nice.  I looked into the lecture hall where I had general chemistry with Ronald Scott all those years ago, and reflected on how it changed my life, for the better in every way. 

WSU NRC Building The Nuclear Forensics Summer School is going to be held at Washington State University (WSU) this summer.  Dr. Wall will be doing about one third of the lectures and the entire laboratory portion of the course will be conducted at the WSU Nuclear Radiation Center.  Click here for a flyer with information about the program.

The WSU NRC website has links to different news stories about the facility and program.

 - Posted 3/4/15


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