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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

Biggest Class Ever

commencement09

Cup and gown: New grads Jenny Leonard and Clara Siegel toast the class of ’09 with a slug of java.

Reed held its 95th commencement ceremony on May 18, beneath a gleaming big top tent coated with a thin layer of pollen. An astonishing 322 students were graduated, making the class of ’09 the largest in Reed history. In his commencement address, NPR Middle East correspondent Eric Westervelt ’91 described his job search after his own graduation. “I wanted to be a reporter,” he said. “But instead, as summer turned to fall, I was waiting tables at a crappy restaurant out near the airport.” After a number of unsuccessful interviews, he finally landed an internship with Oregon Public Broadcasting that required him to come to work in the middle of the night. Westervelt advised Reed graduates who have similar trouble getting a job to “have high tolerance for the pain if you get hit with rejection notices at first. Try to think: this can make me stronger.”

After recounting various experiences in war zones, Westervelt bestowed his central piece of wisdom. “Always have an exit strategy,” he cautioned. “This certainly applies to melees, riots, revolutions, and general uncontrolled, violent street chaos, . . . [but] it also certainly applies to bad jobs, bad relationships, bad loans, and disastrous foreign policy wars of choice.” Westervelt also recommended occasionally stepping back from one’s hectic existence, just as he once did in Israel after accidentally dropping his cell phone down a drain. “After the initial shock, I have to confess: it felt terrific,” he said. “I’d advise you in the years ahead to sometimes flush your cell phone down the toilet.”

Graduates rang in the day in classic Reed style, decorating their mortarboard caps with flowers, cats, and duct tape. One grad, sporting yellow and orange feathers in her cap, placed an enormous sombrero on the head of President Colin Diver as she received her diploma. Another draped a Cuban flag over his shoulders and poured Diver a shot of rum, which the president graciously (or was it gratefully?) downed. However, Diver seemed less eager to embrace the affections of a small black dog, gleefully placed in his arms by another grad, which administered a comprehensive licking to the presidential chin before being whisked away.

—Catherine Hinchliff ’10

Knight in Glowing Armor

A random stroll across the Reed campus almost never fails to yield an instructive encounter or an intriguing spectacle. Nevertheless, we were surprised recently to see an imposing figure zipping about the quad on a segway in the garb of an English knight. Diligent inquiry revealed that the two-wheeled troubadour is none other than Stephen Frantz, the director of Reed’s nuclear reactor.

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Photo by Orin Zyvan ’04

If the juxtaposition of chain mail and chain reaction seems somewhat surreal, it is worth pointing out that the reactor itself is an endearing combination of modern and medieval. Housed in an undisclosed location somewhere between Woodstock and Steele, the TRIGA Mark I reactor consists of 64 zirconium/uranium hydride fuel elements deployed in a circular grid encased in a ring of graphite (that’s the high-tech part). This device lies at the bottom of an open pool that is replenished with a garden hose and smells vaguely of gravel (that’s the low-tech part). A rubber duck floats serenely oy for trace element detection—that is, figuring out what elements are present in a particular handful of stuff. The particular technique employed, known as neutron activation analysis, is extraordinarily sensitive and is capable of detecting elements at parts per billion. Over time, the reactor has been used to determine the composition of rock samples, to assess selenium concentrations in the brains of rats, to analyze traces of gunpowder, and to test for environmental contamination.

Since 1968, when the reactor first went into operation, approximately 68 grams of its original 2.5 kilograms of uranium-235 have been transmuted into elements such as xenon, cesium, and many others. The reactor generates no electricity—only thermal energy (aka “heat” to non-engineers) to the tune of 250 kilowatts. In practical terms, the reactor is too cool to melt down and too small to blow up (it does not contain enough uranium to reach critical mass).

Nonetheless, Stephen, who spent four years in the U.S. Navy as an engineering officer aboard the nuclear submarine USS Simon Bolivar, takes an extremely serious attitude towards safety, especially radiation exposure. One of his favorite questions is when nervous visitors ask whether students are allowed to run the reactor. “We rely on students to run the reactor!” he says. In fact, the Reed reactor is the only one in the nation to issue operating licenses to undergraduates. “I tell students that being licensed to operate a nuclear reactor may not get them a job, but it’ll probably get them an interview.”

—Chris Lydgate ’90

reed magazine logoSummer 2009