Alumna Profile

Kathryn Higley ’78

Kathryn Higley in the radioecology greenhouse at Oregon State University.  Courtesy of Oregon State University 

Radiating Enthusiasm

By Raymond Rendleman ’06

It’s no coincidence that Kathy Higley rose to the position of supervisor for the Reed reactor as a student and that she is now head of Oregon State University’s nuclear engineering & radiation health physics department.

Kathy credits Larry Church [chemistry, 1973–80] as “a great adviser.” Larry and Mike Pollock [reactor 1972–94] were the reactor’s primary administrative heads.

Her senior thesis was on the light-emission properties of thermoluminescent chips, used as radiation measuring devices. She doesn’t remember how anyone at Reed obtained the mysterious TLDs, but once they were in her hands (so to speak), she was able to gamma-irradiate them in the reactor, and then use a newly acquired Tektronix rapid-scan spectrophotometer to look at the heated chips’ light emissions. 

The experience and training at the Reed reactor enabled her to start working for Portland General Electric as a radioecologist. That job was a stepping stone to work for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, when she started reviewing plans for safety preparedness at nuclear plants across the country. In 1994, after completing a PhD in radiological health sciences, she joined the faculty at OSU.

Kathy’s research today focuses on environmental transport and fate of radionuclides; radiochemistry; radiation dose assessment; neutron activation analysis; nuclear emergency response; and environmental regulations. In addition to her experience with reactors at Reed and OSU, she also held a reactor research position at Washington State University in Pullman.

“The thoughtful, intelligent, inquisitive students unleashed on an unsuspecting world” make for her proudest accomplishments in her career so far. “The beauty of my time at Reed was that most of my experience was hands-on. I try to bring that opportunity to as many of my students as I can.”