Eliot Circular

Pink Shoes, Blue Glow

Photo by Leah Nash

By Randall S. Barton

Melinda Krahenbuhl, director of the Reed Research Reactor, has become the first woman to chair the National Organization of Test, Research, and Training Reactors (TRTR).

The organization facilitates communication among reactor directors, educators, regulators, administrators, research scientists, and engineers, sharing advances in research and education, operating experience, health and safety, and information technology.

Krahenbuhl has had other firsts. She became the first female reactor operator in her home state of Utah and was in the first wave of women to become reactor supervisors. While working as the director of a reactor for a large chemical company, she was prompted to give the corporate world the boot.

“I was sitting in the control room of the reactor and happened to be wearing a pair of pink shoes,” she recalls. “They were totally appropriate for office wear, closed-toe and closed-heel shoes. My boss came in and reprimanded me for wearing shoes that stood out. If you’re dressed appropriately it shouldn’t matter what color your shoes are. But apparently it did matter in that environment, and so I started looking for a new job.”

She found a fit as the director of Reed’s reactor in 2011 and is passionate about both research reactors and her work here at the college.

“Many women my age were the first woman at something,” she says. “I was lucky to have as mentors men who didn’t have the pink-shoe problem. There are always a few who keep the door open because they’re gender blind. I’m the first woman to chair the TRTR organization, though I’ve been at the door with these men for a very long time. We all came through together, having got our PhD’s about the same time. I feel really lucky that they didn’t close the door just because I was a woman.”

Reed’s TRIGA Mark I reactor was established in 1968 and is licensed to operate at any power up to 250 kW. 

Within the reactor community Reed enjoys a strong reputation for its training program, Krahenbuhl says. Every year, it trains and licenses 15 new reactor operators—including those who major in art, classics, and linguistics, as well as physics, chemistry, and biology. Approximately half of the 46 student reactor operators at Reed are women.

While there is no definitive accounting, officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say that Reed licenses many more female operators than any other research reactor in the nation, and that in some years, Reed licenses more female operators than all other research reactors combined.