When Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar was elected to serve as 2020-2021 President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) — the fifth female to be elected president in ANS history — she was looking forward to traveling to meet with constituents in student and local sections, both in the U.S. and internationally. ANS is an ABET member society whose mission and vision are to advance the development and application of nuclear science, engineering and technology for their vital contributions to improving society and preserving the planet. Dunzik-Gougar was still serving as Vice President and President-Elect of ANS when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which put an abrupt halt to her travel plans. Like many others, she adapted and found that she was actually able to reach more ANS members remotely than any previous president had been able to with physical visits to each section. As she steps down from her term this June, she reflects on her service and impact to the nuclear community during her tenure as ANS President.

Small Town U.S.A.

Dunzik-Gougar was born and raised in Millersburg, Pennsylvania. She describes her hometown as idyllic, with a gazebo in the town square and a ferry that still runs back and forth across the Susquehanna River.

She was only two years old when her father suddenly passed away. He had just finished college, and her mother had planned to enroll after her father had graduated. Instead, her mother worked hard to make ends meet while raising two young children as a single mother in the 1960s and 70s.

“I learned later all the things that she did or didn’t do, like free lunches at school because, as it turns out, we were pretty much always below the line where those things happen,” Dunzik-Gougar recalled. “But she wouldn’t accept any of it because she didn’t want us kids to have that stigma. She just wanted us to think that we were like everybody else.”

She credits her mom with instilling in her a passion for education and an appreciation of the importance of the higher education her mother was never able to experience.

Three Mile Island

Millersburg is approximately 30 miles from the site of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, site of the nation’s worst nuclear accident in history. The nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, which resulted in the release of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the atmosphere. Nearby residents fled the surrounding area and at the height of the crisis, plant workers were exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation, but no deaths were officially reported as a result of the accident. However, the event at Three Mile Island halted further development of the U.S. nuclear power industry and eroded the public’s perception of nuclear energy in a time of energy crisis.

A freshman in high school at the time, Dunzik-Gougar remembers the confusion at school over what was unfolding just a few miles down the Susquehanna River.  

“I’ve never really been able to pinpoint exactly where my nuclear interest started, but I know that had to play a role because I’m just a curious person,” Dunzik-Gougar affirmed. “Everyone talking and wondering what to do must have ingrained itself in my brain. I wanted to know, what is this? What is nuclear?”

By the time she began applying to colleges, she had decided she wanted to become a nuclear medical technician, so she applied to schools in Pennsylvania offering that degree and ended up at Cedar Crest College. Dunzik-Gougar thrived at the private liberal arts women’s college and was active in all of the theatrical productions during her time there. She also discovered that nuclear medical technology required a lot of biology, so she switched her major to chemistry and earned her teaching certification at Cedar Crest.

An Untraditional Path

After college, she taught high school science and math in Southern Maryland for a few years before getting the itch to travel. She set to work applying to teaching positions at schools all over the world. Eventually, she settled on a boarding school in England, where she could live on campus and spend every minute she wasn’t teaching or on dorm duty traveling through Europe.

After returning to the U.S., with plans to pursue graduate studies at Penn State, Dunzik-Gougar heard of a position at Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) that involved living in the areas of the Limerick and Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plants and doing community outreach. She thought to herself, “This job was made just for me!”

She secured the position and spent her days doing experiments with science classes at local schools, giving after-dinner presentations at local Lions Clubs and conducting scout workshops and tours at the power plants. She also attended the annual meeting of ANS in Philadelphia that year. She became a member while at the meeting and joined the student section of ANS as soon as she enrolled at Penn State.

Dunzik-Gougar was appointed to serve as a student representative on the ANS Board of Directors during her graduate school years. She was the second student ever appointed to the position and the last, because after her term, students were elected to serve based on bylaws she drafted during her time as a student representative.

“I’ve been heavily engaged ever since,” Dunzik-Gougar reflected. “There have been benefits and values to my professional development at the different stages of my career. And at all of the stages, I felt it was a really constructive thing to be a part of. I’ve benefited from the society, but I think I’ve also contributed a lot to the society. It’s a very gratifying situation.”

A Chain Reaction

While at Penn State pursuing a master’s in environmental science with a focus on radioactive waste management, a nuclear professor convinced Dunzik-Gougar to apply for a fellowship to fund Ph.D. studies in nuclear engineering. At the time, she was ambivalent about starting a fellowship when her plan had been to earn an M.S. and then start a family. Luckily, she was able to do both. Dunzik-Gougar now refers to her son, Charlie, as her master’s baby and her daughter, Bette, as her Ph.D. baby. She earned the fellowship and performed her research, while working part time, at Argonne National Lab-West while she completed her Ph.D.

The Dunzik-Gougar family.

The fellowship was specifically earmarked for women and minorities, but that’s never bothered her in the slightest. “I have this opportunity because I’m female, so I’m making most of it,” stated Dunzik-Gougar. “I am proving to people out there who are skeptical that I’m every bit as good as anybody else. That’s the way you need to approach it, because if you keep second guessing yourself, you’re just going to eat yourself up.”

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, women account for fewer than 30 percent of the world’s researchers and scientists. The nuclear field is no exception. Dunzik-Gougar arrived at Penn State at a time when the school was struggling to enroll students that reflected society. While universities still struggle to some extent with the same problem today, she is optimistic about the future.

Now the associate dean of the Idaho State University (ISU) College of Science and Engineering, associate professor of nuclear engineering and a senior reactor operator at ISU’s Aerojet-General Nucleonics nuclear reactor (AGN-201), she notices she always has more women than men in her freshman-level classes. By graduation time, it’s closer to 50-50, depending on the year. When she first took the position, the number of female nuclear faculty in the U.S. was in the single digits. She now estimates that around 20 to 30 percent of nuclear faculty identify as female.

“We have a way to go, but we’re making strides,” Dunzik-Gougar said. “One thing I’ve seen over the years is that no matter what their particular area of focus, nuclear people are just really passionate about nuclear. And it permeates. I think that draws people in, women included. By and large, we tend to lose sight of the physical person when we tap into that passion.”

Presidential Achievements

Dunzik-Gougar is also passionate about K-12 education and the potential for impacting the profession through younger students. Both through Idaho State and ANS, she is involved in outreach to advance the awareness of nuclear science in younger generations, from giving local schools tours of the AGN-201 reactor facility to leading teacher workshops.

When asked about the importance of nuclear, Dunzik-Gougar likes to quote from the Atoms for Peace speech that President Eisenhower gave to the United Nations in 1953: “Experts will be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

She gets excited about the field because this 1953 promise still holds true. Nuclear technology can be used in an array of different areas — from agriculture, to medicine, to electricity production. Today, about 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from carbon-free nuclear energy.

As ANS President, Dunzik-Gougar has worked diligently to counteract the misperceptions about nuclear power and to promote its benefits as a clean source of energy.

“Our voices can be powerful inside our own nuclear community, but outside as well,” she explained. “We are, as a nuclear industry, really hampered by the level of regulation we experience. We have a very conservative and not very accurate model describing how radiation affects people.”

She hopes the U.S. will eventually get to a new model through multi-year, multi-institution, multi-government efforts, but the first step was starting the conversation internally.

Dunzik-Gougar with her red Audi 6-speed sports car
Dunzik-Gougar now enjoys the open roads of Idaho in her Audi 6-speed manual.

Another major accomplishment of her tenure has been her work with Discovery Education, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel. Discovery approached ANS about creating professional curriculum materials to help K-12 educators teach their students about nuclear science. ANS was eager to contribute, but under one condition: their materials wouldn’t be behind a paywall. By soliciting outside donations and partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy, they were able to create nuclear curriculum materials for teaching elementary, middle and high school students, all freely available through Discovery Education. Dunzik-Gougar has contributed to these efforts from the beginning, and in August, she was filmed for the “Navigating Nuclear: Energizing Our World” segment.

Quality Assurance

Dunzik-Gougar started her joint appointment with ISU and the Idaho National Lab in 2004, just as ISU was planning to begin offering nuclear engineering degrees at the undergraduate level. To ensure the successful accreditation of the new program, she and Department Chair Michael Lineberry (who also served as one of her mentors) endeavored to learn as much as possible about the process. At the same time, she began attending meetings of the ANS Accreditation Policies and Procedures Committee, and ANS sponsored her to become an ABET Program Evaluator (PEV) to serve the Society.

She feels serving as a PEV for the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET has enabled her to pick up best practices in terms of teaching and administration and widen her professional circle. Becoming a commissioner for the Applied and Natural Science Accreditation Commission (ANSAC) of ABET has broadened her experience base even further, as she’s chaired teams to review programs outside the engineering disciplines.

“I’ve been very impressed with the programs and the schools themselves,” Dunzik-Gougar said. “And while I learn, I hope that my reviews prove helpful to those on the receiving end, as well. The faculty invest significant time and effort in preparing for reviews and I want to show respect and appreciation for their hard work, and in my findings be very clear and constructive so that the faculty get value from the process.”

Her accreditation service doesn’t stop with ABET. About four years ago, a colleague recommended her to serve on the Accrediting Board of the National Academy of Nuclear Training, a suborganization of Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (commonly known as INPO), which accredits training programs for employees at nuclear power plants (NPPs). This was a true honor for Dunzik-Gougar, who has served on the review boards for half a dozen NPPs to date and just signed up for another term. This experience has helped her learn about the day-to-day operations of the power industry and the key role that training plays.

Although Dunzik-Gougar will step down from her role as 2020-2021 ANS President this June, her efforts to reverse misperceptions about nuclear energy and advance awareness of its many benefits will continue, and her legacy will undoubtedly live on.