NAME: Catherine Organo
CURRENT TITLE: Scientific Officer in Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, Office of Radiological Protection, Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Radiation protection, radiological impact assessment, radiation emergency planning, food chain contamination post deposition, atmospheric dispersion modelling, and post-accident management options in agriculture.
YEARS EXPERIENCE: 6 years in nuclear emergency preparedness; previously, 7 years in the area of indoor radon gas research and monitoring (where I tried to make some use of my geology background), 3 years as a post doctorate working on sediment and water movements in estuarine environments, and 3 years doing a PhD on uranium behaviour in marine sediments.
EDUCATION: PhD in Marine Geochemistry, MSc in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, BSc in Applied Geology (oil prospection and hydrogeology)
What’s your job like?
My job is quite varied, but mainly it involves working with computer models used to assist us with being better prepared to respond to a nuclear or radiological emergency if one was to happen (at home or abroad) and integrating this use into procedures and handbooks that guide us when/if we need to answer questions asked by the Irish government and/or members of the public. Examples of these questions would be:
- When will the radioactive plume reach Ireland?
- What is the extent of the ground contamination?
- Do farmers need to bring cattle indoors and for how long?
- Can I eat the lettuces that are growing in my garden?
I organize and take part in table-top exercises that are designed to test our level of preparedness, identify gaps in our procedures, and improve coordination between technical experts from weather forecasters to food production or agriculture scientists. Collaborating with others is very important in this area and being good at networking is definitely an asset. In the middle of it all, I also keep a few weeks free every year to put my other hat on which is to provide scientific and technical advice to our Department of the Environment on issues discussed by the Radioactive Substances Committee under the OSPAR (Oslo and Paris) Convention (The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic).
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day involves working on a whole range of things, so being flexible helps a lot (easier to say than do…). So, I could be writing briefing notes for government departments, providing comments on documents that have been sent to me (scientific papers written by colleagues, corporate documents, etc.), checking that our communication links are working properly and that data used by our models are correctly processed, exchanging information with model developers (these discussions invariably ‘grow legs’), logging issues on the help desk (after you’ve finished discussing with the model developers) in a very iterative way, planning and attending meetings, registering for conferences, reading and answering emails, and when there is quiet time, trying to read papers and reports to stay up-to-date with the latest scientific and policy developments.
When people ask you what you do, and after hearing your answer, they look at you like you have two heads. Sometimes I wish this was the case to help me get through my daily job (and who hasn’t wished this?). Then, they either think you’re a nerd or a cross between a spy and some crazy chap wearing a suit (to be protected from the radiation). And, of course, that you glow in the dark.
The lack of time for real in-depth work can sometimes be frustrating, especially for somebody coming from an academic background with years of training to be a scientist. I also miss field work, since most of my time is spent at a desk in an office.
What’s your advice to students?
Keep your options open, don’t be afraid of new challenges (you never know where they will lead you), work on your networking and time management skills early, learn to ask questions, and be curious and open.