PROFILE: Mitchell oversees nuclear education program

Writer: Brook Stockbeger
Las Cruces Sun-News Business Editor

LAS CRUCES – Nuclear power has been in the forefront of the world’s collective consciousness lately. Sadly, the reasons deal with Japan’s double-whammy disaster of an earthquake and tsunami that have damaged a power plant and have led to phrases like “radiation leak” and “emergency zone,” making their way through the news cycle.

Martha Mitchell

Chemical Engineering Department Head Martha Mitchell

So what better time to remind people of the positive aspects of work in the nuclear field.

“Nuclear medicine is a big component of the business,” Martha Mitchell, 43, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at New Mexico State University, said.

And nuclear power plants, most of which supply electricity for millions of customers without causing many of those customers a second thought, are always in need of good workers, not just nuclear engineers.

That’s one of the reasons NMSU developed a nuclear education program in 2009, with funding from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The program resides within the Department of Chemical Engineering and includes a minor for undergraduate students pursuing bachelor’s degree in engineering or science.

“There’s a need for having highly trained people – scientists and engineers – in nuclear energy,” Mitchell said.

Study at NMSU won’t make someone a nuclear engineer – the University of New Mexico does have such a program – but will help prepare a student who wants to work in the nuclear industry or any of its affiliated industries.

Mitchell points out that nuclear study and nuclear energy have a long history in New Mexico, not even counting the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was tested.

“In the past there has been mining of uranium,” she said. “There’s an enrichment facility in Eunice and we have Los Alamos and Sandia (national labs).”

Mitchell said the nuclear education minor requires 18 credits and that one has not been granted yet, but there are students who should earn one next semester.

Mitchell is a native of Missouri and earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin and her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. She arrived at NMSU in 1996 and became department head in 2005. Mitchell said that she and her husband, Shaun, have boys aged 5 and 9 and so family takes up a lot of her non-work time. Also, “I’m very fortunate to be part of a book club I love,” she said.

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