Professor connecting science to legislation and students and research to civic engagement

Michael Hendricks is an advocate for civic engagement who particularly emphasizes integrating STEM into the legislative process. He helped orchestrate the foundation of the MOST Policy Initiative, designed to infuse scientific research and evidence-based approaches into the bills passed by the Missouri Congress.

Hendricks' expertise extends into the world of academia, where he serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. In this role, he has led groundbreaking research and educational advancements. Beyond research, he is dedicated to teaching, mentoring, and engaging in continuing education classes. These efforts reflect his passion for fostering personal and intellectual growth within the community.

JL: Could you describe the teaching schedule for a political science professor like yourself?

Hendricks: In this role, one engages in instructing a diverse range of subjects. There are foundational classes introducing students to the political concepts in various regions, such as Latin American and Central American Politics. These courses lay the groundwork for a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and expose undergraduate students to these regions' politics, economics, and cultures.

But then, the schedule takes an exciting turn, offering more specialized classes tailored to students' interests. Here's where my experience with MOST Policy Initiative truly comes into play. I get to delve into subjects like civic and community engagement in one of my favorite courses, a graduate seminar on community development – a course where real-world applications and academic theories meet.

Perhaps the highlight of my undergraduate teaching experience is a course I designed during my graduate studies. This class revolves around drug trafficking and international security, exploring its far-reaching influences. I had the opportunity to sculpt every aspect of this course, from the readings and assignments to the minor details of curriculum development. The engagement it garners from students always makes this class a rewarding experience, combining serious scholarly exploration with lively discussion and exploration. It's a unique fusion of my academic journey and the present teaching experience that makes this part of my schedule particularly gratifying.

Michael Hendricks is an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

JL: In addition to your teaching responsibilities, I understand you're also deeply involved in research. Could you tell us more about the subjects you explore and the tangible outcomes of your work?

Hendricks: My research primarily concentrates on resource extraction in Latin America, a subject that is both multifaceted and impactful. I'm particularly interested in the extraction process's effect on the public and how people perceive the threats or opportunities associated with mining.

One of the major milestones in my research journey is the co-authored book titled “The Roots of Engagement: Understanding Opposition and Support for Resource Extraction.” This book stands as the first comprehensive examination to measure social engagement within organizations and directly link that engagement with attitudes about extraction and development.

Within the book, readers will discover a trove of original insights gathered from public opinion surveys and interviews conducted in three key sites of protracted conflict: Peru, South Africa, and Nicaragua. These case studies allow us to delve into individual-level approaches to attitudes about mining, reflecting the complex interplay between societal values, economic imperatives, and environmental considerations.

But my scholarly pursuit doesn't end with resource extraction. I've also extensively researched peacekeeping effectiveness, examining its real-world impacts on saving lives and protecting civilians. My findings are not merely theoretical or empirical; they have practical implications for international peacekeeping operations. Understanding these dynamics can inform better strategies and more targeted interventions, enhancing the ability of peacekeeping forces to foster stability and protect those most vulnerable.

JL: You've built an impressive body of work over the years, but your true passion lies in teaching. How do you nurture and manifest this passion?

Hendricks: Teaching is more than a profession to me; it's a calling to inspire and empower. I attend Inclusion, Equity, Diversity, and Access workshops and training to make my material more inclusive and accessible, specifically focusing on supporting Latinx students. Recognizing the unique challenges they may face, particularly for first-generation college attendees in a Midwestern school, I work to create an environment where they feel valued and included.

Additionally, I act as an academic mentor, guiding students through the graduate process and collaborating with them on research and other responsibilities. This mentorship goes beyond mere guidance; it's about fostering growth, independence, and confidence. It's this multifaceted engagement with my students, coupled with a commitment to continuous learning and cultural awareness, that keeps my passion for teaching alive and resonant.

JL: How will you continue to support STEM engagement during your teaching career? 

Hendricks: My commitment to STEM engagement extends beyond the classroom and is deeply interwoven with my broader educational philosophy. As an active board member of MOST Policy Initiative, I have a platform to advocate for and support the STEM community. My role with MOST allows me to contribute strategically, ensuring that STEM remains a vital and integrated part of policymaking and education.

For more information on the MOST Policy Initiative, see ESAL’s interview with Rachel Owen.

Connecting Science and Stakeholders in Georgia

Amy Sharma, PhD is the executive director of Science for Georgia, an organization whose mission is to advocate for the responsible use of science in public policy, improve communication between scientists and the public, and increase public engagement with science. She chatted with ESAL about the value of factual scientific support to state legislators and interpersonal relationships between scientists and other community members.

EL: What has been your educational and career path so far, leading your current role?

Sharma: I earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, and then worked for two years designing chips at IBM. I returned to Duke for a PhD in biomedical engineering, studying nuclear imaging. I completed an American Association for the Advancement of Science Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Science Foundation, then worked as a researcher at Georgia Tech Research Institute in radar and big data. Following that, for a year, I was an assistant professor in medical physics at the University of Western Australia. I returned to Georgia Tech and then was at various startups in data analytics and product development.

I have now been working for Science for Georgia for over four years and I have to be honest, Atlanta is pretty awesome!

EL: What are the issues that Science for Georgia prioritizes, and how does it achieve its mission?

Sharma: Science for Georgia has a three-fold mission: improving communication between scientists and the public, which is where our SciComm Academy comes in; public outreach, which we accomplish with activities like the Atlanta Science Tavern and Science Comedy and other events; and advocating for the responsible use of science in public policy, which is accomplished through white papers, our legislative scorecard, and partnerships.    

Two of our priorities are expanding Medicaid access and combating climate change. The best thing that could be done for the workforce in Georgia is giving people access to health insurance, since this has been shown to be one of the best ways to improve their lives and be a productive member of society.

For climate change, we figure out ways to economically incentivize the changes that we’d like to see people making, like investing in green infrastructure, accounting for the true cost of carbon, and cutting down carbon emissions. Georgia is not a particularly environmentally friendly state, but there are so many talented grassroots organizations that have experience with advocacy and engaging with politicians, and we support those groups by providing scientific expertise. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot of momentum right now in Georgia for attracting green businesses. I hope we can invest in new manufacturing capabilities in a way that sets a great example. It would be a big success to be able to say, “a bunch of electric vehicle factories set up in Georgia, and they were all green and sustainable.”

EL: What are the challenges you face?

Sharma: Working in policy is inherently slow and cumbersome, and sometimes we feel stuck. It can be uncomfortable because, as scientists, we are used to having solutions. People say, “may all your problems be technical.” Well, none of our problems are technical, so that’s a new realm for much of our team. None of us had any specialized training besides being scientists, so we’re just making our way forward together. It is wonderful to have a like-minded community.

EL: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about interacting with non-scientists and policy makers, especially working in a sometimes politically tense environment? 

Sharma: When you ask a lot of people to name a living scientist, they can’t do it. I want the answer to that question to be, “I met this person at the coffee shop the other day, and she’s a scientist.”

In a lot of people’s minds, scientists are trapped in an ivory tower. When we point out that we are your neighbors with whom you have a personal connection, that goes a long way toward building the trust of the public in science and having a profound impact. One of the common reactions that we get from partners when we start on a project is, “This is not what we were expecting” and even sometimes, “We thought you would be old dudes in glasses.” 

It is important to stick to the facts when we take on the role of people providing scientific feedback, and it sometimes takes a bit of time to figure out how to stay objective and be solutions-oriented, not politicized. We work at the state assembly level, so the politicians here actually need to get something done - they need to pass a budget and provide services to people, and they work for us! They value people who are honest brokers of factual information, and they want to be contacted and engaged in discussion.

And, if you care about something, have an elevator pitch about it ready and in the back of your mind for when someone asks you what you care about! 

A last important lesson is to meet your audience where they are. We are in an agriculture-heavy state. People will say that climate change isn’t real but will also tell you how the weather is changing and they can’t grow crops the way they used to. Just use another phrase beside “climate change” if it is preventing progress from being made together. We have resources on advocating for science on our website!

Championing Inclusivity in STEMM

Cynthia Prieto-Diaz asserts that science chose her rather than the other way around. She is an actively involved member of various professional networks, holding a position on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists and serving as a member of the Board of Directors for the Cal Poly Pomona-Latin Alumni Network. Throughout her professional journey, Prieto-Diaz has primarily focused on biomedical engineering, amassing a wealth of experience in research and development. Today, she's notably interested in incorporating sustainability into MedTech, with an emphasis on lifecycle analysis and management, demonstrating a full-circle evolution as a biomedical engineer. She actively contributes to scientific discourse by volunteering, engaging with city governments, and advocating for STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) involvement and consideration in local governance.

JL: What initially led you to venture into the realm of science policy after spending years as a biomedical engineer?

Prieto-Diaz: After completing college, I joined a mid-size medical device company where I dedicated five years to working within the domain of my educational background in biotechnology. Eventually, the company was acquired, and I took advantage of the resulting downtime to embark on a journey around the world. It was during this period of travel that my perspective was broadened. I developed a strong desire to make a difference in people's lives, particularly by addressing the health disparities faced by underserved communities. I made the decision to return to school and pursue a master’s degree in public health.

Cynthia Prieto-Diaz

The real impetus came from an unexpected quarter. While working from home during the pandemic, I realized our community was being exposed to harmful pollution and incessant noise, which prevailed from Monday through Saturday during normal business hours and even occasionally at night. What began as a nuisance morphed into a resolve to address the root cause of what I perceived as relentless environmental injustices that allowed such practices to continue unchecked, compromising the health and safety of the local community. Prepared with my background in public health and my new perspective as an applied scientist, I decided to raise my voice, leveraging my privileges afforded by education and the ability to work from home, to improve the situation in my community.

I hold a deep concern for social disparities, and with my STEMM background, I understand how scientific input in local government can positively impact the public. Science is inherently inclusive, and fostering participation is crucial, especially among an increasingly diverse population.

JL: How do you actively promote inclusivity?

Prieto-Diaz: As a member of the leadership team within 500 Women Scientists, I provide interim leadership and oversee policy efforts on behalf of the organization's policy team. Our primary goal is to foster the development of evidence-based strategies to guide fellow STEMM professionals in combating science misinformation and addressing inaccuracies. Moreover, I assumed the role of marketing and public relations coordinator for Step Up Tutoring, where I developed training and onboarding materials for new team members, as well as drafted external communication verbiage templates to facilitate tutor recruitment. This experience was especially inspiring, as I aimed to bridge the education gap for underserved children and contribute to preventing learning loss among our future citizens and leaders.

As a first-generation college student and a fluent Spanish speaker, I have become acutely aware of the need for culturally responsive education. Serving as a board member for the Cal Poly Pomona-Latin Alumni Network provides me with a unique opportunity to assist first-generation college students in their application processes and acclimation to university life. Additionally, I am able to connect them with mentors whom they can look up to and draw inspiration from.

JL: Based on your personal and professional experiences, what lessons have you learned that you can share with individuals who may not be as familiar with the health and social disparities faced by many?

Prieto-Diaz: Education is the most valuable resource we can possess. We should ask ourselves; how can we utilize our education to benefit our immediate surroundings? You would be amazed at how quickly change can occur when the public is well-informed. Education is a privilege, and if you have the opportunity, it becomes your responsibility to educate yourself and others for the betterment of your shared environment. In the same vein, advocating for access to information is vital. Empowering people with information equips them with the power to make informed decisions. Additionally, it is crucial to inspire the youth and challenge prevailing notions of what a scientist looks like. Especially for individuals that have ever felt like they do not belong in STEMM - as a punk rocker I am here for you! Both as an example and a cheerleader! By showcasing our own achievements, we reshape perceptions of the importance of science and, most importantly, prevent young individuals from becoming discouraged. They possess the capacity to change the world, but we must provide the motivation and knowledge to do so.

Promoting STEM Engagement in Illinois

Monica Metzler doesn’t practice STEM by trade, but instead advocates for it in her professional and personal life. Metzler is the founder and executive director of Illinois Science Council. Using her legal training and background in public policy, she finds ways to make science concepts clear and accessible to the public. Her skills in writing and speaking, honed from working for both the Illinois House of Representatives, and the Democratic National Convention, make her an invaluable resource at communicating scientific ideas to the stakeholders that can make a difference. Among several hats she wears as the director of Illinois Science Council - event planning, networking, garnering support – perhaps her most important is as a facilitator.

JL: What put you on the path of advocating for science?

Metzler: I fell in love with policy well before science. I had a great professor in my early college career, and as such I pursued policy for the remainder of education. Following my bachelor’s, I went on to get a public policy master’s and law degree at Duke. But there were hints I was meant to explore the science and non-profit fields. My favorite law classes were health law and environmental law. In hindsight I can say science classes were some of my most-loved; the role I am in currently is a nice mixture. 

Monica Metzler

JL: What lessons did you learn that have allowed you to excel in your current position? 

Metzler: Early on in my career, I worked with the Illinois House of Representatives as a part of a small attorneys’ group. We would comb through bills, analyzing them for legal issues. It was during this period that I absorbed a critical lesson, one that would retain its relevance across all my future endeavors: politics and policy are two sides of the same coin. They are inextricably entwined, each seeping into the other. Recognizing the context of your work is crucial, as it enables you to perform at your very best.

My next role was as a major event planner at Northwestern, my alma mater, for its 150th anniversary celebration. Learning the ins and outs of event planning, gathering vendors, participants, speakers, supplies, allowed a smooth transition into consulting, and into my current role on Illinois Science Council. 

JL: What made you want to start Illinois Science Council, and how does it facilitate STEM communication?

Metzler: Chicago has long had several amazing science museums, but they largely target K-12 children for their initial introduction to STEM. Illinois Science Council, and the events we host, are the adult complement to that student-focused STEM engagement. By engaging adults, we are facilitating more communication about science between the public, policy makers, and media. Some of our programs include author talks, science film screenings, hands-on Chemistry of Coffee and Chemistry of Beer, and the Chicago Science Festival. We aim to raise the profile of science along with public understanding and appreciation of it. Lawmakers are entrusted with the task of reflecting the public's will, and a populace well-versed in science has the power to steer legislation towards more scientifically grounded policies.

JL: How can people help out?

Metzler: If you would like to get involved with science communication, we are also looking for volunteer science writers for ISC’s blog, “Science Unsealed.” Please reach out to

Community Scientists and Educators Celebrate Climate Stories

Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro, center director of the North Park Village Nature Center in northwest Chicago, co-leads a Thriving Earth Exchange project that aims to amplify climate narratives in migrant communities. A science educator and artist, Alanis-Ribeiro works with several collaborators, including Hannah Zonnevylle, community science fellow for this particular Thriving Earth Exchange project and education and research director for the nonprofit Gateway to the Great Outdoors; Akilah Martin, soil enthusiast with AM Root Builders, Inc. and a longtime colleague of Alanis-Ribeiro; Katia Pilar Carranza, a social ecological researcher and community organizer; and co-community lead Alex Peimer.

The project is sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and began in 2022 when Alanis-Ribeiro and Peimer noticed the changing demographics of Albany Park, a diverse neighborhood near the Nature Center and Peimer’s university, and realized the potential of partnering with their local community to share stories, inspire conversations, and celebrate unique cultures and identities across Chicago. Embracing identity has been a key driver for Alanis-Ribeiro throughout her career as she traced a path toward leadership in science outreach and nonprofits, while maintaining a connection to her artistic interests and finding her own place in the Chicago community.

MS: How did your experiences during your early career lead to your current position?

Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro

Alanis-Ribeiro: I attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a biology major, following my sisters who also went there. Initially, I was shooting for a career in medicine. During my studies, I gravitated toward environmental issues, and attained a degree in ecology, ethology, and evolution. I was always curious and loved seeing other people’s curiosity spark-up too. When I came home to tell my parents about things I was learning in school, my mom would share her own experiences growing up close to the land on a farm in Mexico. I loved that exchange, and I saw a need for infusing equity in the sciences.

I started working part-time at a nature museum in Chicago focusing on education and community engagement, which led me to other opportunities at STEM and environmental science centers. I also recently went back to school for a master’s degree in science education, through a program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which has allowed me to pursue my degree while working and taking care of my family. Science education was a way for me to connect my interest in science with issues in my local Chicago community, as well as my family and culture.

MS: Do you encounter challenges in your work sharing science with the general public?

Akilah Martin

Alanis-Ribeiro: Early in my career, I struggled with feeling isolated in my field and with not being well represented. I didn’t see a lot of Black and Brown people in STEM-related jobs. Sometimes it seemed like there was a hidden language and culture for moving up in your career. That didn’t change the fact that I loved science, though, and loved talking with people and children. I worked at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago for six years as an educator, writing lessons and curriculum, putting on nature events; even bringing out the snakes to tell visitors about them. I enjoyed this varied experience as a way to show what museum nature education looks like—this Latina from Chicago who majored in science and is holding a snake in your classroom! I’d meet kids who were like me, and didn’t know that what I did was a career choice, and their eyes would glow—here’s a girl holding a snake, who’s from the hood. It’s very meaningful to stay grounded with why we do this work; both for nature and for people.

MS: How do you integrate your identity with your role as a leader in STEM?

Alanis-Ribeiro: I’m a scientist who does research, but I’m also a member of the community. It’s a continued push and pull, but I think more and more people realize that can be a positive thing. As long as the same values are threaded in whatever we’re doing, then we can be the scientist, we can be the activist, and we can be the artist. Sometimes I forget that I’m an artist too. I was a DJ in college and I used to break dance. We held an event on monarch butterflies at the Nature Center and invited a graffiti artist—I grabbed a spray can and was right there painting with him. It doesn’t just have to be about science and knowing all the facts about wildlife; there’s also room for expression and cultural relevancy and connection. Now we have a jazz night at the center, and soon we’re putting on Nature Con, which will be like a nature-based Comic Con. I definitely have found more ways to make it all connected.

Hannah Zonnevylle

MS: Have things changed in your career since you’ve taken on your current role as director?

Alanis-Ribeiro: My work is more administrative now that I’m a leader at a nature center. Albeit, I am still very curious. I love learning the various types of wildlife that people often don’t think about immediately, like the kinds of snakes that live in Illinois! When the weather is nice, I pay attention. The eastern bluebird is here this week, and then the migration is going to change and there will be a different bird next week.

MS: Why do you see a need in your community for the Thriving Earth Exchange?

Pilar Carranza: There’s been a lack of visibility in terms of the dialogue and stories regarding climate change and migration. It should be noted that these stories are inherently connected and very important for advancing climate and migrant justice.

Zonnevylle: The project pairs a community lead with a project manager, and they work together to recruit community scientists like Katia and Dr. Martin. So the exchange is really built by people within the community. As Amaris likes to say, we want to center joy and elevate joy.

Martin: We want to be intentional and not extractive. We’re thinking about how we show up in this community, and ensure that whatever is exchanged is mutual, reciprocal, aspirational, and elevating for everyone involved. We also want to make sure we are broadening and expanding our definition of science and being as inclusive as we can. Rather than taking ownership of the narrative, we intend to ask the community how they want things to be shared. We’re all in this together; we’re all leaders together. We are bringing joy, and celebrating who we are and who they are and where they want to go in the future.

Katia Pilar Carranza

MS: How does the work you do for the Thriving Earth Exchange benefit the scientific community?

Alanis-Ribeiro: We want to create a safe space for people to talk about issues that the media has portrayed in a very divided way. We also want to show that you don’t need to take an extractive approach in science—you can just be a part of the community. We shared this approach in our poster at the 2022 AGU conference, and are now working on a video about how nature centers and other green spaces can be safe spaces and sanctuaries, and how educators and others who work with the environment can make that happen. However the project evolves in the future, it will be driven by the community’s interest and need. We want to find ways to be supportive, whether it’s related to climate change or not. Some other activities include bringing over a meal, organizing haircuts, donating clothes, or working with the local church. We’re all working with the community in different ways across Chicago, and outside of Chicago, too.

MS: Any advice for people looking to get involved in STEM or with their local communities?

Pilar Carranza: What helped me the most is networking. First generation students often don’t have networks and aren’t connected to volunteer opportunities. It’s super important to get connected to alumni networks and reach out to people you see online who you think could help you. That’s been so powerful to get me on my career track.

Alanis-Ribeiro: Now that I’m in this role, I see others who are entering the field and I try to share my connections and networks, and to keep up with those relationships. We need to make changes so that STEM is a field that people are entering, staying in, and moving up, while being their authentic selves. I feel a lot more confident in my role now, but it doesn’t end with leadership—I want to continue to mentor others and make those changes across my networks and across Chicago.

Protecting Wetlands for Healthy Communities and Ecosystems

Also called bogs, marshes, or swamps, wetlands can be found on every continent. The wetland is a vital ecosystem rich in biodiversity that also happens to protect us from storm surges and purify groundwater.

To discuss the importance of wetlands and their conservation, ESAL and the Ecological Society of America co-hosted a virtual event on May 8 titled “Protecting Wetlands for Healthy Communities and Ecosystems.”

Royal C. Gardner is a professor of law at Stetson University, who specializes in the niche field of wetland law and policy. He kicked off the event with an overview of a case currently before the Supreme Court, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At the heart of the case is whether wetlands are considered “waters of the United States” protected by the Clean Water Act. Federal agencies in the past have attempted to define the types of waters that are protected but the rules remain controversial. 

Although oral arguments for Sackett v. EPA took place in October 2022, the Supreme Court had yet to make its ruling, which may set the precedent for the Clean Water Act for years to come.1 “It’s really hard to say where they’re going to draw the line,” said Gardner.

Erika Harris, senior planner for the Puget Sound Regional Council, has overseen constructed wetlands in and around the greater Seattle metropolitan area. She views wetlands as an important strategy for climate resilience: “We need these sponges so our communities don’t flood and provide water when it’s drier.”

Harris offered case studies of several stormwater wetland parks that have been successfully built and integrated into local communities. These stormwater parks are an example of green infrastructure with multiple benefits, from recreational trails and wildlife viewing to practical functions like stormwater treatment and flood control. Communities are often pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy the wetland parks and the wildlife they attract.

Historically, the expansion of agricultural lands has led to the clearing and loss of natural wetlands. But now, urban development is driving wetland reduction.

Both speakers noted the need for providing advocacy and education on the ecological importance of wetlands. Gardner encouraged conscientious citizens to get involved in the political process, by voting, or submitting public comments whenever environmental regulations or projects are proposed. He also encouraged people to take the even bigger step of running for political office, which would make the biggest impact.

Scientists with expertise in natural resources can serve on local advisory boards and planning commissions. They may also find influential positions working for government agencies, which require scientists to inform environmental policy.

To be in a wetland can be a “cathedral-like experience,” said Gardner, who brought up the cultural and spiritual aspects of wetlands as a natural refuge. He often takes his law students on a field trip into the swamps of Florida.

In Gardner’s words, “It’s one thing to read about it in a book. It’s another to wade into the swamp and to recognize how beautiful it is.” 

video of the event is available on ESAL's YouTube channel.

 1 At the time of this event, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on Sackett v. EPA. On Thursday, May 25, 2023, the Court finally issued a 5-4 decision, ruling that only wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to bodies of water can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Nuclear Sector Deep Dive: Revisiting a Source of Carbon-Free Energy

As the U.S. begins to grapple with the threat of climate change, many states are re-examining their stance on nuclear energy. In the past, when the outcomes of nuclear energy were still being explored, environmentalists and local activists used escalated financial costs, lack of skilled labor, and safety concerns such as radiation poisoning to provide a cautious perspective of its future use. As a new decade awoke in 2020, renewed interest  in nuclear energy cropped up. Federal initiatives such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and updated, improved safety standards have changed the discussion on the centrality of nuclear energy in energy security. 

Early Incidents Shaped the Debate

After WWII, as the U.S. looked to put behind the tragedy of war, there was a new potential technology of nuclear fission. The U.S. was keen on finding novel uses of nuclear power for good, including as a source of electricity. For the next two decades, the U.S. would build power plants both at home as well as across the sea in Europe. 

Then came the Three-Mile Island accident. 

In March 1979 near Middletown, Pennsylvania, one reactor of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant partially melted. While this accident is still the most serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant history in the U.S. , there were no health hazards to report to the surrounding community. The people living closest to the accident would have experienced an extra dose of radiation that is less than what an average person would experience in a year from the background environment.

Yet, public support toward nuclear energy reportedly fell from 69 percent to 46 percent. Only seven years later, in April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was damaged in Ukraine. Unit 4 of the plant was destroyed after a systems test went awry. Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, there was radioactive release from the site that was severe enough to kill 28 workers and give another 106 radiation sickness.

Shortly after this accident, but before global warming came into view, Americans were content with the dependence on fossil fuels. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that climate change activists envisioned the future of nuclear energy as a solution to the overheating planet. This vision came to light in 2008, when utilities in the American South decided to build a couple of nuclear reactors. In order to keep costs down, the reactor parts were built off-site, which reduced accessibility and furthered the risk of poor quality control. Reports claimed that pipes were misshapen and cracked. This is particularly concerning for welded components, since they must be able to withstand immense heat and pressure. Soon after, the project was halted.

This was an eye-opening venture since it revealed how critical quality control is during plant construction. 

In 2011, the Fukushima disaster took place, in part due to the tsunami that hit the region. The backup generators for the plant were damaged, and when the eventual loss of power led to failed cooling systems, fuel rods began to melt and released radiation. Explosions from built-up, pressurized hydrogen gas would continue for a few days after.

However, the present combined concern of rising carbon emissions and increased costs of non-renewable energies leads us to the current consideration of nuclear energy.

Nuclear Energy in Today’s Policy Discussions

On November 15th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This initiative includes provisions toprovide relief for struggling power plants as well as fund a demonstration program for regional clean hydrogen hubs, including nuclear energy.

Notably, based on data collected by ecoAmerica’s 2021 American Climate Perspectives Survey, over 50% of Americans say the U.S. should be spending more on nuclear energy regardless of political identification. Since 2018, Democrats have slowly increased their support toward nuclear energy. Among opponents of nuclear energy, the single most cited reasons for disapproval are clean-up of related pollution and modernization of nuclear power. 

Nuclear Energy at the State Level

Some states are still deciding on their stance for the future of nuclear energy. For example, Diablo Canyon is currently the last operating power plant in California. However, due to lack of support and pressure from environmentalist groups, it is being considered for shut down. The argument against Diablo Canyon has included the potential risk of an accident caused by earthquakes due to their frequency in the area. Additionally, the president of the trade association for all the Community Choice Aggregations in California cites “expense, toxic waste, environmental risk, and catastrophic accidents” as reasons to shut down the Diablo Canyon plant. Diablo Canyon supplies 9% of the state’s total electricity with profit.

Wyoming is a current leader in the latest innovation in nuclear energy. Through the support of founder Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, the “Natrium” design for power plants is currently planned for construction starting in mid-2023. Natrium power plants are not only cheaper, but they would also use new liquid sodium technology that stores converted heat into molten salt, instead of water. As a result, the heat can be either stored and later accessed for future need or be converted to electricity immediately by a steam turbine generator via a heat exchanger. This storage feature would allow greater flexibility of energy demand cycles, which is a concern surrounding adopting nuclear power. In other words, nuclear energy may be able to keep up with energy demand at whim of the consumers’ changing needs.

The TerraPower facility that follows the “Natrium” design will be constructed in Kemmerer, Wyoming. It is currently supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the state, and the goal is to have the plant run for 60 years. The plant can regularly generate 345MW of energy and up to 500MW at peak demand. An additional benefit touted by the industry is that the TerraPower facility will provide job opportunities. According to TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque, around 2000 workers would be employed at the peak of plant construction. Another 250 would be employed to maintain operations of the plant.

A few states have already  adopted nuclear energy as a long-term energy source. In Washington, the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant that generates 1200 MW of power west of the Columbia River, is the third-largest source of power in the region. Tigard, Oregon’s NuScale Power is a leader for small modular reactor (SMR) design plants. SMRs use the same nuclear science as traditional nuclear reactors, but the main difference is the ability to construct SMR components in a factory. Though, as previously mentioned, this could lead to quality control concerns. According to an interim report by the SMR Regulators’ Forum, quality assurance requirements are expected when specifically addressing modular components. In combination with being more portable, SMRs can be installed in locations that would not be able to support a large, traditional reactor.

Local Policy and Nuclear Energy

So how is nuclear regulated, and how is this power distributed in individual states? 

Most of the nuclear energy companies in the country are privately owned. These companies are subsidized by the government, which maintains tight control on regulating fuel storage, reactor construction, environmental regulations, and more. 

States, however, assert influence through state public service commissions, which regulate the sale of electricity to consumers. The deregulation of electricity prices in the 1990s opened up more opportunities for nuclear power production consolidation in states. Large power companies began to purchase plants from deregulated states. Currently, ten states with nuclear power plants are deregulated. In this case, the energy that nuclear power plants generate is sold on the open market. At this point, energy distribution companies will choose which energies to buy.

Additionally, county governments can impose property taxes, which becomes relevant when deciding where to locate future nuclear facilities. For example, Calvert County in Maryland has allowed tax incentives for the new reactor to be built there.

The Nuclear Waste Act provides individual states with the power to veto legislation that would allow the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission to place a waste repository within their boundaries.

There is much to consider; however, it is clear that the power of choice for or against nuclear energy is concentrated at the state level. 

How to Stay Involved

The National Conference of State Legislators recommends a few ways to stay in touch with nuclear energy policy in your state.

One way is to communicate directly to lawmakers and members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who regulate nuclear facilities.

Understanding the various energy standards of your state is beneficial in demystifying your state’s stance in nuclear energy as well.

A Conversation with EPRI on Nuclear Power

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is an independent, non-profit organization focused on advancing safe, reliable, affordable, and clean energy for society through global collaboration, science and technology innovation, and applied research. EPRI also conducts nuclear-focused research in the areas of materials management, fuels and chemistry, plant performance, and strategic initiatives. ESAL spoke with Maria Guimaraes, Energy System Resources technical executive, and Mary Presley, technical executive on EPRI’s nuclear engineering team, to learn more about the research and outreach efforts led by EPRI’s nuclear sector and how nuclear energy remains relevant in the current energy market.

NOTE: At the time of this interview, Guimaraes was working as program manager, nuclear plant support.

MS: What kind of research does EPRI contribute to?

Presley: Several research areas work together to cover a broad energy spectrum. Some topical areas we focus on are electricity, transmission and distribution, and electricity generation, which includes solar, wind, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. As an institute, we really take that breadth and focus it on helping the energy industry transition to a decarbonized future. Maria and I work in the nuclear sector. We do work in materials management making sure that we know how to inspect any material you find in a nuclear power plant. One area centers around plant performance and that's kind of the operational part of the nuclear plant.

Mary Presley, technical executive on EPRI’s nuclear engineering team

MS: Where do you see the future of this research?

Presley: We have a set of strategic initiatives that the nuclear industry could start working on in order to have solutions such as next-generation plants, modernizing existing plants, and supporting long-term operations.

MS: Maria, please tell us about your work in EPRI.

Guimaraes: I work in the nuclear sector just like Mary, but I work in the area of inspection. We call it plant support. I'm a civil engineer by training. I started looking at how industry inspects and maintains civil infrastructure in nuclear facilities such as the containments and the cooling towers.

MS: Mary, what work do you do?

Presley: My background is in nuclear engineering. I have been at EPRI for 10 years, but I have about 15 years of experience in the industry. I work in the risk and safety group and our group provides methods and tools to help the industry assess and continually improve safety in a cost-effective manner.

MS: How do nuclear power plants work?

Presley: Most large electricity production works the same way. It's the same principle that if you move a magnet in a circle, it'll generate electricity. So different energy sources move the magnet and spin the magnet in different ways. We use the nuclear reaction to heat up water, which uses steam to turn the turbine and generate electricity. So you can think of a nuclear power plant like a high-tech tea kettle. The thing that boils the water is the nuclear reaction.

MS: What is a nuclear reaction?

Presley: The way the nuclear reaction works is you have a neutron and it hits an atom, usually uranium, and then the atom splits apart and releases a lot of energy that heats the water around it. That reaction is called fission. When the atom splits, in addition to releasing a bunch of energy, it releases a couple more neutrons that go and hit other uranium atoms that then split and release even more energy. Most reactors work that way.

MS: How do you define clean energy? Why is nuclear energy “clean?”

Maria Guimaraes, Energy System Resources technical executive

Guimaraes: Every form of energy you produce will have some constraints. Nuclear doesn't have any CO2 emissions and is able to produce power 24/7. We call that clean firm capacity. That is a source of power that doesn't emit carbon dioxide.

MS: Tell us about some of EPRI’s outreach efforts.

Guimaraes: We teach high school students about the energy mix and how to choose an energy portfolio. We have several countries or regions based on actual countries or regions in the U.S. We tell students these are your constraints: cultural, economical, and geopolitical. The need for a very mixed portfolio also takes into account several issues, including regional needs and affordability.

MS: Why are more people changing their view of nuclear energy from negative to positive?

Guimaraes: Different societies and their views on energy, not just nuclear, shift through time. It could be because of economic constraints or it could be because of climate change and how the need for clean firm capacity makes you reevaluate what you thought a while ago. In the last couple years, the focus on decarbonizing the economy perhaps has made people reconsider and reevaluate the role of nuclear power.

Presley: What people see as negatives are magnified. The positive parts of nuclear power aren't always discussed in the same way. When it's dealt with in an appropriate manner, it's a managed risk. Nuclear power is a really powerful option towards meeting clean energy targets.

MS: Please tell us more about how attitudes towards nuclear energy have shifted in the U.S. since Three-Mile island.

Presley: That was sort of a wake-up call for industry in 1979. That technology was still fairly new at that scale. The industry has learned a lot from that incident and has fundamentally changed how they operate nuclear power plants and how they think about nuclear energy. One of the things that the industry did is create INPO (Institute of Nuclear Power Operations) and WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operations). Part of their mission is to maintain a nuclear safety culture. Nuclear safety culture has some underlying principles that everybody from the janitor to the CEO is personally responsible for nuclear safety. If anything is amiss, they have personal responsibility and empowerment through corrective action systems to say something. Leadership needs to demonstrate the commitment to safety and that trust needs to permeate the organization.

MS: In whose hands is the future of nuclear energy?

Guimaraes: At EPRI, we work with energy companies  all over the world, and different countries have a different way of financing nuclear energy. The U.S. is probably the country that has the most private ownership of nuclear facilities . For many of our other members, the government owns the companies that have the nuclear facilities. So far there has been a lot of private investments in nuclear energy. There is a lot of funding the U.S. government put into research development, demonstrations, proof of testing and so on that incentivize the industry.

MS: Why is it becoming increasingly relevant for states to establish a stance on nuclear energy?

Presley: We don't speculate on government policy, so I can't speak specifically on that, but in terms of why it's important for governments to take a stance, just imagine that you're a policymaker and you have this goal for your locality that you need to go carbon-free. They have a goal that they have to meet. So they're looking at their toolbox to see which tools they can put together that will meet that goal. Nuclear is one of those tools.

Guimaraes: EPRI doesn't advocate for one type of energy. In fact, we believe that a good, healthy energy mix is the best solution for an affordable, reliable, equitable clean energy future. That healthy energy mix will depend on where you are in the U.S. or in the world.

Engineer Helps Bridge the STEM Educational Divide

By Joel Lesher

Brandie Dessauer is the manager of an engineering team within Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and has accrued a wealth of experience leading and optimizing supply chain operations at Dow Chemical. Dessauer's unique upbringing as a first-generation college graduate has had a lasting impact on her professional career. Her background has prompted her to engage in several volunteering roles to support women and disenfranchised populations, often by providing STEM opportunities or developing programs designed to bridge the educational divide for those populations who may not possess the same connections or opportunities as others in society.

JL: How did your early education influence your career goals? 

Dessauer: During my early high school education, I attended an all-girls Catholic school where certain traditions, which had otherwise fallen into disuse in general society, were still upheld. It was during this time that I was first introduced to STEM through a high school chemistry class, which piqued my fascination and ignited a newfound love for science. Determined to explore this interest further and ascertain how college could launch a career in STEM, I sought advice from my school counselor. Unfortunately, she discouraged me from pursuing this path and instead urged me to follow a more conventional route for women, one that lay outside the realm of STEM, a profession typically dominated by men.

Brandie Dessauer
Brandie Dessauer

JL: What have you done to bridge the gender gap in STEM?

Dessauer: Having cognizance of the obstacles faced by those who do not conform to the stereotypical portrayal of a STEM leader, I aspired to spearhead support for these populations by advocating for early STEM inclusion. With the assistance of my spouse, we initiated a pioneering program called "Girls Who Code" at my child's school, which offers coding experience and opportunities to young girls, frequently as early as first grade. This affords them an early foothold in a field that is frequently male-dominated and ultimately narrows the coding gender gap. As the program's efficacy becomes evident and its significance recognized, it will be expanded to multiple schools within the community.

Dessauer at a 2019 Society of Women Engineers Capitol Hill Days event
Dessauer at a 2019 Society of Women Engineers Capitol Hill Days event

JL: Within your professional career, how have you worked to support women in STEM? 

Dessauer: While employed at Dow Chemical, I participated in the Society for Women Engineers, whose aim was to promote systemic change for women in STEM and their professional careers. We advocated on behalf of women and provided a plethora of resources to women and K-12 girls with the intention of affording them access to connections and experiences that they may have missed out on due to gender. One of my favorite opportunities was Congressional Days, during which we traveled to Capitol Hill and related accounts to government officials of the difficulties and lack of support that women experience while in STEM roles. We also had the privilege of providing educational resources to local K-12 students by introducing early STEM concepts and avenues for professional advancement and college success.

In my capacity as a member of the Society for Women Engineers, I was responsible for selecting accomplished women for awards at STEM conferences across the country. I relished this role, and often asked the chosen women to write an abstract, whether technical or related to community involvement, to be read at the ceremony and included in publications. The achievements of these women were inspiring and served as an exemplar of what women can accomplish despite a dearth of traditional blockades. Not only does this boost the confidence of young women seeking to enter the STEM profession, but we were able to assist awardees in finding professional support and making connections to further their careers.

JL: What are you doing now to help your local community? 

Dessauer: I served as the president of the 501(c)(3) parent organization of our school. After my appointment, I raised funds to provide more auxiliary programs to our female student body, resulting in an increase in funding of over 600% from the previous year. With this financial support, we were able to implement the aforementioned "Girls Who Code" program, as well as state-of-the-art equipment, arts education, and a gardening program. Additionally, we are in the process of establishing a new foundation to provide funding for more educational programs, including STEM, at our local public school.

Acting Locally on Abortion

An ESAL guide by Rebecca Mandt

For almost 50 years, the decision on Roe v. Wade protected abortion rights at the federal level. Now, with that critical ruling overturned, abortion access across the country hinges on state and local legal decisions. The debate around abortion is informed by science, medicine, and public health, as well as ethics. Many people with STEM backgrounds feel compelled to get involved. While advocacy at the federal level continues to play a role, this issue also highlights how important it is to engage locally. One way to do this is to have critical conversations with your friends, family, and other members of your community. Additionally, many parts of state and local government directly impact policy around abortion and other reproductive health issues. We hope that the information in this post can serve as a guide for anyone looking to engage in this important policy discussion.

State legislatures

Elected representatives create legislation that becomes state law. This includes laws that restrict or expand abortion access. Other types of legislation can also impact abortion services. For example, some states have passed laws that protect people who cross state lines to seek abortions. State laws also dictate how abortion laws are enforced, and how investigations are conducted. Legislation can also indirectly impact access to abortion and other reproductive health services, for example by creating or expanding training for health professionals, approving changes to the budget for related public health services, or regulating what public or private insurance plans can cover. 

How can you engage with your state legislature?

State and local legal system

There are multiple parts of state and local legal systems which influence how laws are enforced. 

State Attorneys General 

The attorney general is the top legal officer of a state. Attorneys general provide counsel to state legislatures and agencies and represent the public interest of the state in legal proceedings. They often have significant say over the state’s approach to law enforcement, and may have influence over the extent to which an abortion ban is enforced. They could also choose to either challenge or defend the legality of abortion laws in court. Attorney generals across multiple states may form coalitions, as happened recently around the issue of abortion rights protections. 

State Court System

The state court system is responsible for hearing cases, including interpreting the constitutionality of state laws. Similar to the federal system, the state supreme court is usually the highest court. State supreme courts will have important roles in determining whether the state constitution protects abortion rights, and in deciding whether laws that impact abortion access are legal. 

District Attorney

The district attorney is the chief prosecutor who represents the state in criminal proceedings for a particular district or county. Depending on the geographic area of jurisdiction, these officials may also go by the title of state’s attorney, prosecuting attorney, or county attorney. These officials are responsible for investigating and prosecuting individuals who break state laws, including abortion laws. They have leeway in deciding which cases will be prosecuted.

How can you engage with your local legal system?


Police play a role in enforcing abortion restrictions, including investigating allegations of activity that violates state abortion legislation, as well as filing charges and making arrests.

How can you engage with your local police force?

State and local public health departments

Public health departments at the state and local level may be involved in various aspects of abortion access or abortion regulation. These can include collecting and analyzing data on abortion procedures, facilitating linkages to abortion services, or to abortion alternatives, and creating training programs for healthcare providers. These departments are also involved in developing policies around issues such as abortion care, abortion referrals, and abortion data access, creating content for state-mandated counseling requirements, enforcing state regulations on abortion facility requirements, and running sex education/family planning programs.

How can you engage with your state or local public health departments

State medical boards

State medical boards are responsible for issuing licenses to practice medicine, investigating complaints against physicians, and disciplining doctors who violate the law. As such, in some states they may be involved in enforcing anti-abortion legislation. State medical boards can also issue rules around related medical practices such as telemedicine. 

How can you engage with your state medical board?

Universities, Businesses, Think Tanks, Non-Profits

While not part of the government, universities, businesses and business associations, think tanks, non-profits, and other local organizations can play a role in influencing state and local policy. Such groups often act in an advisory capacity, and may even have their own lobbying or advocacy groups. These organizations are also employers and can set policies around issues like insurance coverage. Some businesses are even offering support for out-of-state travel and other resources to expand abortion access. 

How can you engage with local organizations?