There’s a moment in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” when a prison camp captain famously tells Paul Newman’s character, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
Timeless Hollywood quotes seem to have no connection to Kristine Gehring-Ohrablo’s life as a chemistry technician at a nuclear power plant in rural Nebraska, but the circulation of misinformation related to her field makes her eager to remedy the situation.
In a sense, that’s what she is tasked with now that she’s joined a fairly elite group of individuals: This month, Gehring-Ohrablo earned a Master of Health Physics from Oregon State University, an accomplishment not many share and one that should help deepen her niche in the scientific arena.
“Health physicists are in high demand in medical hospitals and other areas,” she said. “There are a lot of positions available and not very many people who are qualified to fill them.”
Count Gehring-Ohrablo in the “qualified” column thanks to her proficiency in the coursework offered by OSU Extended Campus (Ecampus), the university’s acclaimed online degree program. Her degree came not a moment too soon, either, considering what she often feels is a comical miscommunication to the public regarding the nuclear world.
After a devastating earthquake and tsunami leveled Japan in March, questions arose about the stability of the country’s coastal Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Leaders of state across the world rushed to tell a panicked public the latest updates, many of which left Gehring-Ohrablo and her power plant colleagues scratching their heads.
“Hillary Clinton makes a statement to the world that the United States is making an emergency delivery of coolant to the Fukushima reactor,” she recalled. “You know what a nuclear reactor uses as coolant? Water. I really doubt an island nation like Japan needs an emergency delivery of water.”
Gehring-Ohrablo said the Secretary of State’s well-intentioned gaffe caused her to chuckle, but it also added a dose of panic to a situation that already had enough of it.
Now, the OSU grad’s wealth of knowledge about radiation health physics affords her and her Ecampus cohorts the ability to help communicate factual data and allay public fears.
“We can disseminate accurate information because we understand the physics behind it as well as the biological side of it,” she said. “Everybody in the Master of Health Physics program from OSU can be an ambassador to distribute that information and, in a way, make people feel safer.”
Gehring-Ohrablo hasn’t wasted time in helping to dispel misconceptions about her field, telling a new acquaintance, for example, that the hip “go green” initiative needs oft-controversial nuclear energy to be successful.
“Many people don’t realize that it is considered green energy. There’s no carbon whatsoever in nuclear energy,” she said. “The whole ‘green’ movement is making the industry as a whole look at how we operate, and we’re an important part of the future. We’re not the only answer, but we’re an important part of the answer.”
And Gehring-Ohrablo figures to play a role in the movement somehow. For now, she’ll continue to work at Cooper Nuclear and live in Nebraska City (population: 8,459) with her husband, Andy, and their 17-month-old daughter, Sonia.
The master’s from OSU is her second advanced degree, and it’ll allow her to pursue managerial positions as they come available. But the fact that she completed her Ecampus coursework while also working full time and handling family obligations often seems like a minor miracle to her.
“I’d like to offer a recommendation to anyone who’s thinking about taking classes online: Don’t have a baby halfway through the program,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve got a 17-month-old whirlwind. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to write field reports and lab reports when someone is trying to play with your computer mouse and is opening up all the desk drawers.”
As Gehring-Ohrablo looks back on it, though, it was the family component that sustained her through the academic rigor and the late nights.
“My husband accepted a lot of neglect because I had four more quarters to finish after I had the baby,” she said. “But completing this degree when I did is going to allow me more family time with her and my husband while she grows up. Having time to play with her as she grows up is going to be priceless.”