Skip to main content

ORAU’s Abelquist reflects on his year as HPS president

New research will strengthen health physics discipline, attract next generation of health physicists

Eric Abelquist
Dr. Eric Abelquist is ORAU executive vice president and chief research officer. He has been involved with the Health Physics Society since 1988 and has been with ORAU for more than 25 years.

Eric W. Abelquist, Ph.D., CHP, recently completed his year as president of the Health Physics Society.

Abelquist, who serves as ORAU executive vice president and chief research officer, has been involved with the Health Physics Society since 1988 and has been with ORAU for more than 25 years. He will continue his leadership service to the Health Physics Society for one year in the position of past president.

His executive leadership years with the society, beginning with a year as president-elect, provided opportunities for visiting many HPS chapters across the United States and abroad. The Health Physics Society is the world’s leading scientific organization of professionals who specialize in radiation safety. Its mission is to promote excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety.

In a recent interview, Abelquist shared highlights of his year at the helm, and he offered insights into the positive actions and pressing issues of the organization.

Q: What did you learn from your visits to HPS chapters?

A: The past two years have been extremely busy and enjoyable. I visited HPS chapters across the United States, as well as our chapter in Taiwan, and was able to interact with many HPs who volunteer their time and energy to make the HPS a supportive, relevant professional organization.

Members often talked about a topic that is interesting and a little controversial: What if the paradigm that forms the current basis of our radiation protection regulations changed from the linear no-threshold (LNT) model to some other basis (e.g., a threshold model)? The LNT hypothesis assumes that cancer risk is directly proportional to the radiation dose, regardless of how small the dose (i.e., no threshold). The LNT conveys the message that there is no safe level of radiation dose, which is contradicted by recent low-dose radiation research.

Q: Why is the LNT debate the prime concern in health physics today?

A: I don’t know if it is the prime concern, but it’s certainly near the top. The linear no threshold hypothesis is the principal paradigm for how we set regulations in the United States and worldwide. Many HPs take exception to the LNT model, pointing to recent research that suggests radiation risks in the low-dose region are overestimated. In fact, a current study called the Million Person Study is under way to better estimate radiation risks to occupationally exposed radiation workers.

Most of what we know is based on the life span study of Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. Those doses were high, relative to occupational radiation exposures, and were delivered acutely. Right now, we are setting radiation regulations for workers that are getting a much more deliberate radiation dose, often times just slightly above background, and the exposure is over many years. Over the last couple of decades, research has started to reveal that the body has repair mechanisms that we did not study in our radiation biology textbooks back in the ’80s and ’90s.

So, what I heard at a lot of HPS chapter meetings and general meetings is that we need to promote low-dose radiation research so that we can have a better understanding of just what the true biological impact is from those low doses. There’s broad agreement on the importance of further low-dose radiation research—both radiation biology to better understand cellular repair mechanisms and epidemiology to study low-dose radiation effects to exposed populations (i.e., Million Person Study). Low-dose radiation research is paramount in being able to set appropriate regulations.

Q: What were some of the highlights of your time as HPS president and president-elect?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is the success of our strategic planning efforts. HPS leadership developed a comprehensive plan to propose governance changes that were approved by HPS membership. These bylaws changes included increasing the president’s term to two years and reducing the number of directors on the HPS Board from nine to six. We developed short-term goals and annual priorities that are helping us make progress toward achieving the HPS vision. It’s been very satisfying to see how executing our strategy can lead to improved stakeholder value and a stronger organization.

Another highlight came at the conclusion of my president-elect year. The Health Physics Society, working with ORAU and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, set up a Radiation Protection Research Needs Workshop at Pollard Technology Conference Center in Oak Ridge.

We convened a group of nearly 100 people from 43 institutions and government programs for a two-day dialogue about research topics that would significantly advance radiation protection. For example, NASA is very interested in manned space flight to Mars. There are some really significant obstacles for us getting to Mars. Space radiation is one of the bigger challenges. We need to do more research to understand the kind of shielding needed and the biological impacts of heavy ions in space for our astronauts. Also, we need to do more research on the importance of low-dose radiation health effects. We developed a report of the most important research needs and shared our report with congressional and agency liaisons during trips to Washington, D.C.

The Health Physics Society has a program where the HPS leaders visit Capitol Hill and federal agencies in Washington twice a year. Whenever I had an opportunity, I would sit down to talk to congressional staffers and appropriators about the importance of research for health physics and explain how research is so vital to our academic programs.

Also, it has been really exciting to work with some very talented young professionals in health physics. Our organization has been challenged to attract more early career professionals, but that’s beginning to change. In fact, we’ve started two new sections, the first being a section for women in radiation protection. The other new section is aimed at early career professionals so that they can work on issues that are particularly important to them. So, those two sections give us a lot of energy and the expectation that we are going to bring in more young health physicists.

Lastly, I had the opportunity to visit Shanghai and present at the annual meeting of the China Society for Radiation Protection in October 2017. I learned that our Chinese colleagues share similar challenges in radiation protection.

Q: Why is health physics research so important in academic programs?

A: Research is the lifeblood of research universities. For the last 30 years, ORAU has studied the academic enrollment and degrees awarded from health physics schools, and our research shows a decline in the number of students enrolled. We asked professors at health physics institutions about the reasons for this drop in enrollment. There are a lot of factors, but one of the key factors is research funding has dwindled. To me, that is a bewildering statement. I know a lot of different areas where research is needed, so funding should be increasing, not decreasing.

A part of the 2019 HPS strategic plan is to specifically look at the needs of academic programs and identify ways to address them. This is really coming full circle—investing in research and supporting academic programs, which leads to the development of more health physicists, which strengthens the pipeline and helps the federal agencies execute their missions.

Watch the interview

Watch the interview

Dr. Eric W. Abelquist recently ended a productive year as president of the Health Physics Society. He will continue his leadership service to the Health Physics Society for one year in the position of past president. His executive leadership years, beginning with a year as president-elect, provided opportunities for visiting many HPS chapters across the United States and abroad. In this interview, Dr. Abelquist shares some of the highlights, and he offers insights into the positive actions and pressing issues of the organization.