Steve Nelson, PhD


He goes by: Steve, “Dr. Steve” is what most of my students used to call me, “Doc” is the de-facto name for militarily-deployed scientists, even if they are not in the military or do not have a Ph.D.

Undergraduate: CWRU for Physics and English (separate degrees, not a double major, so I had to walk the stage twice) ’96 

Graduate: Duke (Physics, research in experimental nuclear astrophysics) ’02.

Current job title: According to business cards and people who know me: nuclear physicist.  According to company profile, “Chief Nuclear Engineer 6” (and, frankly, I don’t know what the “6” is for).

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

My first time I did a science experiment (5th grade) with a match-and-plastic-bottle cloud chamber for my 5th grade class, probably, showing my classmates cosmic rays.  And it is related. But what really got me going was winning the Pittsburgh regional science fair in 6th grade for growing plants under high gravity (I built an extremely clumsy centrifuge and found out they grow faster at 9 gs than they do at 1 g).

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

Parents, and especially my grandmother’s second husband (my fiancee is wearing their heirloom engagement ring now).  He was on an aerospace engineering team at Goodyear that invented the first communication satellites: He also helped build an inflatable aircraft that fit in a suitcase to help spies escape over the English Channel in WWII.  All I can find on it is that it was the forerunner of this: and that it was apparently actually used.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I actually used to think I wanted to be a science writer, then realized I liked doing the science more than writing about it.  As a student, I had few doubts, and confidence is key to going all the way to a doctorate in any field. My doubts came later, as I wasn’t sure really what to do as a postdoc.  I just started to trust that I’d gone far enough that opportunities would arise, and when I got the chance to be a professor, I took it. It’s been a weird career since, but I’ve kept hanging on to that idea that when I needed it, a new direction would arise.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I never thought I’d see the opportunity to put on body armor and train on weapons as a career path, but that was a small requirement of my former job when I left my professorship.  More surprising, though, was that I didn’t see myself stuck in a dream job with no potential to really make it work long-term when I was a professor. But I’ve adapted and moved on.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I’ve always been interested in the absolute weirdness of the technology that people have invented to take advantage of nuclear science.  Everything from particle detectors to gamma imagers, I’ve come up with some strange things to either do or add to other people’s work.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Trust yourself, and keep your eyes wide open (and your job search) for opportunities to do new and interesting things.  Also, find something you believe in, it keeps you motivated during slower times at any job.

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