Kathy Shields in a lab coat
Ph.D. student Kathy Shields working in a campus lab.
Photographer: Marilyn Sargent


“I kind of joke that nuclear engineering is like any other type of engineering plus radiation,” quipped Kathy Shield, a fifth-year PhD student in nuclear engineering. Planning on graduating this summer from the BioActinide Chemistry Group led by NE’s Rebecca Abergel, Shield is a skilled scientist who has been part of ground-breaking research throughout her time at Cal. As part of the Berkeley National Lab, she was involved in the characterization of the first Einsteinium complex in the last 60 years. Einsteinium is element number 99 in the periodic table, and is highly radioactive. It was discovered in the radioactive debris of the first hydrogen bomb test — also known by its code name, Ivy Mike — by Berkeley scientists 

Shield’s work has been published in Nature and featured in publications like the New York Times. She further explains that her research primary focuses on the Actinides series — elements from number 89 to 103, all radioactive. She particularly works with actinium, an element that has promising implications in the medical field. She is currently focused on finding different ways to purify the element and attach it to the right kind of molecules in order to target cancer cells inside the body.

The idea behind the research is to start looking at radiotherapy as an alternative to chemotherapy. Leaving all the poisonous chemicals behind, radiotherapy would be a less invasive way to target exclusively cancer cells, rather than the whole body — as chemotherapy does. Shield explains how, “chemo poisons everything inside of you and hopes that the healthy cells bounce back faster than the sick cells. However, with radiotherapy, it can be much easier to target and deliver radioactivity directly to cancer cells.”  

Both of her projects have posed tall challenges that the researchers have had to overcome: they’ve had access to only small amounts of the elements (their Berkeley National Lab team only received 250 nanograms of Einsteinium, equivalent to less than one one-hundred-millionth of an ounce!) and the high amount of radioactivity which requires facilities that can adapt to the rigorous safety protocols. While working at the Berkeley National Lab, she has had the opportunity to work with some veterans in the field that have served as mentors throughout her time as a researcher. 

After graduation, Shield plans to join the State Department as a diplomat to train STEM students to participate in diplomacy and international policy conversations.

Read this New York Times article about her and her team’s work with Einsteinium.

Paulina Gutierrez is an Editorial Assistant with the Graduate Division.