Paula Cable-Dunlap leads the Collection Science and Engineering Group for the National Security Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Her group focuses on analyzing particles from environmental samples, along with emanations such as seismic vibrations to detect potential rogue nuclear activity – such as smuggling of radioactive material or covert weapons programs – and to verify compliance with global nuclear nonproliferation standards as set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Dr. Cable-Dunlap has been a pioneer in this field for more than 25 years. She joined ORNL in 2010 after 18 years at Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. Upon arrival, she helped push for creation of the Ultra Trace Forensic Science Center, a world leader in nuclear analytical chemistry that occupies ORNL’s historic Mouse House, where genetic researchers in the 1950s identified what’s now known as messenger RNA in mice.
The center’s pristine cleanrooms, free of outside particles – even human skin cells – that could skew testing, and state-of-the-art elemental mass spectrometers detect the unique chemical signatures left behind by nuclear material and reactions. Dr. Cable-Dunlap’s group helps provide some of the samples tested there. Clients for this sensitive work include the US government and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Particulate collection and analysis – the study of minute particles, their origins and properties – have been the focus of Dr. Cable-Dunlap’s interest throughout her career. Her work in nuclear nonproliferation dates to the early 1990s, when she helped analyze samples from Iraq for signs of illicit nuclear activity. She holds a patent for a widely used particle collector that was considered for use aboard the Mars Rover.
More recently, her work has helped advance the addition of emanations to the list of clues that can point to nuclear activity, aided by artificial-intelligence programs that search for patterns.
Dr. Cable-Dunlap holds a PhD in analytical chemistry from Clemson University, where she got her start in nuclear science as a graduate student working for Savannah River. She also holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Western Carolina University, where she graduated in 1988 after having served as a co-op student and then specialty chemist for the Imaging Systems Department of E.I. DuPont de Nemours. The experience gained during her time working for DuPont served to inspire her interest in analytical chemistry.