Miles Lifson’s Unexpected Honorable Mention

CMC senior's project on Plutonium-238 Finishes in top 10 percent of the CUR Posters on the Hill event

Miles Lifson ’13 says he “didn’t know what to expect” at the time he punched a few buttons and submitted an online entry for the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual Poster on the Hill event. And yet, of 800 or so submissions, his finished within the top 10 percent. Pretty sweet, to be sure.

Here the CMC double-major (would you expect less from someone who knows about radioactive isotopes?) tells us how it went down:

Lifson: My submission was based on the research I’ve carried out over the course of this year for my senior thesis. My thesis looks at American political decision-making concerning the production of Plutonium-238, a radioactive isotope used for radioisotope thermoelectric power generation on space missions when solar power is not a viable option.  The fuel is not suitable for nuclear weapons use, and has no substitute as a power source for space exploration in the outer solar system. Despite universal recognition of Plutonium-238 as an irreplaceable necessity for space exploration missions, America ceased production of it at the end of the 1980’s and has been relying on a dwindling stockpile and purchases from Russia ever since.  Russia has now exhausted its own stockpile as well.  My research attempts to explain why America ceased production, why historical attempts at restarting production failed, and why a new contemporary effort to resume production will likely be different.

CMC: Did you have guidance from your professors?

Lifson: Professor James Higdon of Keck Science and Professor Ralph Rossum in CMC’s government department serve as the readers on my thesis, and have consistently advised and mentored me over the course of the project.  I have also received insightful help and suggestions from Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya and professor Jennifer Taw.

CMC: How did you go about submitting your project?

Lifson: I met with Dr. Bhattacharya at the beginning of the year to discuss my thesis, and she mentioned the CUR Call for Applications. I talked to my thesis readers and decided to apply. The electronic application included letters of recommendation, my transcript, an abstract for my research, a narrative summary of my Resume/CV, and a description of my personal and career aspirations.

CMC: It’s an extremely competitive program, and you finished among the top 10 percent. Were you surprised?

Lifson: I really did not know what to expect.  My research sits at an intersection involving elements of both physics/engineering and social science so it is always a little hard to know how people will react. I was concerned that it might be too “physicsy” for the social scientists and too “social sciencey” for the natural scientists.  I was in discussion with my readers for quite a while over what category to submit the research to.  We eventually decided on the social science category and it seems to have ended up alright.

CMC: What are you majoring in, and what are your post-CMC plans?

Lifson: I am pursuing a physics and government double major with a focus on science policy, particularly space policy. I am still engaged in the job search, but hope to find a position in D.C. related to space policy. While pursuing dual interests in the seemingly unrelated areas of physics and politics, I found my passion coalescing around the interface between these two disciplines in the realm of space science and space policy. The expense, duration, long lead time, and high visibility of space science missions demand substantial political involvement, but at the same time such involvement requires an in-depth understanding of technical issues as well a willingness to devote political capital to an issue that can be difficult for many voters to appreciate.

CMC: You’ve found a real niche, to say the least.

Lifson: Providing the technical insight necessary to convey the importance of space exploration as a human endeavor, and doing so in a way that can inspire both bipartisan political advocacy and popular support, is a role that I am eager to take on. As I mentioned, after CMC, I’d like to pursue a career in space policy––working for a congressional committee, NASA, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, a private sector entity involved in space exploration, or a think tank with interest and expertise in this area. After a few years of practical, real-world job experience, I want to pursue an advanced degree in order to maximize my contribution to the ongoing development of American space policy.

More About Miles Lifson:  The CMCer says he has pursued his interest in science policy throughout his time at Claremont McKenna, writing extensively about space and technology policy. Examples include examining and explaining the use of the American human spaceflight program as a tool of international diplomacy and researching when, why, and how countries choose to develop space programs. His summer internship opportunities reflect his interests in government and physics, including time with a state senator doing policy work and carrying out laboratory-based physics research, where his research into the remote detection of explosive analogues won top prize within the National Science Foundation sponsored program.

He intensively developed his interest in space policy last summer during an internship with the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences, where he covered congressional hearings, conducted background research, and assisted with the preparation of the Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics. While at CMC, he has participated with the Claremont Debate Union, and served as the President Pro Tempore of student government. He also tutors physics courses in classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism.  He is on the Dean’s List and is a recipient of the Alice Tweed Tuohy Honors Scholarship, a merit scholarship for academic excellence and leadership.