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Breaking the Glass Ceiling: A Woman’s Story from Radiation Science to Nuclear Security

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Elena Buglova is currently the Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Elena Buglova, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Security since the start of the year, has always had deep interest in science. Growing up in what is today Belarus in a family with a medical background – her father a scientist and her mother a medical practitioner – discussions on medical topics, both the science and the practice, made regular dinnertime conversation.

“Topics ranged from new treatment protocols to scientific investigations and experiments on hematology and transfusiology, including the influence of chemical compounds and radiation on the blood conditions,” she recalls.

Buglova found radiation science fascinating in these discussions, and this fascination has continued to drive her engagement in ongoing scientific research. “I had a deep interest in finding out more about radiation, and that led to my specific research as a student on individual sensitivity to radiation depending on specific blood parameters,” she says.

Then came Chornobyl…

In 1986, a few years into Buglova’s studies at Minsk Medical University in Belarus, the accident at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant occurred, causing a huge release of radionuclides over large areas of her country. Already involved in radiation research, Buglova was appointed as an undergraduate doctor to work with villagers located at the border of the 30-km Exclusion Zone, where medical support was needed as many doctors had moved away from the affected areas.

During this time, a memorable exchange with a local resident profoundly influenced her career choice and desire to focus on radiation safety and security. “I was taking radiation measurements in the Exclusion Zone, and while explaining to a woman what we were doing, her only interest was whether I would drink the milk from her cow, as there was a fear of the milk being contaminated. She offered me a glass of milk, and I then understood this would be the moment of truth,” Buglova says. “I drank the milk. I had no issues with it. And she should not either. Her village was in an area that had been thoroughly examined, samples taken and radiation measured. By showing to her that she was under no risk, I could prove credibility of the measures, as well as my own credibility.”

Buglova travelling in a bus with colleagues on the way to the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Applying national experience at the international level

In the early 1990s, Buglova took part in field missions to the Chornobyl contaminated areas to collect and evaluate data from radiation measurements and results of health assessments. This data-based evidence was used to develop and justify measures to minimize post-Chornobyl radiation exposure to the Belarusian population.

She also performed assessments of risk coefficients for radiation-induced health effects, particularly thyroid cancers, and took part in many international projects focused on learning from the Belarusian experience after the accident. Later, her scientific work was used in the development of relevant IAEA safety standards.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Though nuclear science and the nuclear industry have been, and continue to be, male-dominated, Buglova says: “To be honest, I have never felt bothered by being the only woman in the room or felt that I was discriminated against based on my gender, but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. In my family, we grew up to be equal, regardless of gender, and this has been an expectation in my professional life.”

She adds: “Gender equality needs to be accepted and recognized in daily life by each and every person, and especially managers who need to show the way and lead by example.”

Buglova joined the IAEA in 2002, leaving her position as Head of the Laboratory of Radiation Safety and Risk Analysis at the Institute of Radiation Medicine of Belarus in Minsk. As the Head of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) for 10 years – the first woman to hold this position – she was the driver in developing it into the center of reference it is today.

She led the IEC during the IAEA’s response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, an emergency situation in which 230 IAEA staff worked in the IEC for 54 consecutive days and nights. “I consider it a big professional achievement to have been part of this development and establishing a sustainable IEC, which is recognized at the international level,” she says.

Buglova is currently the Director of the Division of Nuclear Security at the IAEA.

Buglova, as the Head of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre, speaking to the media in March 2011 following the Fukushima Daiichi accident. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

The IAEA strives to increase the representation of women both in the nuclear field in general and in the IAEA in particular, having committed to achieving gender parity – 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women – in the Agency by 2025. As part of its effort in this regard, the Agency has established fellowships and training programmes to increase the participation of women and youth in nuclear science, such as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, which it launched last year to provide scholarships for women beginning their careers in nuclear science and technology.

Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality. Click here to see current IAEA vacancies.

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