When William Rhodes arrived at ULowell as a first-year graduate student in 1980, he had some serious educational gaps. “I didn’t write well,” he says today. “My math skills were poor. And I wasn’t good at critical thinking.”
Today, as one of the nation’s leading experts on key facets of U.S. homeland security—emergency assessment and response, radiation and explosives detection—Rhodes is in Washington as an advisor to the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees it. It’s not a role he could even have dreamed up 35 years ago. And there is no question in his mind as to where the path began.
“Whatever successes I’ve had since then,” he says, “I credit to ULowell.”
The successes have been many. For the past 25 years, Rhodes has been a leading member of a series of program teams at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, the nation’s pre-eminent science and engineering lab working on national security. He is also the author of more than 80 technical papers, book chapters and presentations and has consulted with the International Atomic Energy Agency as an expert on radioactive and nuclear-material security.
Currently on sabbatical (or as he puts it, “on loan”) from his most recent post, as technology and program deputy with Sandia’s Defense Nuclear Non-proliferation Division in Albuquerque, he is midway through a two-year stint as a congressional fellow in support of the office of U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
“I function as a kind of translator,” he says. “My role is to study the data that comes in, say, on any threats to our electrical grid security—either from natural causes like weather, or from terrorism—then break down the technical stuff into basic layman’s terms, so the committee can act on it.”
“I had applied to a half-dozen universities, had gone around and met all these different professors. It was the ones at ULowell who really took the time to talk with me.”
Sandia Labs, a subsidiary of Honeywell International, is under contract with the U.S. government to provide a host of defense related research and assistance services; among those are oversight of nuclear weapon systems, nonproliferation technologies and the disposal of the nuclear weapons program’s hazardous waste. Its roots, says Rhodes, go all the way back to the Manhattan Project that helped end World War II.
“That’s where the idea of the government’s cooperation with the private sector first came about—the notion that some of the nation’s brightest minds could be found in industry, or in academia,” he says. “So while technically we work for Sandia, the government owns everything, right down to the pencils on our desks. We’re a government operation; it’s the government that benefits from our work. We call ourselves ‘pseudo feds.’”
As a senior manager at Sandia, says Rhodes, as well as in his capacity as a congressional fellow, “I’m expected to be able to show knowledge in different areas, to think critically and to be an effective leader. There’s no way I could manage that without what I learned at ULowell.”
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
By the time Rhodes arrived on campus in the fall of 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Ohio’s Wittenberg College, he had a pretty good idea already of what he could expect: “I had applied to a half-dozen universities, had gone around and met all these different professors. It was the ones at ULowell who really took the time to talk with me. And that’s what sealed the deal.”
For the two years that followed, as he pursued a master’s degree in radiological sciences and protection, his early impressions were borne out, he says.
“I had a lot to learn, a lot to digest. And the professors always made time; they answered my questions, they worked with me one-on-one,” he says. “Two of them especially: my thesis advisor, Ken Skrable, and George Cabot [today an emeritus professor]. Just unbelievable educators, both of them. I can’t tell you what a difference they made.”
His years at ULowell, he says, coupled with the financial support that came along the way (he was a teaching assistant, for two years, under Skrable), made his time on campus “literally life-changing,” he says.
That’s why he’s made it a priority to return the favor, giving nearly a quarter-million dollars to the university so far, in part to support two UMass Lowell endowed funds and the top-rated Radiological Sciences Program. He is also a member of the Legacy Society and the Radiological Sciences Advisory Board, and is currently chairman of the Advisory Board for the Kennedy College of Sciences.
In 2009, he kicked off a fund of his own, the William G. Rhodes III Scholarship Fund, in support of minority and female students studying radiological sciences. Asked what’s behind his choice of beneficiaries (being a member of neither group himself), his response is as sensible as the science he pursues.
“Well, in my family, we’ve had some amazing women,” he says. “My grandmother, for instance, was among the first females ever to graduate from Cornell. It must have been a struggle. I can only imagine what people like her might have done if they’d had more opportunity.”
As for the minority-student end of the gift, his thinking is just as reasoned: “In New Mexico, where I live when I’m not in Washington, half the state is Hispanic—and that’s true also for the workers at Sandia. So I’ve been able to observe firsthand the lack of opportunity they face. The Native Americans as well. So I’m trying to do what I can to even things out a little.”
It’s an instinct for which the university is grateful.
“Bill Rhodes understands the importance of helping others achieve their dreams, the power of generosity and the beauty of kindness,” says Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi. “He has the university at heart and is always available to provide a helping hand, an idea or a gift, particularly in those moments when the need is greatest. I’m honored to know and work with him.”