'Making the world safer' leads Mason PhD student from nuclear reactors to biodefense

Greg Witt says he likes Mason's Biodefense Program because it marries policy with science.

Greg Witt is a fourth-generation engineer who, just three years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, worked his way up to being the lead reactor systems engineer on new nuclear plants for Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh.

He left that position to continue his education because, he said, he’d like to make the world a safer place. He’s now a PhD student at George Mason University’s Biodefense Program at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

At Westinghouse, Witt was in charge of integrating many of the units that contributed to designing and building nuclear reactors. Two of the plants he worked on, in a $10 billion project, are about to be loaded with fuel in China.

Witt worked with nuclear regulators at home and abroad and coordinated communications with those who were working on procedures, implementation and emergency response—“as well as trying to talk to foreign governments about clean energy, greenhouse gas initiatives and energy security,” he added.

His studies as a master’s student at the University of Pittsburgh exposed him to the policy side of the nuclear industry, including studying the causes of accidents and the responses to them.

The 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters, he observed, shared common errors in response. “And with Ebola in West Africa, I saw a lot of the same mistakes being made,” he said. “There was a lack of information, a lack of coordination. There was a lot of hemming and hawing and not kicking into gear until it was raging out of control.”

He came to Mason’s Biodefense Program, he said, “because I like the way it marries the policy side with the science. That’s what intrigued me.”

After visiting with the program director, Mason associate professor Gregory Koblentz, Witt was convinced he could learn what he needed to achieve his goals.

“I loved how [the professors] take the technical and policy sides, shove them into a room together, and make them us understand each other’s perspectives,” he said. “It’s a holistic approach of science, technology, economics and public health—you want these four things together to figure out if what’s coming out is the best thing for mankind.”

His dissertation, not surprisingly, is on global biological catastrophic risks.

At first, Koblentz wondered if someone with a background in nuclear engineering “could have anything useful to say about biodefense,” the professor said. “As it turns out, Greg's expertise in technology, systems engineering and emergency management is directly applicable to improving preparedness and response to natural and man-made disasters involving not just nuclear and radiological threats but also biological threats as well.

“Greg's experience working at Westinghouse as a nuclear systems engineer might seem to make him an odd fit for the Biodefense Program, but biodefense is a highly interdisciplinary field, so he fits right in.”

After his PhD studies, Witt said he sees himself in a role where he can “continue to create knowledge, to find out new things. That’s what I like to do.”