Atomic Pulse

Young Voices in International Security: Raven Witherspoon

NTI’s “Young Voices” series highlights early-career professionals making their mark as part of the community of experts and practitioners tackling today’s existential threats. At a time of heightened international peril—with wars ranging in regions of the world with nuclear weapons, new arms races underway, and growing concern about emerging biological threats—it is crucial to build capacity in the national and global security space and support the next generation of leaders. This series reflects NTI’s commitment to uplift a range of voices and ideas, including those that have traditionally been underrepresented; help break down stereotypes that contribute to generational divides on security; and give a platform to young people to share creative, innovative ideas that address the evolving threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and disruption.

Jupiter Huang, NTI’s recent communications intern, spoke with Raven Witherspoon, a pre-doctoral fellow at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security, for the Young Voices series.

Raven Witherspoon currently researches the environmental and health effects of nuclear weapons production at Princeton University. She was a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, receiving a master’s degree in global affairs in 2022, and she studied Mandarin Chinese as a Blakemore-Freeman Fellow. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, she holds an undergraduate degree in physics with minors in mathematics, political science, and international social justice studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has interned at the Brookhaven National Laboratory amd the Surry Nuclear Power Station, and she has held several fellowships, including as a Carnegie-China Young Ambassador and African-American China Leadership Fellow.

A lot of the people in the field joke that no one ever chooses to work on nuclear issues, we just kind of “fall” into it. So, what precipitated your “fall” into the field?

That is absolutely true in my experience. I think, like most young physicists, I really wanted to go into astronomy. I thought I’d be an astrophysicist. I wanted to work for NASA and had done a high school program related to rocketry and mission design with NASA Langley, so I decided to get a physics degree in undergrad. Then I received a scholarship to help cover school costs through the American Association of Blacks in Energy. Through that scholarship, I was connected with internship opportunities and ended up spending a summer at a nuclear power plant after my freshman year of college. At the time, I was completely new to the field, and I thought, “why is anyone letting me near a reactor?” Of course they didn’t actually let me near the reactor, but it was still unbelievable to me that this learning opportunity was possible. There I learned about health physics and radiation protection and then became really interested in the broader nuclear space. That started me on the nuclear journey.

Could you speak to a particular challenge that you’ve faced in the field and how you confronted it? You don’t have to have overcome it yet!

Not unlike other jobs, careers, or passions, the work can become all-encompassing. I think that can be unhealthy in any field, but for most other fields, the concerns are not existential. Nuclear can be all-encompassing in a very different way, where it feels like the challenges are massive and almost insurmountable. For example, when I started my current position, it was my first time researching nuclear risk full-time. It’s heavy. I’d spend eight hours on research, then listen to nuclear podcasts on the way home, cook dinner while watching interviews and panels. So, I think the feeling that there’s so much to do and so much to learn and I don’t have time to engage with it all has been really difficult to manage. I’m learning now to create equal space for self-care and reminding myself that this work is being done by lots of incredible people. That takes some of the pressure off.

What skills, experiences, or insights do you wish you’d had when first trying your hand at nuclear issues?

I wish in the beginning I had a stronger grasp of how important language is in two senses. In one sense, language is everything in terms of treaties and discussing these issues in concrete ways. For example, I have previously misspoken and said “The U.S. has x number of nuclear weapons” when referencing the number of missiles, warheads, or plutonium pits. Colleagues have then explained very clearly the quantitative and qualitative differences between these things, which are all salient, especially in the context of treaties, which constrain some and not others.

It’s not only in the more technical elements, but also in political phrasing, that this matters. Is it “launch on warning” or “launch under attack?” The terminology has a really rich history and people have very strong feelings about what terms mean and what can or cannot be attributed to them. In a broader international and intercultural sense, even words that may be somewhat debated, but mostly agreed upon in one cultural context, do not necessarily share the same connotations abroad.

Paying closer attention to the terms used to describe situations, and how those words both originated and evolved, would have been really helpful to understand earlier.

What subject, developments, or issue area do you find particularly exciting or motivating for your work ahead? This can touch on both your interest in U.S.-China, and your current work on domestic environmental impacts.

I’m excited that dialogues have resumed between the United States and China. I’m excited that people are once again talking about the value of mil-to-mil (military to military communication). I can’t make any predictions about whether that will continue, but I really appreciate that the communication is happening again even at early stages.

In the nuclear space more generally, I think there’s more of an effort these days to get young people and scientists involved in these issues. Older colleagues in the field say that has been lacking since the end of the Cold War. It’s exciting to see new energy connecting the dots on issues like nuclear and climate change and AI and these things becoming part of the broader discussion rather than just, pun intended, siloed into their own spaces.

How do you hope the field will evolve going forward? In an ideal world, what is the “endgame” in 20 to 25 years?

I would love to see much stronger mergers between discussions that are technical and political. I think sometimes technical considerations are overlooked in favor of political arguments, and, conversely, sometimes technical approaches are posited as solutions to deeply political issues. I feel like the two sides often miss each other. And when they do come together, it often results in expanded arsenals or enhanced capabilities with unclear contributions to peace and stability. So, I would love to see more collaboration and genuine dialogue between the technical and political sides of these issues.

What’s an activity or hobby of yours?

I like strength training. I listen to podcasts. I read. I really love music, so I’m always down for music recommendations.

And another version of this question that might be fun is I know a lot of people drop off hobbies from their childhood that they wish they kept. So alternatively, what is something that that you that you wish you’d kept?

That’s such a great re-framing of this question. I really enjoyed volleyball when I was younger. This wasn’t when I was a kid, primarily when I was in high school, and I’ve done a little bit of it recently but not as much as I would like to.

If it counts as a hobby, I like to visit libraries in every city that I visit. I loved the library as a kid and my first job was at a library. A friend showed me around a local library in their hometown and I was almost in tears. It was beautiful, such an incredible community space. So, if you count that, that’s a hobby.

I absolutely count that! Just thinking of the contrived ways that I try to get my friends to go to local libraries when traveling.

Young Voices Creative Highlight

Given her love of libraries, it’s no surprise that Raven recommended that readers check out a book about nuclear issues that has impacted herb —ut not just any book. “When the Wind Blows” by Raymond Briggs, published in 1982, is a graphic novel that underscores the existential risk that nuclear weapons pose to all of us through a humble story.

Source: Hamish Hamilton Publishing

Review from Raven: I found “When the Wind Blows” deeply sobering. It’s a deceptively simple story about a couple trying to make sense of the world around them which has been fundamentally changed by the existence and use of nuclear weapons. You could imagine these scenes playing out in homes across the world just as vividly now as when it was published in 1982. It’s a good reminder that there are people at the heart of nuclear issues, not only calculations and politics.

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