New Radiation Safety Officer’s Journey Began with a ‘Happy Accident’

July 31, 2023

When Neil Whiteside got a Lilly Endowment Scholarship to attend Purdue University, his plan was to go into the school’s pharmacy program. When he didn’t get accepted, he did what many college-age kids do and decided to be with his friends even though they were all going into a field Whiteside didn’t know a thing about. That was the start of his now 15-year career in health physics, which has led him to being name Yale’s radiation safety officer.

“I figured I would give it a shot and I really connected with my professor, Dr. Rob Stewart,” said Whiteside. “It was a happy accident. Once I got there, I realized health physics is really a great discipline. You get to do a little bit of biology, chemistry, physics, and there is a lot of problem solving. That fit me to a tee.”

After earning his undergraduate in radiological health in 2006, Whiteside decided to stay in the field and earned his Master’s Degree in health physics from Purdue in 2007.

His first job out of college was as a health physicist at S. Cohen & Associates in Vienna, VA before moving on to the same role at the University of Michigan. After about two years, Whiteside was looking for advancement opportunities. A couple of his classmates from the health physics program at Purdue were working at Yale New Haven Hospital and routinely called Whiteside to see if he would join them. Again, he decided to be with his friends.

In 2011, Whiteside moved to New Haven to become a health physicist and assistant radiation safety officer at Yale New Haven Hospital. Along with reuniting with his college classmates, Whiteside said the job offered him hands-on clinical work that was something he just couldn’t get in his role at Michigan. While moving to the East Coast was a big change for the lifelong Midwesterner, the adjustment was made smoother during that first year when he met a recent nursing school graduate working at Smilow Cancer Hospital named Elizabeth Calderoni. The couple has now been married for five years and has a four-year old daughter.

After eight years in his role, Whiteside was promoted to supervisor of radiation safety physics and ultimately to radiation safety officer of Yale New Haven Hospital.

Whiteside had always planned on moving from the hospital to the university for his long-term career goals and the COVID-19 pandemic gave him a bit of a push as many of the hospital employees were suffering from “pandemic burnout.” He also wanted to go somewhere where he could be part of a larger safety team, such as Yale EHS.

Zach Tribbett, another of his friends from back at Purdue, had been named Yale’s radiation safety officer in 2021 following the retirement of Tammy Stemen, who held the position for 13 years during a 31-year career in the radiation safety field at Yale. Whiteside connected with Tribbett and was hired as Yale’s assistant radiation safety officer in the fall of 2021.

“At the hospital, we were an independent department with no other health and safety support,” Whiteside said. “A big draw of coming to EHS was to be on the same team with biological safety, chemical safety, and physical safety specialists, all working together.”

When Tribbett moved with his family to South Carolina in the spring of 2023, it opened the door for Whiteside to become the next radiation safety officer, which became official on July 1.

“In Neil’s short time with EHS, he has made a significant impact on the Radiation Safety program,” said Kevin Charbonneau, EHS executive director. “His expertise in medical health physics has been and will continue to be an asset to Yale’s growing human subject research activities. I’m thrilled that Neil is a member of our team and look forward to working with him in this new role. 

In his new position, he is responsible for the entire radiation safety section and will oversee Yale’s high-risk radiation programs associated with three U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses, including one medical use license.

“I’ve been impressed and humbled with what we’re asked to do at Yale,” Whiteside said. “I’m driven by doing work and achieving goals through efficiency, fairness, and transparency. I inherited a really great radiation safety program from my predecessors. I’m a caretaker of this program first. However, I never sit in a room and think we should continue to do something just because that’s how we’ve always done it. As operations change, we need to change with the times.”