Alumni Profile: Eric Loewen, '83
March 1, 2010 -- Western State College of Colorado (WSC) graduate Eric Loewen was featured in “Esquire Magazine” for the second time last year for his work with nuclear waste solutions. So what does he say was the biggest perk of being in the magazine? He was selected to be the guest speaker at the May 2010 commencement at Western.
What also sweetens the deal is that his nephew, Brett Sargent, will be graduating this May with a degree in computer science.
Loewen, a 1983 alumnus, grew up in nearby Leadville, and said that Gunnison and Western felt like home.
“Skiing was my life at the time,” Loewen reflected. “So I decided to try out for the Nordic ski team as a walk on.”
He was successful and quickly proved to Coach Ken MacLennan that he had what it took to compete on the team. Soon he was skiing at Western on a scholarship.
MacLennan was one of Loewen’s many mentors during his days at Western.
“He had a way of conducting himself,” Loewen said. “His biggest thing was, ‘Don’t tell me how good you are; show me.’ This was how he ran the ski program. He wanted us to ski and do well in our studies.”
Though he was consumed by skiing, Loewen found academic success at Western. Loewen double majored in chemistry and mathematics.
Ted Violett, emeritus professor of physics, who retired last year after 50 years at Western, was one of the first professors who influenced Loewen.
“At the time, I was young and stupid,” he joked. “But I listened to Dr. Violett. He was a father figure.”
Another mentor was Dean McIntyre, professor of mathematics.
“His enthusiasm for math was out-of-this-world,” Loewen recalled. “In his topography class, I got to see the beauty and creativity of math.”
Richard Jaeger was another influential professor.
“He showed up my senior year and I completed a great year in organic chemistry,” Loewen said. “Had he been there all four years, I may have gone directly into graduate school instead of the Navy.”
After completing his junior year, Loewen enrolled in the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NUPOC) program.
“It allowed me to join the Navy, but I could still drink beer and have my hair long during my senior year,” he joked.
The Navy proved to be an instrumental part of Loewen’s life, where he discovered what he wanted and what he didn’t want out of life. He learned to run a nuclear reactor and became a Navy lieutenant.
Loewen's greatest epiphany while in the Navy happened as he escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers while stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war.
“The situation I was in just wasn’t my passion,” he reflected. “I realized how truly dependant on oil we are. I wanted to work toward having a better energy mix in our country and in our world.”
Once he got out of the Navy, Loewen studied nuclear technology at the University of Wisconsin, where he obtained his master’s degree and Ph.D.
During this time he competed in triathlons and credits his days at Western with the skills needed to undertake such an event. The triathlons often provided a spiritual journey of endurance for Loewen.
His wife, Jennifer, is also an endurance athlete and often they have participated together in the events. Their first born daughter, Zatha, was in the womb when Jennifer did one triathlon.
Another important element of the Loewens’ family life is service and volunteer work. The Loewens have opened up their home for foster care for children in need. Kids have stayed with them for just a day to a little over a year. Loewen thinks that it’s been valuable for his kids to share in the experience.
“The whole family benefits from hosting foster kids,” he said.
Zatha is now 17 and will be going into the Navy after she graduates high school. She has received her full appointment and will be running cross country for the U.S. Naval Academy. Their son, Hans, is 16, and Loewen shared that he has expressed interest in possibly following in his father’s footsteps to Western. Dad, of course, is being supportive of that interest.
Both have benefitted from their parents' athleticism.
“I am proud to say that our kids have picked up the interest in triathlons and in cross-country running,” Loewen said. “Both won their age group in the North Carolina Triathlon Series. I’m retired now from these events, but I tell them once they graduate high school, I’ll come out of retirement.”
Time in the flatlands for graduate school made Loewen want to move to the mountains again.
“Plus I wanted my kids to be black diamond skiers,” he added.
The Loewen family lived in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for seven years. Loewen worked for the Idaho National Laboratory as a consulting engineer. By the time the family left, Zatha and Hans were in eighth and sixth grade respectively, and yes, they both could ski black diamonds.
The next stage of life found Loewen working in Washington D.C. via a program called American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He worked for Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska on climate change legislation and the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
After a year in D.C., the Loewens moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where they currently reside. Loewen works for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) as a nuclear engineer. It was in this position where he began his work with the PRISM nuclear reactor, the project that has attracted much media attention -- most notably with the “Esquire Magazine” features in 2005 and 2009.
The PRISM reactor is a sodium-cooled reactor that uses liquid sodium instead of a light water reactor to use nuclear waste as a fuel source. The process reduces radioactive waste, does not emit carbon dioxide (one of the major contributors to global warming) and automatically shuts itself down in case of an emergency.
Research in national laboratories has already proven that the technology works, however policy support from the Department of Energy is needed to make the reactor a reality.
The ‘Best and Brightest’ “Esquire” features also have led Loewen to brush shoulders and have some interesting conversations with some of our country’s great thinkers (and doers).
In one meeting, he visited with the editor of “Esquire”, the doctor who treated Christopher Reeve and allowed him to breathe on his own, a woman who is helping rebuild Afghanistan and a film icon who finances half of the Hollywood movies that make their way to the big screen.
Loewen has been humbled by the press that his work has received.
“I was honored to talk about the issues of nuclear waste and solutions to a broader audience,” he said. “I’m honored that ‘Esquire’ wanted to take on a controversial issue and put it in their magazine.”
He’s reluctant to accept the attention for simply his work alone. He shares that he’s one of many scientists who have spent countless hours with the technology.
“The effort is more than just me,” he said. “There are engineers, retirees, interns, various other companies and national laboratories that have worked with the PRISM reactor.”
And what about life in the limelight?
“My 15 minutes of fame are over and I get to speak at the Western State College graduation in May. I’m happy and contented.”
Story by Luke Mehall, assistant director of public relations and communiations. This profile appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the alumni magazine, the "Westerner."