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Without Limits: Christine Gelles Goes Nuclear

College of Liberal Arts Staff

What can you do with an English major? Well, security. That’s what Christine Gelles discovered when she graduated from the Mount in the spring of 1992.

Christine GellesHer family is steeped in Mount tradition; her father, George (C ’64), won the Flanagan Award, the Mount’s top student honor, and remained to serve the university in a variety of administrative roles.  Her daughter, Kayleigh (C ’09) is building a career in digital advertising and radio. But it was her mother, Terri, who was most instrumental in helping Christine land her first job.  Terri directed the Mount’s Career Center and dropped off Christine’s resume at the Mount’s Career Fair, while her hard-working daughter waited tables at the Pub in Gettysburg.  After the fair, two companies got back to Christine: a firm that sold the services of security guards to apartment complexes and the budget office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  Gelles took both jobs:  knowing that the hiring process for the government agency would take time, she made cold calls for the security firm for seven months.  “It was a pay cut from my waitressing job,” Gelles recalled.   Then she joined the DOE and soon was deeply engaged in the vital process of securing the nation’s nuclear waste.

Like her father, Christine was a stellar student and Flanagan Award winner.  She was also very active on campus, serving as an editor for the Mountain Echo and Lighted Corners, a DJ for the Mount’s radio station, a peer mentor during orientation, and a tutor in the Writing Center.  In 1990, she and her classmate Michael Courtney founded the Mount’s first environmental club, LIFE, which stood for “live in fellowship with the Earth.”  Intellectually curious, Christine initially aspired to a career in academia and was accepted into several nationally prominent English programs, but, unsure about finances, she decided upon graduation to enter the workforce.

The Department of Energy recruited humanities majors, and fortunately Christine was the last person employed before the agency implemented a hiring freeze.  She began as an analyst in the DOE’s budget office and moved up the ranks quickly.  Evaluating funding requests from the department’s various divisions, she learned a great deal about how each one operated.  “When you begin in the budget office,” she explained, “you become an expert on different parts of the organization so it’s not uncommon to move into one of the offices you serve.”  Gelles transferred into the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, abbreviated to the OEM, whose focus is protecting, removing, and safely storing nuclear waste.  The better-known EPA, or the Environmental Protection Agency, oversees similar work on commercial sites, whereas the OEM focuses on sites and facilities owned by the federal government. 

Gelles described the early years of her career as “an exciting time” which found her testifying before Congress and helping the agency grow.   “It was a distinct privilege,” she recalled, “to work with a group of very hard-working public servants who resolutely defied the phrase ‘It’s good enough for the government.’  They were great leaders and great models, and, as they advanced, they took me with them.”  With an English degree, she acknowledged she was not “very familiar with spreadsheets like the accounting majors,” but the Department assured her they would teach her the technical skills she needed, and, she said, “They trusted me to do more… I had a lot of luck,” she added, “but I also was never one to shy away from a challenge.  I love learning, and, based on my studying at the Mount, I embrace complex problems.”

Over the next seventeen years, Gelles assumed a variety of leadership roles in the Office of Environmental Management.  She and her colleagues fashioned contractual, technological, logistical, and managerial solutions to reduce risk and address problems caused by severe environmental damage, even in instances when legal and regulatory systems had not kept pace with emerging needs.  A visible spokesperson for the DOE, she hosted conferences and public meetings, partnered with state and local governments, and listened to concerned citizens.   In explaining how the department planned to remove, treat, and safely contain hazardous materials, she encountered protesters who threw baby dolls and wet mops at her, but she also peacefully shared meals with Native Americans, who, she said, “expressed their feeling about federal issues in their own idiom.”

Gelles’ twenty-three-year career with the Department of Energy was distinguished by steady advancement, collaborative leadership, and creative solutions, but two especially exciting assignments bookend her federal career.  The first occurred in the late nineties and early two thousands, when she joined a team tasked with cleaning up the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology site, which once developed nuclear weapons and was close to the rapidly growing Denver metropolitan area.  When an FBI raid identified potentially illegal private-sector activity, public health concerns rose dramatically.  Political leaders and the public called for the safe removal of toxic material and insisted that the site close ahead of schedule.  Christine joined a team that reviewed and then revised policies, procedures, and programs.  Implementing the budgetary and project-management tool of earned value analysis, she led four major remediation projects. These projects helped the Department close the site ten years ahead of schedule, making the environment safer and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

A second highlight of Christine’s career with the DOE occurred in 2015, which she was called to stand up a field office at Los Alamos National Lab, after a radioactive waste container breached, shuttering a critical disposal site, and impacting federal sites and programs across the country. The DOE discovered that nuclear waste from the lab had been packaged incorrectly, resulting in legal actions by the host state, New Mexico.  The DOE appointed Gelles interim manager to work with state regulators, negotiate a legal resolution and implement needed program improvements.  During a turbulent transition, she dove deeply into the programmatic, technical, organizational, and regulatory aspects of all the related sites, concluding that “the regulations were not correctly aligned with the needs of disposing material safely.”   With a “sense of urgency,” she and her team worked with federal and state agencies and with Native American pueblos to creatively address the complex challenges.  Gelles recalled, “We had a great, synergistic team in New Mexico that was willing to take business risks to reduce environmental risk.  We were empowered to make something happen.  It was very rewarding work.”   

As Gelles moved up the Department’s ladder, she experienced “the joy of more responsibility” and found her work “great fun for a long time.”  In many ways, her path was much like a career in academia, in that she expanded her knowledge every step of the way.  She also acknowledged, however, that, “the higher you go in a federal agency, the more you have to weather the bureaucracy” and the more political decisions become.  In 2016, she decided to join “the industry side of things where I am constantly learning new skills.”   She now serves as the senior vice president for operations at Longenecker & Associates, a firm that undertakes projects like those she led within the Department of Energy and often subcontracts work with that agency as well as the National Nuclear Security Administration.  Gelles enjoys working with a woman CEO and says that the company’s size allows her to make “really compelling value decisions while working on projects of national and international significance with a team I respect.”   The firm has grown significantly under Gelles’ leadership, and she often travels to Europe where, she says, “I am able to transfer some of the better resourced technologies and solutions in the U.S. to countries less experienced in this area.”

Reflecting on her remarkable journey, Gelles states, “I’ve probably learned all the things I would have learned at the Mount as a business major,” but she believes her liberal arts background and her work in the Mount’s Writing Center provided writing and editing skills important throughout her professional life.  Above all, she says the Mount gave her “the confidence to walk into a job that I was not initially trained to do, confident in my abilities to read and analyze documents, to ask questions of others, and to learn from them.”  She credits the Mount’s Honors Program, small-group discussions in class, and professors “who heard us, were always available and never taught limits.”  They “trained us,” she added, “to deal with material we were not familiar with.” 

Christine has received numerous awards from the Department of Energy and other organizations, and she serves on a variety of boards and commissions.  She has taught in the Master’s program in Nuclear Environmental Protection at the Catholic University of America.  She has returned to the Mount’s campus repeatedly for career panels and has served actively on the College of Liberal Arts Advisory Board since 2014.  When an international conference bumped against her daughter Kayleigh’s Mount graduation in 2009, Christine scheduled a red-eye flight to Europe and changed in an airport restroom rather than miss the important event.  “There was no way I was going to miss Kayleigh’s graduation from the Mount,” Christine commented.  She’s an accomplished citizen of the world, but her roots sink deep into Mary’s Mountain. 

College of Liberal Arts Staff