Margaret J Minski – my boss, my colleague and family friend (1937-2019)

On the 27th August I was driving to Manchester when I received news that Margaret J Minski had sadly passed away. This was a shock as she seemed invincible, despite some more recent health problems. Margaret was many things to me – initially my boss, then a colleague and finally a family friend. She was a remarkable woman, a scientist with an amazing career in the area of radiation protection. You can read all about her life at the following link (prepared by the Society for Radiological Protection - SRP), since there is nothing more I can add regarding her career - it’s in the public domain. SRP - Margaret J Minski.

However, what I would like to describe is my own professional and personal relationship with Margaret, she quite simply was instrumental in making me into the Radiation Protection Adviser (RPA) I am today. Her encouragement, and dare I say nagging (I needed it), got me into SRP, firstly as a member, and later on to SRP Council as well as its other committees (e.g. Awards Committee). I was encouraged to attend SRP events, soon giving presentations to my peers at conferences, before organising and running the 40th Anniversary SRP meeting with Duncan Jackson in Oxford in 2003. This encouragement, with the opportunity for developing my radiation protection career, eventually lead to running my own consultancy (Ionactive) which I am still heavily involved with today.

On September the 5th I attended Margaret’s funeral in Brighton, which was a celebration of her life With the funeral over we all went for afternoon tea at Brighton Racecourse where I found myself (and others) detailing how we knew Margaret and our memories of her. It is this experience, talking among her family and friends, which gave me the idea to write down what Margaret means to me.

My early career

To provide some context I feel I should briefly describe my early career before meeting Margaret for the first time. I left school in 1989 with three A-levels, with not particularly good grades. Not knowing what I really wanted to do I declined university and looked for a job. The post of ‘Environmental Safety Technician’ at Amersham International (now GE) was advertised so I went for it and got the job. I did not really know what to expect but soon I was monitoring for radiation and undertaking contamination surveys for radioactivity. It was all very practical, and I found that I liked the variety of work and interaction with many different departments (since I was in support services). During my third year of work at Amersham I decided I wanted to be a Radiation Protection Adviser – I liked the role, particularly seeing these ‘important’ individuals signing off my radiation surveys, making comments and providing advice. My problem (so I was told) was that I did not have a degree. So, in 1992 I found myself as a mature student (at 21 years of age) and off to the University of Nottingham to read Environmental Engineering. I did well and obtained a 1st class degree and was lucky to find holiday work placements at AWE Aldermaston and back at Amersham over the three years of study.

Post degree, I was offered a place on the AWE graduate training scheme which started September 1995. My placement (with 5 others) was designed to engineer me into a Heath Physicist (HP) role, and later an RPA. The scheme was enjoyable, and I gained more practical experience working in the various active buildings and meeting yet more key individuals who I would bump into again some years later at SRP. During that time I also obtained a NEBOSH qualification and a MSc in Radiation & Environmental Protection from Surrey University. All appeared to be going well and I completed the graduate scheme in September 1997. However, unfortunately the focus at that time at AWE was to increase staff in the environmental section, and not in the health physics areas. So I was placed into an Environmental Technician role - worthy but not what I wanted to do at all, my focus was still on radiation protection.

So, I started to look for a job outside AWE. I soon spotted an advert for a Radiation Protection Officer (RPO) for Imperial College – “…to find out more information, call Margaret J Minski…” I did, I attended interview, and in December 1997 started as the RPO for Imperial College (a newly created post).

Margaret J Minski at Imperial College

I actually met Margaret twice before starting at the College. The first time was at the panel interview – I recall there was Margaret, Ian Gillett (H&S Safety Director) and other academic colleagues. Margaret was pleasant enough, but I found the whole process quite daunting. It was with some surprise I got called by Margaret the very same evening after getting back from the interview to be offered the RPO role. I was so taken aback I could hardly get the words of ‘thanks’ out. I was now back in radiation protection, perhaps not at RPA level, but doing something I really enjoyed which built upon my earlier employment experience.

The second time I met Margaret before joining the College was during a pre-employment coffee and cake session to discuss my RPO role in more detail. It was at this time I discovered that she had recently semi-retired from the College and her role of ‘Director of Reactor Operation and Safety’ (at Silwood Park) and Radiation Protection Adviser (for the whole College) had been split. The Director role was taken up by Simon Franklin, whilst she retained the RPA role on a part time basis. My role (RPO) was newly created to provide the ‘executive’ function (in other words – the day to day work - dosimetry, risk assessments, radiation monitoring and such like). She would be working two days a week for at least one year, then one day a week for subsequent years until she was ready to retire completely. Even during this coffee meeting, I got to know the measure of Margaret – she was clear about what she wanted, and how things should be done. I would go as far as to say I found her a little formidable!

Over the three years Margaret remained at the College we worked closely together, and little by little I introduced my own ways of doing things. It was also at a time where the College expanded greatly with the variety of radiation source types growing. A big change loomed by way of the ‘new’ Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999 (IRR99). No longer could you be an RPA by experience alone, you had to prove competency by a formal process. In the UK this was achieved by SRP (and three other partner societies) forming RPA2000 in February 2000. Margaret like other RPA’s of the time had ‘grandfathering rights’ (four years to become certificated), whereas I, not yet being an RPA, would need to go through the whole process. It was 2001 when I first obtained my RPA certificate having completed the RPA 2000 application process (I and others who applied at this time were somewhat guinea pigs, testing out the new system). I produced a huge binder of evidence as part of the application process, and Margaret went thought it. True to form she went thought it line by line and I was ‘encouraged’ to make several sets of changes before she pronounced it ready for submission. With my RPA certificate in hand I believe Margaret then felt it was time to consider full retirement which she did later that year. With here retirement impending I was able to move to a position of Radiation Protection Manager (and RPA), and interviewed for two additional RPO’s (since the College was now even bigger having taken on other institutions with their own ionising radiations sources). She helped me interview candidates and made sure that I was prepared to go it alone with a team in place.

This article cannot do justice to the many memories I have during those working years with Margaret – here are a few…

  • Margaret was not afraid of regulators – indeed, I think it was the other way around. She was polite and professional, but she stood her ground and told them when she thought they were being pedantic or overbearing.
  • During coffee sessions, or perhaps at the start of the day, Margaret would talk to me about things outside work. This was a rare event to start with, but as we got to know each other it become more frequent. She would ask me about a car she wanted to buy, and when planning to move to Brighton, she would bring in the property details for my opinion.
  • She could be quite blunt over the phone – if it was business she would come straight to the point and could get impatient if the person on the other end was stalling or wasting her time.
  • She had a very particular system for admin – something I had to take over bit by bit. I would want to make changes, and sometimes I got my way. However, plenty of times I was told off for not meeting her expectations – admin was not my thing, and I still need to improve to this very day.
  • She was always interested in what I was doing both inside and outside work. I was married with no children at the time and she was interested in my home life, our early house moves, cars, my music etc. In fact, Margaret was interested in whatever you were doing and would be happy to talk about it.
  • If Margaret thought I, or any other person was wrong, she would tell you to your face, politely but firmly. However, once the slight ‘chill’ had subsided, she would listen and on occasions would change her mind – and admit that perhaps a better idea was available.
  • Margaret encouraged me to get involved in everything radiation protection related. I was advised to attend as many meetings as I could – regulator meetings, RPA / EA meetings, SRP meetings. She encouraged me to deliver talks at SRP events and get my name known.
  • Early on Margaret asked me to take over her monthly Radiation Protection training courses – which were delivered to students and postgraduates. At the time this was a daunting prospect, since other than one or two presentations to SRP, I had never really trained anyone. The first time I delivered the course on my own she sat in the audience and watched me. At the end she simply said to me ‘your training style is natural; I am done with training’. Being plunged in at the deep end did the trick and I really now love training which is probably 25% of Ionactive business in the UK and overseas.
  • With Margaret’s contacts and encouragement, I was able to be involved in early initiatives following 9/11 – for example working with NaCTSO on the original guidance for radioactive source security. By now Margaret had retired but the status of ‘Imperial College RPA’ was enough to keep the phone ringing.

It is with some regret thinking back that there was a considerable gap between the time Margaret retired full time, and when we next met. Whilst we did have the odd email exchange in the intervening years, it was not until the summer of 2006 that I made contact with Margaret and suggested I go down and see her. Admission – I did have a motive at the time, which was not personal, but business – I needed someone to sign my 2006 application to RPA 2000 to renew my RPA certificate. By this time I was no longer with the College (I left July 2005) and was full time focused on Ionactive Consulting Limited and getting the RPA certificate was critical for my business. To my surprise she invited my whole family for a day down by the sea – where we could have lunch and she would then read through my RPA2000 application while my young son and wife played on the beach. So started what turns out to be the final and best phase of this story – Margaret the friend.

Margaret – our friend

We visited Margaret for the first time (post retirement) in August 2006 at her Bungalow in Saltdean (near Brighton). What a fantastic property, set high up and looking down towards the sea. My first memory of the place was the front garden, sloping steeply down to the property – a cascade of flowers of all types and colours. Seeing Margaret again in person was just like old times, but then again it was totally different. She hugged me. She hugged my wife Louise and hugged our son Alex who was nearly 3 years old. The next thing I notice having entered the property was how immaculate it was. Cabinets with china, ordainments, silverware, bookcases and similar. I recall at the time worrying that Alex might pick someone up or knock something over (he was of that age…). The third thing I then noticed was the sea view, still a couple of miles away, but there is something about seeing the sea from where you live. We decided against refreshments and instead set off for the Brighton Marina. In those earlier visits Margaret drove her own car (a white BMW) and we followed. This first visit was also my first experience of the Brighton Mariner carpark which still gives me the shakes even today (its impossibly narrow with high curbs, possibly the worst I have ever experienced). Lunch was at the Harvester Restaurant near the Asda (this would be our annual eating place for nearly all future visits). With lunch completed, and RPA 2000 application signed, we set off for the beach. We walked along the beach front towards the pier stopping for ice creams. I am sure the pier was not Margaret’s idea of fun, but she did not show it! What I particularly noted on this first visit was how well Margaret and Louise got along – they hit it off straight away. At this time Alex was being like a 3-year-old and giving us some grief, but somehow Margaret calmed the situation (and I recall she had no kids of her own). She was just naturally very good at adapting herself to any situation and saying something reassuring. The visit was topped off with a trip back towards the Marina on the Volk's Electric Railway. We said our goodbyes with hugs and I just knew this would not be the last time. Yes, I did have my RPA 2000 application signed, but we had all gained so much more than that.

And so what started as a visit to secure my RPA role in my new business, became an (almost) annual event. We would more or less follow the same format - visit the bungalow, go down to the Marina, have lunch (usually the Harvester), walk to the pier, come back by the train. All this time there would be plenty of conversation. Margaret would always ask me about my work, seemingly impressed that I was now full time working on lots of interesting radiation projects. But she also had time for Louise, and I would always make sure they had time to talk alone. Margaret always had time for our kids, and with Ben coming along in 2007, she had two boys to deal with!

‘If only’ is an often-used phrase and I could use it here. If only we had visited more. One year we did not make a visit (I honestly cannot remember why), and another year Margaret suggested we did not visit as she was unwell (having had some heart issues which were corrected with a pacemaker etc). Our last family visit was in 2017.

In 2018 we had planned a visit to see Margaret – then (sigh…) decided to cancel and make it later in the year in order to fit in a late August family holiday. She was fine with this (Margaret was always fine with things involving us as a family). Unfortunately, despite best intentions we did not make a visit in 2018 (but I did have email correspondence).

On the 15 March 2019 I had a job at Brighton hospital – a linear accelerator critical examination. Upon completion I got back to my car which was parked at a seafront carpark and looked up Margaret’s number. I had no idea if she would be in, or if she would be free. “Hello” (Margaret was one of few words on initial contact by phone). “Hi, its Mark, Mark Ramsay, I am 10 minutes away – just finished a job in Brighton, can I call in?”. “YES – please do, I will get the kettle on!” So, I arrived just 10 minutes later. Over the next 90 minutes we talked. My job. My family. Brexit (!). What Margaret had been up to. The garden. Her Health. Her friend Anne. How we must meet up again in the summer and how she would love to see Louise and the boys. I got up to leave. She gave me a hug, saying “I know you don’t like hugs but let me” (how she knew me). “I really miss you all, please do come down and see me soon”.

And then I got the news last week.

Thank you Margaret for everything. What a wonderful person you are. Always will be.

Mark Ramsay

Radiation Protection Adviser

8 September 2019

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Physics is, hopefully, simple. Physicists are not

– Edward Teller