UChicago Interns at Argonne Demystify Nuclear Energy

By Ron Walli

Four University of Chicago students have returned to the classroom this fall with a greater appreciation of the history of nuclear energy and new insight into its future.

As part of a summer internship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, each student completed a project related to nuclear energy, ranging from the nuts and bolts of a reactor to education and non-proliferation. Students helped Argonne prepare for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Chicago Pile Number One, and it was the experience of a lifetime.

“I’ve gained valuable skills interacting with kids in a classroom as well as in an outreach – such as a science fair – setting,” said Moscow, Russia native Rebeka Pushkar, who is entering her second year at the University of Chicago. She plans to become a teacher and, as part of her internship, helped develop an interactive model of a nuclear reactor and a model of Chicago Pile Number One.

The models are ideal for activities with middle and high school students, Pushkar said, adding that another goal is to incorporate the models into longer-format classes that could be presented by Argonne scientists in nearby schools.

“My long-term goal is to help demystify nuclear energy and integrate it throughout the world,” Pushkar said. “I want kids and adults to understand why it is a clean and safe way to generate electricity.”

Tara Ford, program director of UChicago Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, said the Chicago Pile One interns are among 18 UChicago undergraduates working with Argonne experts through the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program, which provides more than 2,000 paid, substantive internships each year.

“Thanks to Argonne’s partnership with the University of Chicago, our students have the unparalleled opportunity to gain valuable experience in scientific research, policy and communications with some of the world’s top researchers,” Ford said. “These experiences are preparing our students to become the next generation of leaders in nuclear energy and science innovation.”

Andrew Smith, entering his senior year, is majoring in physics and molecular engineering. The Floral Park, New York, native spent the summer working in Argonne’s Nuclear Engineering Division. His main project was to “collect data for grain growth as a function of time in uranium oxide fuel at 1,900 degrees Celsius,” he said. It’s all rather technical, but ultimately the data will be used to compare to the MARMOT fuel performance code developed at Idaho National Laboratory and lead to more efficient reactors.

“I now better understand the day-to-day functionality of a research group working at a national lab,” Smith said. “I have been able to collaborate with researchers and offer my own ideas in a way that I feel has positively impacted my group.

“In the coming decades, nuclear energy will become an increasingly vital resource for the United States. I am very proud of my fuel qualification work and the impact it could have on the advancement of nuclear energy technology.”

Rising second-year student Jared Beh, who plans to major in physics, computer science or molecular engineering, said the internship was a great introduction to the world of professionals.

“All of my co-workers and my primary investigator were invested in helping me learn,” said Beh, who integrated a project developed by a research group at Illinois Institute of Technology into the robotic teleoperations project. He also learned Robot Operating System and wrote code to generate and render three-dimensional meshes from their two-dimensional projected counterparts.

Although the New York City native hasn’t decided on a career, he said, “I can say for certain that I plan to earn a doctorate.”

Jordi Vasquez, a second-year political science major from Gainesville, Florida, was struck by the sheer size and vast capabilities of Argonne. Public acceptance of nuclear energy will hinge on more education at the high school level and public awareness campaigns, he said.

Argonne’s Meridith Brouzas, manager of Educational Programs and Outreach, emphasized the importance of the life-changing role of both institutions and the value of teamwork.

“The partnership between the University of Chicago and Argonne in developing the Chicago Pile One internship has been a great experience,” she said. “It is wonderful to honor such an amazing moment in history by investing in our next generation of nuclear scientists and the young men and women who will shape our future on a number of levels. It provides a nod to the past while investing in tomorrow.”