October 23, 2023

Ep. 422, Next Generation Titans: Kaylee Cunningham, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ph.D. Student
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Show notes

Phoebe Lind [00:00:58] Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. I'm Phoebe Lind, and today I am joined by Kaylee Cunningham, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who you may also know by her alias on TikTok as Ms. Nuclear Energy. Kaylee is a part of our newest series highlighting young and influential leaders in the nuclear energy industry. Kaylee, welcome to Titan of Nuclear.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:01:22] Thank you so much for having me, Phoebe. Oh my gosh, I'm so excited to be here. I'm actually a huge fan of the podcast.

Phoebe Lind [00:01:29] Actually? I mean, doesn't everybody love the show?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:01:32] Yeah, honestly, I'm pretty sure everyone does.

Phoebe Lind [00:01:36] But yeah, I would love to have you introduce yourself a little bit and give a little bit of your background. We'll dive into it more in depth throughout the episode, but go ahead. The floor is yours.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:01:46] So as Phoebe mentioned, my name is Kaylee Cunningham. I am a rising or soon to be second year Ph.D. student at MIT. I am studying nuclear engineering and my concentration or field of specialization, as we call it, is in material science. So specifically, I look at how different materials change as a result of being exposed to radiation. And I did my undergrad at the University of Florida. So, go Gators. Subtle shout out there, or maybe not so subtle. And I love TikTok, I love social media and advocacy, and I'm just excited to be here.

Phoebe Lind [00:02:28] Amazing, we're excited to have you. So, tell us a little bit more about your background. University of Florida, I know you have a research reactor there. Where did you grow up? How did you come into nuclear energy and nuclear in general?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:02:44] I actually am from the Massachusetts area originally. I lived in Melrose until I was about 11 when I moved to North Carolina. I lived there for about three years and then I moved to Florida. I did high school there and then went to the University of Florida for undergrad.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:03:03] When I was in high school, I always have to bring up my engineering teacher, Ms. Nimmi Arunachalam. She was my inspiration; I honestly would not be the woman that I am today had I not had her as a teacher. She encouraged me to join my school's engineering academy. It was sort of a magnet school with these different programs and different tracks. I actually started off in the Fashion and Design Academy. And I was super interested in musical theater and trying to pursue that, but I also loved calc and physics. So, I had a couple of friends bring me to go meet Ms. Nimmi, and ever since then I was just in love and I knew engineering was the career for me.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:03:53] And I feel like a lot of students are in that position, especially this time of year, right? We're getting into the start of college. Freshmen are coming in trying to decide what they want to major in, and a lot of people have a general sense of, "Okay, STEM? Not STEM?" kind of thing. But one of the most crucial moments for me when selecting the nuclear industry was a competition I did in high school. My friends cringe when I bring it up because I talked about it way too often when I was younger, but I was involved in the Florida Student Astronaut Challenge.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:04:29] It was a competition where me and a group of friends ended up volunteering our time after school every day until like five or six p.m. studying things about aerospace and the space shuttle. We would go to this competition at Kennedy Space Center. First we would go through a space shuttle simulator, like flying the space shuttle and going on a mission and all of that stuff. But then we had an engineering challenge and a lab research space challenge, which I now look back and realize that was basically a qualifying exam for a Ph.D. I willingly put myself through that and now I'm like, "What was wrong with me?" But it was just such an incredible experience.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:05:17] And the first year I did it, my sophomore year of high school, the seniors on my team picked the project and for this lab research experiment proposal, it was focused on figuring out a way to protect astronauts and keep them safe for a NASA mission. And the project the seniors picked was focused on radiation shielding for those astronauts. I mean, this was the first I had heard about radiation or nuclear or anything like that. And I was just so, I want to say, obsessed, borderline obsessed with the topic and this idea that radiation is something that can be so hazardous. But at the same time, here on Earth it's something we use for clean carbon-free energy. It just blew my mind, the juxtaposition, and that's what sucked me in. And ever since then, I have been diehard on track nuclear.

Phoebe Lind [00:06:19] That's fantastic. I think if I had known about an astronaut program when I was in high school... I'm also from Massachusetts, and I was not aware of any astronaut programs there. So, that sounds like a great opportunity. Also, going back to your points about having strong mentors and opportunities at a young age, it's so important to getting that kind of exposure to new industries that you might not grow up knowing about.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:06:43] Exactly.

Phoebe Lind [00:06:44] So when you went to college in Florida, then you were absolutely certain you wanted to do nuclear engineering from the get go?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:06:52] Yes. It's actually a funny story. I was actually a little undecided between cybersecurity and nuclear engineering because I also loved computer science. Anyone that knew me in high school didn't know me as the nuclear girl; I was the computer science girl.

Phoebe Lind [00:07:14] You could have been Ms. Computer Science instead of Ms. Nuclear Energy, but here we are.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:07:19] Pretty much, but here we are. And how I decided that I was I applied to a bunch of different schools. Some were for cybersecurity programs, some were for nuclear engineering programs. And funnily enough, I had the best financial offer... I got full scholarships to cover my education at the University of Florida, and that was a nuclear program. So, that's what decided it for me. I very much trust that everything happens for a reason and works out the way it's supposed to. And that's exactly what it did, because it was the best decision I ever made, going to the University of Florida.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:08:02] Sometimes I look back because I did apply to MIT for undergrad and I didn't get in. And again, this goes back to all those students out there who are applying or maybe filled out the application, didn't get in and upset, stirring with that disappointment. And I was crushed. I was so obnoxiously obsessed with MIT when I was in high school. My heart was just shattered. But going into the program at the University of Florida, I wouldn't change it for the world even if I got into MIT and could go back and do it again. Because the faculty, the mentors, the friendships and just the experiences I had there overall are things that shaped the person that I am today and really helped me outline and set up my career path so that I can be focused on going to graduate school, using as many resources as I can...

Kaylee Cunningham [00:09:04] Quick shout out to Professor Jim Baciak and Dr. Michele Manuel, who mentored me throughout my years at the University of Florida and got me on track to get into MIT. Then also, shout out to Dr. Jeff Powers, my first Oak Ridge National Lab research mentor, who did literally everything in his power to set me up for success. So, having this team of incredible mentors put me on the path to still go to MIT for graduate school. And here I am.

Phoebe Lind [00:09:38] I notice in one of your recent TikTok videos how you had recommended nuclear engineering, specifically because of smaller class sizes and the access that gives you to not only professors but other people that you can rely on. Did you know that you wanted to go to grad school through undergrad as well? You were kind of on that academic pathway?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:10:02] My freshman year, I had no idea what I was doing. Don't let the Ms. Nuclear persona fool you; I was clueless. I applied to every opportunity that... You know those email blasts that get sent out from the department head to the entire department, all the undergrads like, "Hey, opportunity here. Hey, internship here?" I applied to every single one like a crazy person just because I didn't know what I wanted. And at the end of my freshman year, after I had done a little bit of research that I wasn't totally loving, I had internship offers from Southern Company and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory Internship was doing a computational research project for nuclear reactor fuel.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:11:00] At the end of my freshman year, I didn't know anything about nuclear. I couldn't tell you what a nuclear reactor was. But I had the computer science skills, so that's the path that I chose. And it ended up being a more research-based instead of industry-based job. And I absolutely loved what I was doing. And that set me up on the trajectory to work in academia.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:11:26] Now that being said, that doesn't mean going to graduate school and pursuing your Ph.D. means you're isolated from industry. It's actually quite the opposite nowadays. Something that I realized pushing towards these advanced reactors that we were trying to develop and deploy as soon as possible, the Ph.D academia route, that sort of expertise is so crucial to these advanced reactors we are trying to build and deploy as soon as we can. And because of that, I actually interned at BWXT last summer.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:12:06] So for those of you who don't know, BWXT builds and manufactures all the nuclear reactors for the Navy. But they also, about five or six years ago, started an advanced technologies research and development branch. And in this branch, I got the best of both worlds. So I was doing research, but it was pushed at the industry fast pace that I think really feeds me and fills me up, and I just absolutely loved the environment. So, it's incredible to know that if I don't want to go into academia, even with a Ph.D., I can still go work in the fast-paced industry.

Phoebe Lind [00:12:45] Yeah, that's a great point. I think that's a pretty common misconception across all disciplines, not just nuclear engineering as well. Turning to that, tell us a little bit more about your work in your Ph.D. What are you studying right now?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:13:00] So, this is actually a fun discussion. I am in the process of switching projects right now. That's a little flag out there for anybody who's working on something they don't like. You don't have to keep working on it. Of course, give it a shot. I spent a year working on this and decided, "Okay, no, I really don't like this." So, I switched to something that I enjoy more.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:13:26] But for context, I mentioned before that my focus is understanding the materials and the material science behind radionuclides, radioactive materials, or materials that are damaged by radiation. The project I started on was for Commonwealth Fusion Systems. They're funding this research project with MIT. There's this huge push to get a commercialized fusion deployment sometime within the next decade, two decades. I don't know CFS's timeline, but the project that I was focused on was studying the structural materials for fusion reactors.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:14:09] So, trying to understand how, in a fusion reactor, when we have insanely energetic neutrons, way more energetic than your standard fission neutrons that we already kind of understand... These super energetic neutrons are smacking into different materials that are holding this sort of plasma suspension system. So, basically pulling the technical information out of it. All you need to know is we've got really excited neutrons smacking into materials and causing all kinds of problems.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:14:46] So, my job was to figure out how to mitigate those problems and make sure that our materials are strong and structurally safe. And that involves a lot of what they call microscopy work. So, looking at super, super tiny samples, like on the scale of nanometers, microns in size. Nanometers for specific particles or defects we're looking at, which is on the scale of like the size of a human hair. Very, very tiny. Looking at that under a very powerful microscope is just not something that I enjoyed long-term. So more recently, I am in the process of switching to a fission-based project, understanding how what they call particle form fuels work and how the materials behind that work when you have different fuel types within these particle forms.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:15:48] So, backing that up again for those non-technical people listening, I think a it like an M&M cookie. So within this cookie, we've got tons of M&M's, right? Inside an M&M, you've got your chocolate center and then you've got this hard candy shell surrounding it, and then a color coding surrounding it, and then a little M&M stamp. Lots of layers surrounding that chocolate. So if you think of the chocolate as your nuclear fuel, that's where your uranium sits. Then we coat that chocolate with the candy shell, which is going to be different layers of carbon or maybe silicon carbide, different materials to protect that chocolate.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:16:31] And then those little M&M particles go inside the cookie. And that cookie is almost like your matrix is what we call it, where we encompass or encase all these little particles to create what we would refer to as a standard fuel pellet. So instead of just straight uranium dioxide, we've got little tiny particles of uranium coated in a bunch of stuff to make it safer and embedded into a cookie. So, my focus now is looking at and understanding how those different materials work inside the cookie, if that makes sense.

Phoebe Lind [00:17:12] That sounds fantastic. But I've got to be honest, I think what I am more fascinated by is how you were just able to break down that super complex topic with an analogy about an M&M cookie. But also speaking to that point, from what I've seen from your more public work on TikTok is that in addition to being a nuclear engineering student, which is very challenging, you're a fantastic educator in being able to take these topics.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:17:45] Thank you.

Phoebe Lind [00:17:45] Of course. But taking these topics and really making them accessible to a more public audience, that's also something I'm super passionate about. Just because... Especially in the nuclear energy industry, but also extending that further to other environmental issues, climate change, it's really just misinformation and a lack of education that I think what causes a lot of the fear that we have around these newer technologies. So, switching gears a little bit to talk about your more public work on TikTok, what inspired you to start posting videos and creating this educational content?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:18:22] This is actually a fun story. I think it was my senior year of undergrad at the University of Florida when I won a scholarship to go on a short-term study abroad to Iceland. This was like a 10-day quick trip to go study and understand Iceland's geothermal energy and the initiatives that they are taking on and pursuing to decarbonize their entire country by 2030. They have very ambitious goals, but they're actually making huge strides to meet those goals. And part of that is supplementing their geothermal energy with energy alternatives. They are very extensively exploring solar panels, wind power, and even hydrogen power or synthetic fuels for things like their boats, their fishing economy, that sort of thing.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:19:19] And so, being the token nuclear engineer on the trip, I, of course, in all of these lectures and seminars and discussions had to raise my hand and say, 'Have you thought about nuclear energy or small modular reactors?" And the response I got was overwhelmingly negative. One of the first times I asked, the response I got was, quote, "Oh, we don't believe in that. We're a peaceful nation. We don't do that." And I was so surprised. I was like, "Did I misspeak?" But I was just so, so surprised. And I confirmed I did not misspeak. And the emotional buildup from that, being so shocked and frustrated that there still is this stigma behind nuclear energy inspired me to turn to TikTok.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:20:22] This was like the end of the pandemic. TikTok was just starting to become super, super popular. And I was a user, but I was never a content creator. And I was like, "Okay, you know what? Enough is enough. People need to hear about this." So, I made a TikTok and I was using the green screen effect, just me talking about, "This is me in Iceland." I said, "Let's talk about nuclear energy. They said no. What's the deal?" And it did very, very well. I think it got something like 10,000 or 20,000 views. And it was the first video I ever posted.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:20:57] I was so overwhelmed by that response and just so grateful and recognized that there is a very serious need for more educational resources about the nuclear energy industry. And because of that, I started making video replies responding to questions I had in the comments on that video. And those video replies did even better than the first video. It just kind of snowballed from there. And that was two years ago, almost exactly two years ago. And now here I am, Ms. Nuclear Energy.

Phoebe Lind [00:21:39] I can't imagine the roller coaster of emotions that came with that from like the rejection of nuclear energy that you saw in Iceland to the, I'm hoping, more positive response that you received on TikTok. My idea is that being a more public figure talking about a controversial topic, I'm sure you're very used to responding to criticism and explaining away the controversy of some of these issues. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that you face in overcoming that stigma on your platform?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:22:16] Well, that's a great question. I think one of the most common questions I get or sort of misconceptions or misunderstandings is about the waste. People are still fixated on Homer Simpson and the green glowing slime and Halloween. Just recently, I was at Modeling and Experimentation Validation School... Very wordy, but at the Idaho National Laboratory. We toured the Experimental Breeder-I museum. Those of you who don't know, it's just a fancy nuclear reactor museum, the first nuclear reactor to produce like "X" amount of electricity in the United States. And when we were touring the museum, there was a model fuel bundle from the reactor core on display. And so I said, "Okay, everybody needs to stop what we're doing. I need to make a video."

Kaylee Cunningham [00:23:14] And I had someone film me saying, "This is what nuclear waste looks like. Metal rods, not green blowing slime." And every time I make a video like that, it always gets so much attention and so much traction because people still don't know that we're not talking about slime. Nobody's glowing green. We do have glowing blue Cherenkov radiation during the reactor being pulsed, but we don't see this stigma that's been portrayed on the media. So, that's definitely an obstacle.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:23:52] And of course, I receive my fair share of hate comments and criticisms and everything else. Sometimes people question if I'm actually even a Ph.D. student. "Does she actually go to MIT?" which I promise I do. Go to my website. Go to my research group's website; I'm there. And so, it can be difficult, but I think the most important thing is to keep responding to these genuine questions, because all of that negativity and hate and mistrust stems from fear and hurt.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:24:32] A lot of people have seen these tragic nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, like Fukushima, and are absolutely terrified because they don't understand what happened, why it happened, and are concerned it could happen again. And those are all very valid fears and valid concerns. And so, what I'm trying to do on the platform is to just give them the technical perspective in a way that hopefully they can understand a little bit better and use that to maybe help ease some of the anxiety and mitigate those fears.

Phoebe Lind [00:25:10] That's such a kind way to respond to that. The fact that you have so much empathy for people coming from all different perspectives I think is so incredible. In the face of some of those challenges as well, what keeps you going and continuing to post and continuing to do what you're doing in a public forum? What motivates you to be an advocate for nuclear energy, both on TikTok and as a student as well?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:25:39] So, about every one to two weeks I get a message or two from high school students. Predominantly high school females who are asking questions and wondering, "How can I do this? How do I study nuclear engineering? What college programs are out there?" Students that are maybe curious, but a little bit afraid, have started to look up to me as sort of a role model. Hearing those words and being able to answer those questions and hop on a Zoom call... It takes an hour. That's it; an hour once a week to hop on a Zoom call with a high school student and talk about my experiences, the opportunities available in the industry.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:26:27] The things that you can do in the field... That's probably the thing that fills me up the most and motivates me to keep going. Knowing that there are, however many, a few hundred high school females that have been following me religiously and looking to me for advice on, "What college do I go to," and, "Is it okay if I haven't taken calculus? Can I still do this if I went to community college?" Asking these sorts of questions is so, so important, and there's not really anybody out there who is answering these questions. And so, being able to respond to them and essentially provide the mentorship and resources that those three mentors that I listed, actually four mentors... Can't forget about. [00:27:18]Ms. Nimi. [0.3s] Being able to provide that mentorship and those resources that were provided to me is kind of like my way of passing the torch and being able to give back. It's what makes me feel good and what motivates me to keep doing this.

Phoebe Lind [00:27:38] That's fantastic. Have you ever thought about how your work as an educator on TikTok has influenced your studies or how those two work together to make you both a better student and a better educator? Do you find your work in TikTok coming into your studies at all?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:27:59] Yeah, I think it it depends. I've been fluctuating between these two research projects. I think being on TikTok and being so tapped into not just my nitty-gritty, super technical research topic, but also being tapped into the bigger picture, the nuclear energy industry as a whole, the economic side of things, the policy side of things, the regulatory side of things and getting asked questions about those things forces me to stay up to date. To keep reading the news, keep reading journal articles, and paying attention to what's going on in the world. And I think that brings a sort of awareness and well-roundedness to the table that I wouldn't otherwise have if I wasn't doing TikTok.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:28:54] That being said, I think sometimes my research does fuel some videos that I may be making. There are videos I've made where I'm just like in the lab waiting for an experiment to finish up and I'm like, "Hey, so this is what I'm doing." That can be fun and entertaining. And then, I've also had different videos or things that I've made pertaining to the big picture of my research projects. Looking at what the future of fusion may look like versus looking at what, now, switching projects, this advanced nuclear might look like in the future. So, I think they kind of feed into each other and help build me up and support me as a more well-rounded academic and researcher.

Phoebe Lind [00:29:46] Do you ever get recognized on campus or just out in public as Ms. Nuclear Energy?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:29:51] I actually do sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if it's just because I'm at MIT surrounded by this incredibly technical community. But it was so funny, when I first started in my lab group last year, I was sitting at my desk and one day an undergrad student comes in and starts like smacking the post-doc that I sit with and like poking him. Like, "Oh my God, that's her. Is that Ms. Nuclear Energy from TikTok? That's the TikTok girl!" And Angus, my post-doc mentor, was like, "I don't know, maybe? I'm not on TikTok. I don't know. Go talk to her, it's just Kaylee."

Kaylee Cunningham [00:30:32] And it was so funny; he was too shy to say anything. So, then my mentor came to me later and was like, "Hey, do you run like a social media thing? Like, what's going on?" And I was like, "Oh, my God. Yes, that's me." And I went and talked to the undergrad and I was like, "Hey, if you need anything, let me know. We're just peers. Same lab group, you know?" So, it was funny. And sometimes it's a little... Makes my cheeks turn red, you know? But it is, it's very cool.

Phoebe Lind [00:31:10] Speaking of the undergrad and the post-doc, do you find that there's a divide in how different generations respond to your content on TikTok?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:31:18] Oh, absolutely.

Phoebe Lind [00:31:20] I think your points on like, "It's just hot rocks," and then, "It's just spicy rocks," I find so funny. But I can only imagine how an environmentalist who was brought up to think that nuclear energy is super scary would like really hate us referring to fuel rods as spicy rocks.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:31:40] That's it, yeah. Something I try and communicate in my videos or at least in comments sections or captions, is like... My target audience is not the technical people. I get a lot of, "You're oversimplifying this. This is not all the information." And I'm like, "Okay, yes, obviously saying a nuclear reactor is spicy hot rocks that boil water is an oversimplification." But the point is sometimes to communicate to people who don't have a technical background, you need to simplify. That's the entire point, right?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:32:15] But I have found that a lot of the graduate students that I have interacted with are just not on TikTok. Especially at MIT, they're not really even on social media. And I think that's more of a generational thing. A lot of the graduate students in my cohort are a lot older than I am. I went straight from my undergrad to grad school. I'm only 23, and a lot of my cohort went and worked in industry for a few years or got a master's first and have a little bit older peers and are a little bit more mature and don't really engage in or maybe fully understand the internet and TikTok and Gen Z and all of that stuff. So, I very much on TikTok try to tailor my content to Gen Z because they're the ones predominantly using the application. And I don't know if anybody's told you this, but they're the ones who are going to be running the world in a couple of years. So, getting as many of them engaged in the nuclear industry is probably the most important thing I can be doing and another motivator for making content and using TikTok as a platform, specifically.

Phoebe Lind [00:33:34] I mean, I can definitely see the reach that it has. I'm also in my 20s. Do you ever find that there's a stigma from some of your older classmates or older folks who are in your program against TikTok? And then on a more positive note, how do you explain the positive benefit that it does have?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:33:56] First off, there are always people concerned about security. There was the whole congressional bill and concerns about TikTok not being the most secure application. But my perspective and my response is always I'm not sharing any information that is not already out on the internet. If people can go find it on their own, the nefarious people are going to go find it. I'm trying to bring content to people, specifically younger people who maybe would not have searched for it on their own. And that's kind of the point of doing goofy dances, making memes, making cheeky PG-13 rated jokes and doing these kind of unprofessional things to humanize the nuclear industry as a workforce development tact.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:34:55] I do occasionally get, a little bit of outside of the security concern, "Oh, is that really serious though? And is that really something you want to be doing, putting yourself out there like that and everything else? Aren't you scared of being wrong or saying something incorrect?" And my response is always, "I'm human. You're human. We are all human. We make mistakes. The important thing is that we own up to our mistakes and correct them." That is something that I think builds trust within the social network and within that sort of community.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:35:41] When it comes to me being "unprofessional," quote unquote, on social media, I always point toward the workforce development problem we are seeing in our industry. I heard some crazy statistic that I'm not going to quote here because I don't remember it off the top of my head, but a very, very large percentage of the workforce is retiring in the next 10 to 20 years. And a very, very small percentage of the workforce are students entering the workforce within the next 10 to 20 years. So, we do have this massive gap between these two that we need to fill. And that's the nuclear industry without all the advanced reactor deployment. If we actually see small modular reactors take off or advanced reactors take off, microreactors, then we need people to build the plants, to design the plants, to construct the plants, to operate the plants. And we don't have that, and that's a problem.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:36:43] Making strides to influence and inspire young people to pursue the nuclear industry... Even if they don't want to study nuclear engineering. Even if they're looking at mechanical engineering or civil engineering, or even if they're not even an engineer. We need people in policy. We need people in advocacy. We need people in planning and urban planning and city planning and siting regulations. The list goes on and on. So, inspiring people to pursue nuclear and opening up that door or introducing it as an industry you can go work in is the most crucial thing we need to be doing. And most of the time when I respond with that, people's opinions start to change. The gears start to turn in their head and they say, "Wait, can I be in a TikTok?"

Phoebe Lind [00:37:40] TikTok or something even way beyond that, siting your own nuclear plants or running them. The world is your oyster, truly, in this generation?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:37:50] Absolutely.

Phoebe Lind [00:37:51] All that said, what advice would you give to someone who would be looking to enter the nuclear energy industry?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:38:00] I would tell them to network, network, network. The nuclear industry is one of the most incredibly tight-knit communities I have ever witnessed. Like every other day, I meet someone in the industry who knows someone who knows someone who met me at this... The connections are just so, so crazy because it is such a small field right now. And because it's such a small field but the demand for jobs is skyrocketing. Every single day it's getting higher and higher. And because of that, if you're able to make just one connection to somebody in the nuclear industry, you're basically connected to the entire industry. And with that, then you're able to pull on those connections to find a job that you genuinely enjoy.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:38:56] Going back to the project that I'm working on for my Ph.D., I just personally didn't like the project I was working on and the experiments I was doing. So, I pulled on one of my connections and an old mentor to say, 'Hey, what kind of projects do you have available? What's going on here?" And I started poking around and found the project that is basically my dream thesis. And now it's mine and my future thesis. So, number one is network, network, network.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:39:24] And number two is to be kind to yourself. Show yourself grace, especially if you're studying nuclear engineering or any sort of STEM fields. Really, anything as a whole. We have a tendency to work too much and tend to be on the workaholic side in this industry, and it is so, so important to remember to take care of yourself, to eat right, to exercise. I always like to say, "Do something for your mind, body, and soul every single day." Like, take care of yourself. Because, yes, climate change is important, but your health comes first.

Phoebe Lind [00:40:05] I certainly need that reminder too sometimes. And to your point about the tight-knit network of nuclear as well, we're based in Washington, DC. And it's funny, you go to literally any nuclear related event and 90% of the people here have been a guest on Titans of Nuclear. And it's wonderful that we're building this community and we're all so passionate about moving the industry forward overall, but there's also so many different technologies and we're all so excited about those moving forward...

Kaylee Cunningham [00:40:42] So sorry to interrupt, but I would love to add on to that. People in the nuclear industry are so positive and so helpful. I have never met anyone who is not willing to help with like, "Hey, can you help me track down this sample?" Or, "Hey, do you have these resources?" Or, "Hey, I'm just interested in doing this. Can you tell me more about what you do?" Everybody is always willing to drop anything to help a student, and that is something I think is very unique to the nuclear industry.

Phoebe Lind [00:41:11] Yeah, absolutely. I haven't had a ton of experience on the academic side, but I very much welcome that interruption. But on that point, what are you most excited about in the industry over the next five to ten years?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:41:24] I want to see some small modular reactors built. I am here to see them constructed. NuScale got their design license done... I don't know if it was the design or the siting license. But NuScale is on the way; they are leading the charge with these SMRs. I want to see one built. That's what I'm most excited about.

Phoebe Lind [00:41:49] I imagine you will have a lot of people on this podcast agreeing with you on that point. Okay, all that to wrap up, and even more topics that you cover on your TikTok... Where can our audience find you for more informational videos?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:42:05] Well, first you can go to my website. It's just kayleecunningham.com. And that has links to my TikTok, to my other social media pages, my research, any of my publications, all of that fun stuff. So, that's the best place.

Phoebe Lind [00:42:22] Fantastic. Any final thoughts for our audience before we say goodbye?

Kaylee Cunningham [00:42:30] Just look towards the nuclear energy industry. If you're thinking about a career in nuclear, go for it. Take the leap because you will not regret it.

Phoebe Lind [00:42:41] Amazing. Some great final words from our guest today. Thank you everyone for listening, and we'll see you on the next episode.

Kaylee Cunningham [00:42:49] Awesome. Thank you for having me.

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