VCU Student Conference Empowers Tomorrow's Leaders

April 18, 2019, 4:42PMANS Nuclear CafeRobert Corrigan

In April, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) hosted the annual ANS Student Conference in Richmond, VA. At its core, the student conference is exactly what it sounds like, a conference for students. The conference has everything that one would find at the winter and annual meetings, including technical sessions, panels, poster sessions, and industry partners. This conference, however, is organized and attended primarily by students and is hosted at the heart of a college campus.

ANS Student Conference is of vital importance to Society. In 2004, the IAEA published a report titled The nuclear power industry's ageing workforce: Transfer of knowledge to the next generation. The report focuses on informing nuclear power plant operators about how to facilitate knowledge transfer, and mention is made of an OECD/NEA report on the status of nuclear education and training. This report, published in 2000, describes the following issues in nuclear education and training:

  • The decreasing number and the dilution of nuclear programs.
  • The decreasing number of students taking nuclear subjects.
  • The lack of young faculty members to replace ageing and retiring faculty members.
  • Aging research facilities which are being closed and not replaced.
  • The significant fraction of nuclear graduates not entering the nuclear industry.

Several things have changed in the nuclear industry since the publishing of that report. Enrollment in nuclear engineering programs grew steadily, then dropped after Fukushima, and is just now starting to recover (ORISE). Several nuclear engineering programs lapsed on their ABET accreditation, reducing the number of schools with programs in the U.S. to 23, and all the while, the nuclear industry's workforce has continued to age.

In 2011, Prachi Patel wrote a great article for IEEE's Spectrum, The Aging Nuclear Workforce. In it, he describes the aging workforce in the nuclear industry, and points out the sheer number of positions that will become available to graduates from nuclear engineering programs. When there is so much turnover in an industry, knowledge transfer becomes a huge concern - it's great to have opportunities available for young engineers, but it is equally if not more important to ensure that those young professionals are given the benefit of the expertise and experience accumulated over the course of their predecessors' careers. The challenges and opportunities Patel discusses are of crucial importance, not only at the time of writing, but also for the foreseeable future of the nuclear industry

Advance, foster, and spur the development and application of nuclear science, engineering, and technology to benefit society. - ANS Mission

ANS does a great job with its mission and this conference plays a part. The ANS Student Conference plays a crucial role helping to advance the careers of nuclear engineering students, and no other conference compares to it in terms of accessibility. With an Early Bird registration fee of only $40 for student members of ANS, many more students can afford to attend than at the Annual or Winter meetings. (Unless of course you travel to the big conferences via the generous ANS Student Program, which then makes the two big meetings much easier on a student's pocketbook.) This is especially true of certain groups of students - such as undergraduates not involved in research - that ANS has a hard time reaching outside of involvement in student sections. For these students, this conference represents one of their only opportunities to meet the students at other schools who will be their future colleagues.

I reached out to several students and professionals to get their perspectives on the most recent VCU ANS Student Conference and here is what some had to say:

The most valuable part of my conference experience was recruiting possible graduate students for my university. The career/university fair seemed a lot more open and welcoming at VCU and it was very helpful for those of us speaking with students. - Jack Kutcha, President, U of Michigan Student Section

Nuclear science and engineering is a small community, and the student conference is the chance to meet and develop relationships with your peers from across the country. I fully expect the connections I make at student conference to be my colleagues decades from now, so building a strong network is important. - Katie Mummah, U of Wisconsin Madison

I found the most value in meeting and building relationships with students and professionals. ... The VCU student conference did an excellent job at facilitating all kinds of meaningful networking opportunities. - James Richards, U of Idaho

The student meeting is also extremely valuable to industry leaders and national labs, both for recruitment and outreach purposes. I asked Julie Ezold, Cf-252 program manager at Oak Ridge National Lab to describe the value that the ORNL contingent attending found in the conference:

This was the first ANS Student Conference that the ORNL Nuclear Science and Engineering outreach trailer attended.  The dynamic of interfacing with college students was an amazing experience and gave the ORNL staff an opportunity to have informative conversations regarding nuclear science and research opportunities. - Julie Ezold, ORNL

Dr. Lane Carasik, a new faculty member at VCU and longtime chair of the Student Sections Committee, had the following to say about the student conference:

I've always found the ANS Student Conference to be a good opportunity to network, catch up with friends, and keep in the "know" about what each school is doing. This last meeting, I've found it a great opportunity to seek out future graduate students. I enjoyed the Student Conference hosted at VCU because it really showcased how great the students and university is. The VCU organizers did a phenomenal job highlighting the uniqueness of the school and Richmond at the dinners too. - Dr. Lane Carasik, VCU

In talking with several other attendees, many of them expressed that the VCU conference was the best student meeting that they've ever been a part of. I've only been to a few conferences myself, but I'm inclined to agree. The VCU organizers did an excellent job, organizing three action packed days, including a wide variety of tours, workshops, panels, and socials. The tours included trips to Newport News Shipbuilding, Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, Naval Station Norfolk, Framatome, and Dominion Energy, and the socials were by far the most well planned and creative networking event's I've seen at any ANS conference (my sample size IS limited), with my personal favorite being the 'Monte Carlo' casino night.

I spoke with Dimitris Killinger, president of the VCU student section and tour coordinator at the conference, to find out what he thought was the most valuable part of the conference experience.

The most valuable thing to me from this conference is that the students at VCU had the opportunity to show off their true colors. We weren't holding anything back, especially with the dinners and socials. We could have easily kept the dinners at the same location every night, but we wouldn't be able to show off how awesome and diverse Richmond and VCU are had we done so. We worked to provide facilities that allowed students to have something to talk about with each other as well as with the professionals in attendance. - Dimitris Killinger, VCU

This conference marks a historic milestone for VCU. In the last two decades, while many other universities lost their nuclear engineering programs, VCU was one of the few to establish a new nuclear engineering program. Their engineering department is only slightly older than many of its current students, founded in 1996, and it was only 12 years ago that their first degree in nuclear engineering became accredited. Dimitris continued to say:

I can't speak on behalf of VCU, but the point ANS-VCU wanted to make with this conference is we are a critical part of the nuclear community, providing excellent students and researchers alike. We may be a "young" program, but we're built on solid ground and have phenomenal support. We hope that this conference really opened up students' eyes who are considering graduate school to keep VCU in mind. Everyone has a place here. - Dimitris Killinger

The story of VCU's program and the ANS Student Conference both say a great deal about the future of the nuclear industry. The Society's continued support of this conference and the student sections helps students form a community of active and engaged young professionals who make the future of nuclear look bright, and I can't wait to attend next year's student conference.

Please feel free to leave a constructive comment for the author.