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The first spark: the inspiration behind our S&T

Askin Guler Yigitoglu of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Credit: ORNL/Askin Guler Yigitoglu)

The fusion and fission energy challenges that Oak Ridge National Laboratory aims to solve require a tremendous amount of ingenuity and creativity. Recently, staff of ORNL's Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate looked back at what first inspired them to pursue their careers in science and engineering that led them to this field. 

Kathy McCarthy, Associate Laboratory Director, Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate

"A critical moment for me was in my high school physics class when the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident happened. My physics teacher discussed the challenges of nuclear engineering and I thought, 'Wow, this is important from a clean energy perspective. This is important for the world.' From the first day of college, I was a nuclear engineering major."

Askin Guler Yigitoglu, Analyst, Advanced Nuclear System Safety & Licensing Group, Nuclear Energy Fuel Cycle Division

"Born in Turkey a couple of months after the Chernobyl accident, I grew up overhearing hot discussions about nuclear power because people were afraid of the technology. A curious child, I was always trying to understand how daily technology such as the telephone works. One day when I was around 12 years old, I saw pictures on a newspaper of a nuclear power plant (reactor core, cooling towers, pipes, pumps, valves) and was fascinated. I decided to be an engineer from that point on, dedicating my work to make nuclear safer."

Robert Duckworth, Group Leader, Fusion Technology, Fusion Energy Division

"The lightbulb moment for me was during a physics class in high school. I came across a blurb in my textbook on superconductivity and thought, “Wow, I’d like to work on something like that.” From then on, superconductors was what I wanted to do. During grad school I had the chance to intern at ORNL and do a test to failure for a first of its kind 10-cm long high temperature superconductor. Despite promptly destroying the sample in less than a week, I had found a place where access to materials and applications in this area was second to none and had found where I wanted to work." 

Tara Pandya, Group Leader, Radiation Transport, Nuclear Energy Fuel Cycle Division

"From an early age, my twin sister and I liked to recreate science experiments we saw on the Bill Nye the Science Guy television show. For our first one, we made a papier-mâché volcano, painted it to look realistic, and then poured in baking soda and vinegar. In high school, our physics teacher was a former professor who led us in small experiments that were fairly advanced. We videotaped them, and I thought it was so cool to watch, pause, and replay. That inspired me to study physics in college." 

Nathan Arnwine, Systems Engineer, US ITER

"One thing that stands out as an inspiration from my childhood and still to this day is that my Dad is Mr. Fix It. Whether it is an appliance, car, lawn tractor, or farm equipment, he steps up to the challenge. He always enjoys teaching me and showing his work. When it was time for me to start college, I knew I wanted to be an engineer as he was in his career, because no problem was unsolvable to him and he always had the determination to get it done."

Mike Muhlheim, Modern Nuclear Instrumentation & Control Systems Group, Nuclear Energy Fuel Cycle Division

"Growing up in Ohio near Lake Erie, my twin brother and I got the science bug during the race to the moon. Then in sixth grade I gave a presentation on Marie Curie that started my curiosity with radioactivity and the elements of the periodic table. The next year, I began hearing national news about nuclear pioneers at Oak Ridge. I thought, 'When I grow up, that’s where I want to work.' For college, I specifically chose the University of Tennessee because of its proximity to the lab." 

Venugopal Varma, Group Leader, Remote Systems Group, Fusion Energy Division

"If I had to pick one inspiration, it would be my mother, who is now 91 years old. Her undergraduate degree was in physics, and like her I found physics to be intuitive. In my high school physics class, I discovered that once I understood the concept, I could apply it to many physical problems that we see in daily life. My high school physics teacher was very good, and I really liked the laboratory experiments. Everything I learned in that class I still have etched in my mind today." 

Nick Russell, Mechanical Engineer, Irradiation Engineering Group, Nuclear Energy Fuel Cycle Division

"My parents met at Idaho National Laboratory where they both worked in the nuclear industry. Growing up, I heard all their cool stories. When I was around five years old, I was fascinated by a special project my mom worked on involving a military tank. My parents never told me directly to become an engineer and work in the nuclear field, but they instilled that mindset in me without ever saying a word."

~ Compiled by Amy Reed