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INL Graduate Fellowship Program Champions Next Generation of Exceptional Nuclear Energy Talent

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In September 2017, Idaho National Laboratory announced its first group of 11 INL graduate fellows. Three months later, the first two students, Casey Icenhour and Konor Frick, were accepted to Ph.D. candidacy and arrived in Idaho Falls to begin their work with INL.

A collaboration between INL and universities, INL's Graduate Fellowship program is aimed at identifying exceptional talent to continue INL's mission of demonstrating nuclear energy as the cleanest and most reliable energy source. The program is also built to offer mentoring and financial support to students beginning or currently enrolled in Ph.D. programs. During the first years of their doctoral programs, students spend their time at their universities completing coursework while collaborating with their INL mentor and Ph.D. adviser to develop a research plan. Once coursework is completed, graduate fellows spend the last years of their Ph.D. program at INL conducting research as outlined in their research plan.

Frick and Icenhour, both from North Carolina State University, began the second portion of their fellowship earlier this year, relocating full-time to Idaho Falls to complete their doctoral research. Frick finished his Ph.D. program shortly after arriving in Idaho, successfully defending his dissertation in nuclear hybrid energy systems at the end of January.

Icenhour is still currently pursuing a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and spent the last year-and-a-half at Oak Ridge National Laboratory through the Office of Science's Graduate Student Research Program. Before hearing about its INL Graduate Fellowship program, outside of INL's general mission, Icenhour wasn't very familiar with INL. However, through another NCSU student, Alex Lindsey, who had worked with INL previously and is now an employee, Icenhour and his Ph.D. adviser, Steve Shannon, saw a valuable connection between his thesis topic and the modeling and simulation work—i.e., Multiphysics Object Oriented Simulation Environment (MOOSE)—being done at INL. Currently, Icenhour is working on expanding the MOOSE framework to include his work on electromagnetic wave propagation. "It's been a boon to my work because instead of just focusing on that and only that, I'm starting to think more about the applications of my research," he said.

Rich Martineau, Icenhour's INL mentor, sees the benefits for everyone involved. For the students, Martineau gives "top-flight mentoring during the graduate research phase" to make sure that that they get the maximum benefit out of "a couple of their best years of research." Martineau recognizes the level of responsibility INL mentors have in order to make sure this is a positive experience for the incoming students. His advice to INL mentors? Challenge the students. "The only thing that matters here is that Casey is successful."

Although his time at INL has been short, Icenhour also has advice for other INL graduate fellows who will be arriving in Idaho Falls in the months and years ahead. "You need to be willing to step outside your group and be willing to engage with other researchers."

He noted that being at a national laboratory is very different from academia. "The folks around here are working on a broader class of problems," Icenhour said. As a Ph.D. student studying a very specific area, he said it can be a "culture shock." But he thinks this ultimately benefits students. "It makes you, as a grad student, a better researcher."

Frick also has advice for students once they get to INL: Have a detailed research plan. "The goal of this program is to have students earn their Ph.D.," Frick said. "Create a well-outlined research plan with your INL mentor and Ph.D. adviser to make sure all parties agree the research done at INL enables that to happen."

As the program continues to grow, Michelle Bingham, University Partnerships director, sees the INL Graduate Fellowship program filling the talent pipeline and continuing to bring in qualified employees already familiar with the work being done at INL. She also envisions this already-competitive program becoming even more familiar across the country. "Over time, the INL Graduate Fellowship will become a well-known, prestigious program that students vigorously pursue in order to differentiate them from their peers," Bingham said.

For more information about the INL Graduate Fellowship program and other student opportunities at INL, contact internships@inl.gov or visit inl.gov/gradfellows.

Date Published: 2018-03-05T07:00:00Z

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