Nuclear students win award

(Left to right) Nuclear engineering graduate students Devon Drey, Edward Duchnowski and Robert Kile won top research awards from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Three University of Tennessee students received awards for their research papers in nuclear engineering and technology.

The U.S. Department of Energy, through the Office of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Supply Chain, sponsor the Innovations of Nuclear Technology R&D Awards, a competition for university students. They have several awards for different categories of nuclear technology, as well as awards based on school criteria and funding.

Three students from UT won awards in the 2021 competition. Devon Drey, a doctoral student in nuclear engineering, won first place in the Material Recovery category, while nuclear engineering doctoral student Robert Kile and master’s recipient Edward Duchnowski both received awards in the competition for universities with less than $600 million in science and engineering funding.

Drey’s research paper focused on how nuclear materials and nuclear waste react on the atomic scale. He studied these materials by altering their composition and environment. He accomplished this by using the spallation neutron source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which creates neutron beams to show atom movement. Drey said that his research using these techniques is some of the first of its kind. Through these methods, he found that atoms don’t react randomly. Instead, they react in an ordered way that only appears random.

“I think that’s actually what really makes this paper special, is that we have this material that people have been looking at off and on for the last 40 years, but they’ve only been using the standard techniques,” Drey said. “But, by using our connections to Oak Ridge, we are actually able to do (an) extremely advanced, very unique technique of studying it, and all the sudden, we’re showing data that people have never seen before.”

Kile’s and Duchnowski’s papers detailed nuclear reactors. Kile’s paper focused on computer models that test nuclear reactor designs. He tested the designs through disaster scenarios, analyzed the data and sent the results back to the designers, along with his paper detailing the process. Duchnowski’s paper tested the safety of newer reactors that use gas cooling technology.

“The paper that I’ve been working at was looking at material to be implemented in the next generation of nuclear power plants, to enhance their performance, while still maintaining their safety,” Duchnowski said.

Kile and Duchnowski work in the same research group at UT. They both won under the same award category and both will receive a cash prize of $1,500.

Drey won first place the Material Recovery category. He will receive $3,000 as well as an all-expenses paid trip to speak about his paper at the American Nuclear Society’s Winter Conference in Washington D.C.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the three students had much prior experience in writing research papers. They separately took advice from their advisors and their peers in putting the papers together.

“That was the first paper that I had led as the first author,” Kile said. “A lot of my friends had done this before, so I could talk with some of them. My advisor and the researchers at Oak Ridge National (Laboratory) that I work with all have experience with this as well, so I was able to get valuable guidance, mentorship and insight from them. It was a new experience for me, and it was something that I struggled with at first, but I figured out how to make it work.”

Drey’s process in getting his research paper published took the most time out of the three. Throughout his doctorate program, Drey has spent the majority of his time working on the paper. It took him three times to get his paper published in a scientific journal. He finally succeeded on his third submission and his paper has since been cited 10 times. Drey reflected on what he felt after going through this process and then winning first place.

“It was a really good feeling of accomplishment,” Drey said. “My confidence just shot up. People at the level of the Department of Energy think my research is worth the time and the effort that I put into it.”

“I don’t really know how to describe it. … It was definitely a surprise. I wasn’t really expecting to win anything. Even if I did win something, I’d win like third place. But to get first place was … a high point in my (graduate) school career.”

Kile and Duchnowski also felt validated after winning their awards.

“Well, it’s always nice to get money,” Kile said. “But more so than it being nice to get money, it was nice to have … somebody other than my advisor and the people I work with look at my work and essentially say, ‘Yes, this is good work.’”

“I was pretty shocked to be honest,” Duchnowski said. “Actually submitting the paper and having people read through it and see that this is award-winning research, really was kind of like ‘Wow, I didn’t think it was that great’ … I was really happy to have gotten the award and it made me feel a lot more confident in the work that I’ve been doing.”

Drey will continue to work on his doctorate, hoping to complete it by next summer. He is currently working on two more papers that further the research he did in his award-winning paper. He will use all three papers for his dissertation. Afterwards, he hopes to work in a national laboratory, but might hike the Appalachian Trail beforehand.

Kile will also continue to work towards completing his doctorate. He has another paper that he hopes to complete by next year. He wants to help build new and innovative nuclear reactors.

Duchnowski wants to pursue a doctorate in nuclear engineering. His personal goal is to rework his thought process around answering questions and hypothesis testing. He also wants to continue helping out the nuclear community, especially in Knoxville. For example, he wants to host a conference in Knoxville about nuclear power.

All three students reflected on the struggles of graduate school. Drey gave a message to students currently in graduate school.

“Just keep pushing,” Drey said. “It’s tough, and sometimes it feels thankless. But, if you just keep working and you just keep pushing, your time will come.”

UT Sponsored Content