Our guest post today is by Ashley who is living and working in the energy industry but in a bit more of a unique niche – nuclear energy! I’ve known Ashley since the early days in college – in fact, she, Kristin, and myself were and still are great friends – sharing a love of our school (hence the picture at homecoming with our college mascot!), engineering, fitness, and adventures. Read on, because I think you’ll enjoy hearing what Ashley has been up to!
I’ve known Erin since she first came to campus at WPI. We became quick friends and shared many on-campus interests including involvement in student government and serving as orientation leaders introducing new students to school. Erin has had great opportunities to travel all over the world, but I do miss her often. Recently Erin reminded me to get my blog post in, so I’m armed with Starbucks and a free Sunday morning to tell you my story.
- B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2007
- M.E. in Mechanical Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2010
- Current job: Technical Leader/Project Manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)
What have you done in your career as an engineer?
After graduating from WPI, I went to work for Westinghouse. Nope, I didn’t design or manufacture toasters or TV’s. Westinghouse is actually a vendor of commercial nuclear power plants. In addition to designing the new reactor design, AP1000, they provide field services, fuel, and engineering services to operating plants all over the world.
Specifically, my group at Westinghouse performed probabilistic risk analysis (PRA) for nuclear power plants. These risk analysis can help plant operators identify vulnerabilities as well as providing a tool to run the plant safer. There are many hazards that need to be evaluated and all of them are evaluated from a large boolean fault tree of the plant components. I specialized in Fire PRA, which specifically looks at fire sources in the power plant and evaluated the potential risk impact. For six years, I traveled the world performing and reviewing similar analyses.
A little less than a year ago, I had a great opportunity to move from performing these fire risk assessments to managing the research in the area of Fire PRA. Currently I work for the Electric Power Research Institute. My role is really interesting as requires a strong technical background on the subject area, managing projects (schedule, budget, status,etc.) and communicating status of research results. I have ongoing projects in many technical areas including circuit behavior during a fire, calculating frequencies of fire events, verifying and validating adequate fire dynamics tools as well as working on how to best simulate fires in electrical cabinets.
Why did you become an engineer?
Growing up I wanted to be anything from a fish expert to a firefighter to a lawyer. In school, I was always performing well in both math and science courses. My dad studied electrical engineering and I knew studying engineering in college would help me have a successful career. My dad told me that someone with an engineering degree would have many options beyond engineering. I still think that is true!
What places have you had the opportunity to visit?
I’ve traveled to visit domestic nuclear power plants in Alabama, Arizona, California, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Carolina; internationally, I’ve visited nuclear power plants in Brazil, Sweden, and Spain.
I’ve also traveled to other neat places – Belgium, France, Las Vegas, Florida, New Orleans, Charleston, Disneyland and Disneyworld (within one year) and extensively to Washington, DC.
I’m heading to Germany at the end of this month to present a paper I wrote!
How were you able to make the most of your time in places that you were sent for work?
I extended my trips so I could go early or stay a bit later to do some sightseeing. I’ve extended trips to see the Hoover Dam, spend a weekend in Copenhagen, travel a week earlier to tour France and Switzerland, windsurf in Sweden, spend the weekend in San Francisco, and routinely meet friends for dinner in Washington, DC.
Pro tip: Extend your trip so you go early (versus staying later at the end) if you may get homesick. I know at the end of a two week trip I had an extra day to sight-see, but, I really just wanted to get home.
What is the most interesting story you had while traveling?
I definitely enjoyed touring and performing plant walk-downs. The first plant I became very familiar with was in Sweden. I visited probably every room in the three units! My favorite experience was going into Containment (the large cement structure that houses the nuclear reactor) for a tour. We went when the plant was in an outage and were able to walk all around and see plant components and systems that were previously a mystery to me. Peering into the flooded fueling cavity was really neat, as well as seeing the large reactor coolant pumps which are multiple stories tall and 7000 horsepower!
Also, now that I think of it. When I was in Brazil, at my hotel, a massive thunderstorm came through and knocked the power out – it was a bit creepy. The other creepy thing about the hotel, was that there were in the process of demolishing it. That was probably the most bizarre of my travel experiences and the behind the scenes tour of the Swedish Nuclear Power Plant was the most interesting.
What have you enjoyed most about being an engineer?
Besides the strange need to do an unhealthy amount of research to plan a vacation? Or make the most badass spreadsheet to plan every day of it?! Clearly those are the top reasons, but I do enjoy the opportunities for engineers. I had a job by Thanksgiving of my senior year which made me rest easy for the remainder of my time at WPI. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to travel, meet new people, solve challenging technical issues, and learn new things every day about the nuclear power industry!
Tips for aspiring engineers:
Writing and communication skills are really important! WPI did not require English classes nor writing classes, so naturally I did not take any. I really wish I did, because I write all the time for work! Make sure to take time to stay well rounded so that in your career, you’re able to use all your skills to be successful!