Kaylee Cunningham Looks Forward to a Bright Future in Nuclear Engineering

Kaylee Cunningham
Kaylee Cunningham, a sophomore Nuclear Engineering major, was awarded first place honors for her poster entry at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Intern Poster Session last summer. For our spring Student Spotlight, Cunningham shares her experience with early college success and what she hopes to accomplish in the world of nuclear engineering.

Why did you decide to come to the University of Florida?

I chose to attend UF because of its excellent academic standing; its strong, yet challenging, engineering program; and the school’s multitude of research opportunities available to undergraduates.

What’s your major and why did you choose that path?

I’m a second-year Nuclear Engineering major. I chose Nuclear because the field always made me curious. Anything I’d ever heard about it was negative. But in my senior year at Olympic Heights Community High School in Boca Raton, I learned a little bit about nuclear energy in my Principles of Engineering course. I was intrigued by the thought of using something so “dangerous” or “bad” for something good, like producing carbon-free, sustainable energy. After just one lecture, I was hooked.

How would you describe your area of study?

Everything in the world is made up of particles. I study how those particles interact with each other and the different ways they produce energy as a result of those interactions. Currently, my research focus is on making nuclear fuel models. When fuel for reactors is designed, it needs to be modeled on the computer to make sure it’s safe to use. I help to do that.

What has been your biggest “Wow!” moment so far with regards to your chosen major?

Winning first place at the Nuclear Engineering Intern Poster Session at Oak Ridge National Laboratory this past summer was certainly my biggest “wow” moment. Considering that, at the time, I had only finished my freshman year at UF, and my competitors were juniors, seniors and graduate students at big name nuclear schools like MIT, Michigan, NCSU, etc., I really wasn’t expecting anything. When I was told I won, I asked my mentor if they even had the right “Kaylee” since another student had the same name as me. At the award ceremony I got to meet the Associate Laboratory Director for the Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate at ORNL, Alan S. Icenhour. He’s kind of like a celebrity in Oak Ridge, so it was an incredible experience.

What specific areas of your major do you see yourself potentially specializing in?

I most likely see myself specializing in modeling and simulation. I really enjoy programming and computer science, and it meshes very nicely with nuclear in the modeling and simulation world.

What has been your favorite part of the undergraduate experience at UF?

As much as I love learning and my major, I think finding and establishing a social life has been the most meaningful part of my experience at UF, so far. There are so many organizations on campus that can help you find your niche at such a large school. Joining the American Nuclear Society and rushing Phi Sigma Rho, an engineering social sorority, have helped me develop an excellent support network of people to lean on or just have fun and socialize with. I never had anything like that in high school, and I don’t think I would have found it if I didn’t choose to go to UF. I think it’s the Gator spirit!

What do you feel is the greatest challenge that undergraduate students face, and how have you dealt with this challenge?

I think the greatest challenge is, again, finding your group of people. For many, college is the first time away from family, and if you’re all close, it can be extremely difficult to adjust to being on your own. One of my best friends always says that to deal with it you have to find your college family. That’s what I did, and I think that plays a really important role in not only my happiness but also my academic and professional successes.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to a first-year student?

Don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to talk to people in your classes or join an organization, and go to office hours!!! Getting to know your professors and getting questions clarified at the same time is the best way to set yourself up for success in the course and in the future.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying?

I love football games, gymnastic meets, going out with my friends, trying new restaurants, and sometimes hiking at Sweetwater Wetlands or Paynes Prairie. I’m also a huge fan of yoga and running—you have to have some sort of stress release!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I see myself hopefully with a Ph.D., researching at either a national lab or university. I think the coolest thing would be to work on models for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion system or reactor fuel for the space program.