I saw there was a space for me to contribute and I felt that what I could contribute would be of significance.”
Anna Biela has a hard time remembering exactly when she became hooked on nuclear science.
“From a very young age, I just knew about nuclear and how important it was,” she said.
Anna is on the verge of graduating from Purdue University with a degree in nuclear engineering. She has plans to go to grad school to further her research on reactor core physics.
Her goal is to develop advanced reactors—an area and a career path she is very passionate about.
“I see a lot of potential in nuclear energy,” said Biela. “It’s good for the environment, and it can help stabilize the grid with affordable and reliable energy. I saw there was a space for me to contribute and I felt that what I could contribute would be of significance.”
All in the Family
Anna’s passion for nuclear isn’t by chance.
Her grandfather Stanley worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on the Manhattan Project to help develop the world’s first atomic bombs. Her dad Thomas, also an engineer, worked for a local power company and actually helped design a nuclear power plant that was later canceled in the 80s. Both also went to Purdue.
Maybe that’s why her middle school projects in Northwest Indiana were a little more advanced than her classmates.
“My father talked about their experiences, and I asked a lot of questions,” Anna said. “In grade school, I always did class projects on nuclear topics—like writing a report on uranium and fission. [Nuclear science] has just always been there for me.”
Engineering Nuclear Talent
With two Purdue grads preceding her, there was little question as to where Anna would go to college.
But she did have to decide on a major—particle physics or nuclear engineering.
“I’m the kind of person who really wants to see the results of the work I do,” said Anna. “Nuclear engineering definitely seemed like the obvious choice for me.”
Anna takes advantage of her department’s ambassador program, which helps raise awareness about nuclear engineering. The group also partners with the Women in Engineering program to do outreach events, talk with high school students, and support women already in the department.
“Sometimes it feels strange when you look up and you’re the only women in the class,” said Anna. “But, when there are more of us, there is more of an effort to ensure that our perspectives are included. Engineers are tasked with making decisions that can potentially affect millions of people, so all perspectives need to be included so that it can benefit everyone.
Knowledge is Power
Anna finds the ambassador program to be extremely influential. By simply talking with college and high students about nuclear, it actually leads to more excitement.
“The students’ reactions go from skepticism to being excited and engaged,” she said. “We usually run out of time because we are answering so many of their questions.”
That effort is leaving a lasting impact on Purdue’s Nuclear Engineering Department. Since bringing the ambassador program back in the fall of 2016, the following sophomore class jumped from 15% to 21% women in the fall of 2017.
“A lot of people just don’t know about nuclear,” said Anna. “It’s a complicated science but it’s not impossible to explain. We need to include it in the curriculum at schools and continue to have an open conversation about it.”