Women share experiences in nuclear power

By Denver Nicks, associate editor, NPI Magazine

In the “Experiences of Women in Nuclear” session at the annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society this week, panelists shared diverse experiences of what it’s like to be a female working in the nuclear industry.

Kathryn Huff, a young researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory, told of growing up in rural Texas, where, midway through high school, she ran out of math classes and subsequently transferred to a science- and math-focused boarding school. Huff noted how significant role models can be for young people as they aspire to future careers. Gender inequity can become a reinforcing cycle, as girls often lack female role models in fields like engineering. For Huff this was never a limitation—the first engineer she ever met was her mom.

Sama Bilbao y Leon, director of nuclear engineering programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, grew up in Madrid, where she attended a technical high school in which, she says, roughly half her classmates were girls. She says that being a woman in engineering provided, if anything, more opportunities for advancement.

“As a woman I had the same opportunities as my male friends and grad students, and maybe some opportunities that they did not, because they didn’t stand out,” she said. Not until she went to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency did she find that her gender, combined with being much younger than many of her colleagues, became something of a burden. “It was kind of bothersome to have to go to a meeting and have to explain to everybody there why you are qualified to lead this meeting,” she said.

Laural Briggs entered primary school in 1957, the year Sputnik was launched into orbit. “In those days every kid, even the one who went on to become the president of the poetry club in high school, was interested in science,” she said. She went on to spend 35 years and counting as a nuclear engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory. Briggs, who for years has volunteered her time encouraging girls not to turn away from science and math careers, filled her talk with practical advice.

“Do develop good writing skills,” she said. “Nobody is expecting you to be Tolkien,” but engineers still need to be able to communicate. She advised young people to join the student chapter of their professional societies and to stay involved throughout their careers. “Once you’re out working don’t stop your learning,” Briggs said. “You have to be prepared to evolve your skills, you have to be prepared for the field to change.”

These and other stories shared during the panel discussion portrayed nuclear engineering as a field full of opportunities, and some challenges, for women. “I would recommend people always be aware that there is a potential for sexual discrimination,” Briggs said, adding that it’s also important not to “obsess about it.” Briggs added that, “Attitudes towards women in the last 35 years that I have worked have changed.”

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