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#STEMStories: Katie, Nuclear Engineer, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

Hi! I’m Katie Mummah, a nuclear engineering and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I build and use computer models to study the lifecycle of uranium. I’m using these detailed computer models to help us predict and identify countries who are trying to build nuclear weapons while hiding that information from the world.

I also consider myself a science communicator in my spare time. I share a lot of nuclear science and engineering through outreach events and on Twitter because nuclear science is a fun and diverse field! Most people don’t learn any nuclear science in school, so I think it’s really important to share the science as widely as I can.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I was always fascinated by complex things as a kid. Earth and space science excited me, and I still nurse a fascination with geology, atmospheric science, and astrophysics as interesting and deeply complex fields. But as I approached college, I started to care about clean energy, and I decided to become an engineer. I met some female nuclear engineers who told me that nuclear engineering was similar to mechanical engineering (much of the field is, though there are lots of parts that are closer to physics or chemical engineering) but all the class sizes were smaller (true) and that was a benefit if you go to a huge college with thousands of engineering students. I took my introductory nuclear classes in college and I fell in love. Never looked back!

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

I’m a nuclear engineer because I really, deeply care about access to clean, abundant energy. I think everyone in the world deserves energy access, and I know that we can draw down our CO2 emissions by using all clean energy technologies like wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear energy. I want to help build that future.

There is always more nuclear science to learn! Just in my day-to-day life as a nuclear engineer, I’ve had to learn physics, mechanical engineering, systems engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, computer science, geology, political science, communications, and more! Nuclear engineering is interdisciplinary at its core, and that’s just so exciting!

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I’m in the middle of graduate school, and it can be hard sometimes. Anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to minimize what is designed to be a huge challenge to help you grow. But I’ve learned that having hobbies is not only fun, but *essential* to keeping your stress levels low. When I’m stressed, I take a weekend to go camping or skiing and completely unplug from work and the fast pace of everyday life. I like to make little goals for my hobbies, which helps me feel successful. For example, I’m trying to visit every state park in Wisconsin and I’m learning to sail.

No one should be required to have hobbies that are beneficial to their career, but you’d be surprised how much engineering relates to many hobbies! I use materials science knowledge when I blacksmith, and sailing is just applied fluid dynamics.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I don’t have one singular role model, but I have lots of people I consider mentors and/or role models. My advisor, several of my internship mentors, and a variety of (often female) academics, scientists, communicators, and more have given me inspiration and advice that I’ve used to help me chart my path forward.

I do look up to some of the badass historical figures in nuclear science, like Chien-Shiung Wu and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. All women in STEM follow in their footsteps, and for that I’m forever grateful.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I’d tell myself to stop worrying about following the “right” or “best” path forward. I spent so many years trying to be perfect for everyone else in my life before I realized that I should do what makes ME happy first and foremost.

Also, actually learn to study and write effectively back in high school. They’re really important skills.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Don’t let others define your story. Join whatever clubs you want, take the classes you find interesting, and pursue a career that interests you. Take advice from the older generations (especially those in your field) but remember that everyone has blind spots. People are going to advise you to follow in their footsteps— that’s one path forward, but not the only one. Good mentors will help you find YOUR best path forward.
  2. Everyone else is struggling, too. STEM is hard, college is hard, your problem sets are hard. If you’re struggling, that doesn’t mean you’re failing, in fact it means you’re succeeding! Don’t get scared off by difficult classes, and don’t be afraid to work with your peers and go to office hours.
  3. Keep an open mind and always be learning. I can’t even tell you the number of times I said “no I’ll never do that” to something, only to eventually realize I totally loved that thing! I went into college thinking I was going to get my bachelors and leave, I wanted to work in a commercial nuclear plant and work with my hands. Six years later, I’m in grad school doing computational research at a university I didn’t even want to apply to for undergrad because I didn’t like weather (turns out I do actually like the cold). Don’t close doors for yourself.

8. How do you measure your success?

I measure success by how much I’m learning. If I’ve learned something, done something new each day, then I’m making progress. I also ask others-- am I doing enough? Good mentors will help you when you’re struggling.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

You can find more info about me on my website, nuclearkatie.com. You can contact me from there, follow me on Twitter from there, or check out my resume if you want to see my conference presentations and (someday) journal articles.

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

I am social!
Twitter: @nuclearkatie (https://twitter.com/nuclearkatie)
LinkedIn: nuclearkatie (https://www.linkedin.com/in/nuclearkatie/)
STEM Instagram: vintage_nuclear (https://www.instagram.com/vintage_nuclear/)