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Study abroad trip offers unique look at nuclear science and technology

A group of students and faculty pose in front of a peak in the French Alps.

The French Alps Nuclear Science and Technology program sought to illustrate the actual reach of nuclear science through first-hand experience at some of the top nuclear science research facilities in the world. For an interactive account of the trip, click here. Photos courtesy of Taylor Nakagawa.

In most people’s minds, nuclear science and technology are equated with power plants and weapons. But the actual reach of nuclear science and its future possibilities extend much further, and a recent study abroad program at the University of Missouri sought to illustrate that through first-hand experience at some of the top nuclear science research facilities in the world.

A tour guide shows students around the ITER campus near Marseille.

The group spent 10 days in Europe, both in France and Switzerland, and during that time, they visited four facilities — the Cadarache Research Center and International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor [ITER] campus near Marseille, France, seen here; Institut Laue-Langevin [ILL] and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility [ESRF], both in Grenoble, France; and CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland.

The French Alps Nuclear Science and Technology program reflects a collaboration between the MU College of Engineering and the MU Research Reactor [MURR], and the College of Arts & Science, Physics Department. The goal of showcasing the multitude of applications of nuclear science and technology matched the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Peaceful Uses Initiative.” The initiative’s six key focus areas are food security and safety, human health, water resource management, nuclear power infrastructure development, environmental protection, and nuclear safety and security.

The study abroad program expanded to include physics students from the College of Arts and Science and one student from the School of Journalism who documented the trip. A total of 22 students participated in the program, 21 of them undergraduates and one nuclear engineering graduate student.

“There’s just an array of science that goes on out there, and we saw this as an opportunity to spread the word and maybe get students excited about nuclear science,” MURR Director Ralph Butler said. “I think it worked better than we’d envisioned. I think the students all came back excited about nuclear sciences and wanted to learn more, maybe look at it even as a career path.”

The program began with eight pre-departure class sessions, with the usual homework and quizzes and a series of guest lecturers, including speakers from the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source as well as a University of Illinois physics faculty member currently working on focused ion beam research. For Val O’Donnell, the program’s lone graduate student, the pre-departure class allowed for a brand new experience.

“For the pre-departure course, I attempted to give a lecture when Dr. [Gary] Solbrekken was out of town for a week,” O’Donnell said. “I’d never actually given a lecture before. I got to design it. He gave me a topic to do, but it was neat. I got to draw up a whole lesson plan, and we had homework on it.”

Solbrekken, MU associate professor of mechanical engineering and the main course instructor, said that the new program required a bit of trial and error. But the goal from the outset always was to provide an experience with a strong technical focus that could be used as a technical elective in most engineering programs. Many engineering and physics students don’t need the humanities or social science credits that are common of most study abroad experiences.

“We decided to turn this into a technically oriented course so that it can be utilized as part of their degree program; it makes sense for this nuclear stuff anyway,” he said. “They need to have the technical background when they go over, so when they see these places, they know what they’re looking at.”

Alongside Solbrekken and Butler, the rest of the leadership team consisted of Charlie Allen, MURR senior advisor for international nuclear science and technology programs, and Miguel Ayllon, MU Engineering’s international outreach coordinator.

The group spent 10 days in Europe, both in France and Switzerland, and during that time, they visited four facilities — the Cadarache Research Center and International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor [ITER] campus near Marseille, France; Institut Laue-Langevin [ILL] and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility [ESRF], both in Grenoble, France; and CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. The tours were facilitated in large part thanks to connections between MURR and these different facilities.

The ITER facility is staffed by a coalition of researchers from the U.S., China, the European Union, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia, and the project’s focus is thermonuclear fusion and engineering. ILL is one of the premier facilities in the field of neutron science research and is a collaboration between France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The ESRF is a 21-nation effort focused mainly on the wide array of applications of X-ray radiation. CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, where the Higgs boson was discovered. Students had the chance to talk to experts in the field and continued to complete required coursework based around the tours.

“Academically speaking, the best experience I had was at the Cadarache reactor. I learned more about practical applications of nuclear physics there than I think I have anywhere else,” MU junior Eric Cropp said. “I’ve always wanted to go to CERN, so I was able to achieve a life goal there.”

“I think the biggest thing for me was when we visited ITER, they’re working on nuclear fusion. Right now, we only have nuclear fission power. It’s an international project, and if it works, it could be the energy of the future,” senior Liz Brechbuler said.

There also was time for sightseeing. The group took day trips to Marseille, Lyon and Avignon in the south of France, as well as a trip to Mont Blanc and the nearby site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Participants also visited the Pont-du-Gard Roman Aqueduct, built in the first century A.D., and took the time to immerse themselves in the culture of the different areas whenever they could.

Going forward, Solbrekken said he wants to expand the pre-departure course to make the program more of a full semester course, allowing for more depth. He’s also interested in seeing how not only students and educators view the trip, but also taking a look at what industry members think of the added experience.

“We can give students this type of experience; but is this valuable to industry or not?” Solbrekken said. “Sometimes maybe the initial answer is no because you don’t know any better, but then they go back home and talk to some folks and figure, ‘You know what? Maybe this isn’t a bad idea and maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea for some people we’re hiring to already have this international experience coming in. Because we’re going to send them off to wherever in the world, and we want them to be comfortable and able to interact in an international business type of situation.’”

If the goal was also to expose students to potential career paths they hadn’t previously thought of, it worked. MU senior Dan Paterson said being exposed to all the different potential applications of nuclear science and technology has him leaning toward a future in the realm of nuclear science and technology.

“I think I will pursue probably higher education, graduate school, in the nuclear field, and I see this as kind of an introduction to an internship or job or career later down the road,” Paterson said.

The program will be offered again in the spring semester 2016.