Nuclear reactors are a promising avenue for generating clean energy and mitigating the impacts of climate change. While pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, April Novak became fascinated by nuclear energy technology and its potential as an energy source that doesn’t produce carbon or greenhouse gas emissions. After finishing her bachelor’s degree in 2015, she earned a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and then joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory as a Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow.
The Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship is an international award given to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers to help them develop their careers in Argonne’s high-impact research environment. The fellowship honors Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist who earned the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963 for her work at Argonne proposing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells of the atomic nucleus. The fellowship provides early-career scientists the opportunity to pursue their own research directions, with the support of a sponsor and up to three years of funding. Since beginning her fellowship in October 2020, Novak developed a free, open-source software program to help engineers design nuclear fission and fusion reactors and evaluate their safety. Here, Novak discusses her research interests, fellowship experience and advice for early-career scientists.
“Seeing my research have an impact and seeing the software application be used by different people is really rewarding.” — April Novak
Q: What are your research interests?
A: My research focuses on applying computational science to applications in nuclear engineering, primarily in nuclear fission. There are hundreds of fission reactors around the world. I develop computational tools that can help nuclear engineers understand how to design reactor systems, assess their safety and optimize them for economic benefits, resistance to proliferation and other advantages. Having the capability to assess the safety of nuclear reactors and certifying designs is important for the success of nuclear energy moving forward.
Q: Why is your research important?
A: It’s a very exciting time to be a nuclear engineer. The last 10 years have been called a “renaissance” for nuclear energy. Right now, there are numerous start-up companies pursuing different reactor concepts. There’s a lot of government funding and global interest in developing nuclear energy to address climate change by reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. With the political conflicts in Europe, there have also been recent discussions about how nuclear energy can enhance resiliency and energy independence. I believe in all these missions, and I’m glad to be able to support them technically in my career.
Q: How did you learn about Argonne?
A: I learned about Argonne while I was a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. My Ph.D. advisor received an email from Dr. Paul Romano, who was looking to hire an intern. I joined Argonne as a summer intern in 2017 and really liked the people that I worked with and the research I was doing. Towards the end of my Ph.D., Dr. Romano told me about the Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship.
Q: What inspired you to apply for this fellowship?
A: When I was finishing my Ph.D., I made a spreadsheet of all the places where I could continue my research in nuclear engineering. It’s a small field, so there weren’t too many places I could consider. The spreadsheet had columns for career potential, quality of life, location and other considerations. Argonne was number one across most of those categories. The fellowship is a unique program because it allows early-career scientists to self-direct independent research for three years. It presented an amazing and rare opportunity to explore a concept in depth. I also grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, so being close to my family was appealing.
Q: What are you researching for your fellowship?
A: It’s important to understand the physics of how different types of nuclear reactors work to evaluate their safety. For instance, heat production from fission can impact how solid structures move in the reactor. But this interaction is really complicated, so we don’t have computational tools to predict how it works with high certainty. Without understanding these physics interactions, nuclear reactors are designed with lots of margin, preventing them from reaching higher temperatures, powers or other design factors that could be beneficial from an economic perspective, while still being safe.
My project at Argonne focuses on developing computational tools to model complex physics interactions. Over the past three years, I developed a free software application that is currently being used by scientists in industry, academia and various other organizations to look at numerous fission and fusion reactor types. To my knowledge, it’s one of only two open-source, free software products like this in the world. And both of them happened to be developed at Argonne.
Q: What are some of your proudest accomplishments from the fellowship?
A: Seeing my research have an impact and seeing the software application be used by different people is really rewarding. I had a great group of people assisting me, and we were a finalist for the R&D 100 award last year, which is something I’m really proud of.
Q: How has the fellowship contributed to your career development?
A: It’s been amazing to have the time and space to work on one research project for three years. The fellowship gave me the flexibility to pursue interesting trains of thought as they popped up, which I think leads to more innovative research. Being able to build a project from the ground up taught me a lot about management and how to grow a sustainable research program that can last longer than three years. Having access to technical experts and a wealth of nuclear engineers at Argonne has been fantastic. I also used a lot of the high performance computing systems at Argonne, especially through the Laboratory Computing Resource Center.
Q: How was your experience working at Argonne?
A: I really enjoy working at Argonne. Outside of my fellowship project, I got involved in a lot of other projects at Argonne, which gave me a more holistic view of what the lab does. Argonne has been a really unique environment for me because I was able to sit on the boundary of computing and nuclear engineering.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of research?
A: I’m a big outdoors person, so I love hiking. I live in Seattle at the moment, which is very close to the Cascades and the Olympics. Most weekends in the summer, I’m out backpacking or camping. I don’t garden, but I like going to farmers markets.
Q: What advice do you have for early-career scientists?
A: Go outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people that you might not normally talk to and go to seminars in different divisions or departments. It’s easy to stay within the realm of the research you did during your bachelor’s and Ph.D. programs. But working on projects that are on the periphery of your knowledge base can broaden your perspective and allow you to see connections across disciplines.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.