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NERS Senior Kaitlyn Barr awarded first-ever X-energy summer internship

Kaitlyn will use state of the art tools to perform analysis work on X-energy’s Xe-100 small modular reactor.

Kaitlyn Barr portrait
Kaitlyn Barr

Kaitlyn Barr, a senior in the U-M Department of Nuclear Energy and Radiological Sciences (NERS), has been awarded the first-ever X-energy summer internship. X-energy is a nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company that was recently chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy to deliver a commercial four-unit nuclear power plant based on its Xe-100 reactor design.

“I am so thrilled!” Kaitlyn said. “This will be a phenomenal way to get some hands-on experience in the field while working for a dynamic company that is shaping the path forward for advanced reactors. With the recent award of ARDP by DOE and moving forward in the downselection by OPG in Canada, it is clear that a lot of people believe that X-energy will be key to the future of nuclear, and I am so honored to be part of this.”

Thomas Gallucio, director of recruiting at X-energy, said, “We are mutually excited to advance one another’s mission … [Kaitlyn] is on a path to doing big things, like solving the world’s energy problems, and we are pleased she will be making valuable contributions to our efforts.”

Kaitlyn currently works in Prof. Thomas Downar’s research group, doing neutronics modeling and analysis of advanced nuclear reactor cores, and her work at X-energy this summer will be an extension of this. “I will use state of the art tools to perform analysis work on their Xe-100 small modular reactor,” Kaitlyn said.

Kaitlyn is one of those students that you get excited for. In our role as faculty to educate and mentor students, she is the kind of student that makes this job feel so worthwhile.

Professor Brendan Kochunas

“Kaitlyn came to work with my group the first semester she arrived on campus as a freshman,” Downar said. “Over the years, she has consistently amazed my staff and me with her extraordinary intellect, her hard work, her exceptional discipline, and her attention to detail.”

Originally from Troy, Michigan, Kaitlyn’s love for her home state is what has kept her here. “I’m still here because I love this state!” she said. She attended a nuclear physics program at Michigan State University (MSU) that exposed her to nuclear engineering and sparked her interest in the field. 

“I was intrigued by the idea that tiny nuclei—so small that we can’t even see them—can do great things like power entire cities,” Kaitlyn said. “I am pretty short myself, so I like to think that if tiny nuclei can do big things, maybe I can do big things too!” 

By the time she realized she wanted to study nuclear engineering, Kaitlyn had already turned in her college applications. The only school she had applied to that offered a nuclear engineering program was U-M. 

“I found out that U-M has one of the top nuclear engineering programs in the world, which made my choice pretty easy,” Kaitlyn said. “I have never looked back! I am very passionate about engineering outreach, so I am the elementary outreach officer for the Society of Women Engineers here at U-M, and I host days of fun engineering events for young students. Since nuclear engineering is a very niche field, I try to integrate super fun nuclear-oriented activities to expose elementary students to its awesomeness!”

Kaitlyn is a member of the national American Nuclear Society, as well as our local student chapter. This has given her the opportunity to connect with a network of peers in the field and submit conference papers.

students standing in front of nuclear facility
NERS undergraduates in China over the summer of 2019.

Kaitlyn’s favorite experience at NERS was traveling to China with a group of students led by Prof. Lumin Wang. “I was exposed to a country and culture that was completely unfamiliar to me,” she said, “and I learned a lot about the rapidly expanding nuclear industry in China. I loved having the opportunity to become close with Chinese students at the university we stayed at, and I still keep in touch with many of them!”

As an instructional assistant for NERS 211 (Fundamentals of Nuclear Engineering in Fall 2020), Kaitlyn was responsible for hosting discussion sections and office hours as well as creating homework assignments with her co-IA, Lincoln Johnston. “It was very fun to interact with the students and share my knowledge and passion with them,” she said.

“The most significant work that I do in the NERS department is the research I have done with Profs. Thomas Downar and Brendan Kochunas, which is focused on neutronics modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors,” Kaitlyn said. 

“At first, I just loved all of the pretty reactor core pictures I could make, but after taking a few classes relating to core analysis, I became fascinated with reactor core design.” She started working with high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, which is how she discovered X-energy’s Xe-100. 

“I thought that it is an incredible design that leverages decades of reactor design experience with pebble bed reactors and the needs of a dynamic society,” Kaitlyn said, “so I decided to pursue an internship at X-energy to have the chance to work with that reactor design and get some novel industry experience. I am so excited to be doing neutronics analysis on the Xe-100 this summer and doing my part to help the Xe-100 design come to fruition.”

When not doing classwork or research work, Kaitlyn spends her time sewing and embroidering. She particularly enjoys making her own clothing and using her sewing machine to add beautiful embroidery. She also has a major sweet tooth, so naturally, she loves to bake.

cute elephant sprays girl in the face
Kaitlyn gives an elephant a bath and the elephant gives her a shower in return.

Kaitlyn is also a big fan of elephants. “They are so cute and smart and sweet and fun!” she said. “I just love them, and I support various organizations that promote elephant conservation.” In the summer of 2019, she traveled to Thailand and was able to spend time with baby elephants and volunteer at a nursery. 

One particular elephant mom who had been rescued from the circus would perform tricks for the volunteers. “She sprayed me all over with water when I was trying to give her a bath!” Kaitlyn said. [elephant picture!]

Kaitlyn even adopted a two-year-old elephant named Kinyei. Kinyei is an orphan who was rescued after being found near a pride of lions. She now lives happily with other baby elephants at a sanctuary near Nairobi, Kenya. “I LOVE elephants!” Kaitlyn says.

Kaitlyn graduates this spring, but she plans to come right in back in the fall to get her Master’s through the SUGS program. “I will graduate from that in May of 2022, and then I’m off into the world!” she said. “I want to continue to work on design and analysis of advanced nuclear reactors because I believe strongly in the need to revolutionize nuclear technology to adapt it to the needs of society today.”

What I love most about NERS: we have an incredibly strong and supportive community. The people in this department have changed my life for the better and shaped me into the person that I am today, and for that, each one of them will have my eternal gratitude.

Kaitlyn Barr

“Each of my professors has impacted my life in a significant way,” Kaitlyn said. “Whether it’s by teaching me key concepts, helping me write official publications, pushing me to learn complex topics, writing millions of letters of recommendation, teaching me effective research skills and techniques, involving me in work to support the NERS department, giving me homework that was super tough at the time but I thanked them for later, exposing me to new and exciting opportunities, answering my questions that were completely unrelated to the classes they taught, helping me shape my future, and inspiring me to do my best every step of the way—every professor of mine (plus the amazing research scientists Dr. Volkan Seker and Dr. Andrew Ward) has been a positive impact on my life. That’s what I love most about the NERS department: we have an incredibly strong and supportive community, and I’m already sad that I have just one year left until I am done here. The people in this department have changed my life for the better and shaped me into the person that I am today, and for that, each one of them will have my eternal gratitude.”

“Kaitlyn is one of those students that you get excited for,” Kochunas said. “In our role as faculty to educate and mentor students, she is the kind of student that makes this job feel so worthwhile.”

“Without a doubt, Kaitlyn has been the most talented and capable undergraduate I have worked with in my 30+ years as a professor at Purdue, UC Berkeley, and now the University of Michigan,” Downar said. “There is no question she will make increasingly significant and original contributions to Nuclear Engineering. We are certain that Kaitlyn will represent NERS and U-M very well during her internship at X-energy, and that she will help make it clear why NERS has been the top-ranked Nuclear Engineering program in the country for the past decade.”

“Kaitlyn has provided value to NERS beyond her research,” said NERS Chair Todd Allen. “Because I trust her judgment, I asked her to be a student representative on our current faculty search committee and to provide input to our curriculum review. She is thoughtful and insightful and an important member of the NERS community.”

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