Georgia Institute of Technology
October 31, 2023
Hannah [00:00:58] Welcome back to another episode of Titans of Nuclear. I'm Hannah, and today I am joined by Natalie Cannon, a Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and an Advanced Nuclear Technology Graduate Research Assistant at Los Alamos National Lab. Natalie is a part of our newest series highlighting young, influential leaders in the nuclear energy industry. And Natalie, welcome to Titans of Nuclear. Thanks for joining us.
Natalie Cannon [00:01:22] Thank you so much for having me on. I've been a huge fan of Titans of Nuclear for a long time, so it's such an honor to be here.
Hannah [00:01:28] Well, we're really excited to learn more about you today. So just to kick things off, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where'd you grow up?
Natalie Cannon [00:01:37] So, I'm from Anaheim, California. I grew up basically five minutes away from Disneyland. So, when I grew up I went to Disneyland all the time. I lived in California my whole life, went to undergraduate there, and then decided when I was going to grad school that I was going to make this big change and move across the country and go to Georgia Tech, and now that's where I am now.
Hannah [00:01:56] That's so exciting. And how were you originally introduced to nuclear energy? Was there a moment when you realized that this is a field you wanted to get into?
Natalie Cannon [00:02:05] My just path to STEM in general and to nuclear is not typical. I started at a community college, and the reason I went to a community college is because all throughout high school I wasn't great at math and science. I would get Cs, Bs; I wasn't like a star, stellar student. I wasn't taking physics. I didn't even take math my senior year of high school; I thought I was going to go into film. I was in this great film program in school and was just like, "Yeah, I like it. I've always really loved science, but I just don't have the aptitude towards it." And so, I just figured that's where my career path was going to lie. And then woke up one day, like two weeks before I was set to go to college and was like, "I don't want to do this. This is my one life. I really want to try to do STEM."
Natalie Cannon [00:02:54] So, I went to a community college, changed my major, I think four times, from computer science to mechanical engineering to aerospace engineering, and then finally, my undergraduate degree is in physics. I kind of just fell in love with physics because I got involved in internships. And as a community college student, there are no internships for students, but there was one through the Department of Energy. And I went to Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory which specializes in nuclear fusion research. So, I spent two summers there working on a fusion rocket engine, the PFRC, the Princeton Field-reversed Configuration Reactor, and loved everything.
Natalie Cannon [00:03:35] And while I was there, I got involved in science policy, specifically nuclear science policy through the Federation of American Scientists. And that was something that when I was deciding where I was going to go to grad school, I was choosing between plasma physics or nuclear. And I decided to do half and half, nuclear engineering and then half plasma physics applications.
Natalie Cannon [00:03:57] And I got into Georgia Tech, which has been my dream school for years and years, for nuclear engineering. I was like, "This is a sign. I'm going to do it." And I didn't do Fusion; I ended up going into fission, which is something that I was not familiar with at all. And I've been doing this for two-and-a-half years and just absolutely love where I am now.
Hannah [00:04:20] That's amazing. And this current work that you're doing, can you elaborate on your thesis and what you're trying to investigate?
Natalie Cannon [00:04:28] Yeah. So, my master's thesis was more policy based than technical based, which is something that I was really interested in. I'm very interested in international and domestic science policy. My particular project was looking at additive manufacturing... So, 3D printing and the role that it plays in the nuclear technology industry. How can we use it in reactors? How can we use it in detectors? And what's the future of additive manufacturing for the industry?
Natalie Cannon [00:04:58] And then, seeing at what current policy, both international and domestic policy are saying about how to regulate it. Because while this is really exciting and amazing and we want to foster this growth, we also don't want to get it into the wrong hands. And so, a lot of what I was doing was developing regulatory frameworks for additive manufacturing of nuclear technology for international and domestic export control regimes. So, that was what my master's thesis was in. Now, I'm kind of pivoting. I work with Los Alamos now for my Ph.D. work and it's very different, but I love it.
Hannah [00:05:34] Can you share just off the top of your head any particular policies or frameworks that you put together that you could summarize relatively quickly?
Natalie Cannon [00:05:44] Yeah, so let's look at the Wassenaar Arrangement. The Wassenaar Arrangement is an international export control and it's largely based on materials. And currently in international export control regimes, there is really no literature about additive manufacturing. If there is, it's basically what we took from subtractive manufacturing or very traditional manufacturing techniques and changed a few words so it would "fit," quote unquote, to additive manufacturing.
Natalie Cannon [00:06:13] So, looking at like the Wassenaar Arrangement, we can look at the very specific metal deposition additive manufacturing technology that we're currently using to manufacture reactor components. We can work with legislators and the additive manufacturing industry to develop, basically, policy not to stifle the industry, but make sure that it doesn't get into the wrong hands. We haven't written any sort of policy yet. This is more just a framework that we can then take to policymakers and be like, "This is how we should rank all the different additive manufacturing techniques that are currently being used, how they apply to the nuclear industry, and then from there, write something based on that." So, I'm not informing policy, of course; I'm just a nuclear engineer. But yeah, that's basically what that's doing.
Hannah [00:07:06] Just a nuclear engineer. What about conventional manufacturing techniques means that it's not really a good fit to transfer those policies over and try to apply them to additive manufacturing?
Natalie Cannon [00:07:19] Well, looking at conventional manufacturing techniques, it's mainly subtractive manufacturing. So as a very basic example, you have a sheet of metal and then you're taking off pieces of it that you don't need, and that's how you get your final product. Or, you're welding stuff, different pieces together, and that's how you get your final product. Additive manufacturing is a completely different approach. You're starting from the ground up and you're using just the amount of material that you need to build it up layer by layer. And so, you can get these really complex geometries that would be almost impossible to do with traditional manufacturing techniques. And because you can get these really interesting and complex geometries, you just can't apply the same sort of logic to it. And that's what makes additive manufacturing a little bit more complicated than looking at traditional manufacturing.
Hannah [00:08:09] Okay, okay. And this may be an oversimplification, but do you think additive manufacturing just makes it significantly easier to make the parts that you need for various nuclear applications? Do we need stronger controls on this than we might for subtractive?
Natalie Cannon [00:08:25] Yes. I think we definitely need stronger controls. However, I think that there is this school of thought, it's called almost "Fortress America." Additive manufacturing, the military has interest in it. And so, a lot of times a lot of military leaders want to have pretty strict regulations, but we don't want to do that because it's going to stifle the industry. And something that we need to remember is that a lot of the literature about what we should do about additive manufacturing from the US perspective assumes that the United States has a monopoly on additive manufacturing technology and development, which is just not true. The bulk of development takes place in Europe, in France. And I think it needs to be sort of an international conversation about creating policy and regulations that are going to protect us from proliferation incidents while not making it so that it becomes like a militarized technology.
Hannah [00:09:25] That makes sense. And if you don't mind my asking, this master's, did it connect to your undergraduate physics work in any way, or did you decide you wanted to try something science adjacent for a little while?
Natalie Cannon [00:09:38] It was completely different. So again, my undergraduate work was very much plasma physics. That's what my degree is in. And the research that I did during undergraduate was looking at helium permeation through membranes for this reactor. So, it was very fundamental physics. And when I went to grad school, I was advised by Dr. Biegalski and Dr. Erickson. I mentioned that I was interested in policy and they mentioned they had this project that they needed someone to work on. And I was like, 'Yes. I want to get really in-depth into the all the policies." I love reading policy memos and the CTBT, all the treaties. I was like, "This is the perfect introduction to nuclear engineering." Because I also came in with very little knowledge of the in-depth knowledge of nuclear engineering. Physics is great, but I didn't have a degree in nuclear engineering going in, so it was a good way of transitioning into the nuclear engineering field.
Hannah [00:10:50] Cool, cool. And you just mentioned that you have a couple of mentors. How did find them? How did you develop those relationships?
Natalie Cannon [00:10:59] I think a lot of students, when they're going through the graduate application process... You basically spend six months Googling people and stalking them on LinkedIn until you find the people that are the right match. I was originally intending to work with another professor here who actually had retired, and I did not know that. And when I got into Georgia Tech, I was like, "Well, he's gone, but I'm still really interested in nuclear engineering. And this might actually be a sign that I should pivot and look at fission." And so, I found Dr. Erickson's lab, which is the Laboratory for Advanced Nuclear Nonproliferation Studies. And the bulk of my policy advocacy was on nuclear nonproliferation, so I was interested in learning more about the technical aspects of it.
Natalie Cannon [00:11:52] So, I asked if I could meet her. She was confused at first because I was a fusion person and she was like, "Why are you... Okay." But she agreed to meet with me and we had a great conversation. Dr. Biegalski, who was the department head, was also on that meeting and kind of walked away. And a few days later they were like, "Do you want to be co-mentored by us?" And I was like, "Yes." I'm a very lucky graduate student; I have two amazing mentors. But yeah, that's how I got here.
Hannah [00:12:19] Cool. And besides any of this amazing science policy project to look into, what have you gotten from that mentorship? How has it been valuable for you?
Natalie Cannon [00:12:30] So, Dr. Erickson and Dr. Biegalski are two very well-connected people within the nuclear industry. And so, being under their guidance has allowed me to see the entire scope of what I could do with my degree. And they're also incredibly knowledgeable. In my opinion, they are two of the best nuclear engineers out there. Just being able to have a conversation with them where I can talk about my research or just listening to them talk to another graduate student about their research, you always walk away learning something. Despite the fact that they are really these Titans of Nuclear...
Hannah [00:13:12] Very nice, very nice.
Natalie Cannon [00:13:15] They're very down to earth and they are dedicated to their students. So, they're going to put their students first. It's been a great way to go through grad school because I know that they have my best interests and that I'm going to be a good nuclear engineer because of their guidance.
Hannah [00:13:38] Can you name off the top of your head any pieces of advice that they've given you during your mentorship period that you think might be helpful?
Natalie Cannon [00:13:46] Yeah, Dr. Biegalski was really big on me doing internships. So basically, seeing what you don't like doing before you choose what you do like doing. And not being afraid of trying stuff within reason. I think a lot of people are like, "Oh, just try stuff. What's the worst that can happen?" In nuclear, quite a bit could happen. So, taking a logical approach and stepping back and before you do anything just being like, "Okay, is this actually going to help me in any way?" I'm always someone that's very quick to do stuff and I like making sure that everything's done on time. And then they're like, "Okay, it's fine. Take a step back. Recognize what might be some of the flaws in your logic and then proceed." And that has been something that has really helped me as I've gone through grad school.
Hannah [00:14:39] Have there been any particular points in the research process where you've really needed to call that to mind?
Natalie Cannon [00:14:45] Yeah, when I was writing my master's thesis. Most master's theses, at least at Georgia Tech, are 50 pages. Mine was 125.
Hannah [00:14:53] Oh, wow.
Natalie Cannon [00:14:54] I was just putting every single thing I possibly could in the background. The policies that I was referencing were just way too long. I was putting so much information into it. And I remember having a conversation with Dr. Biegalski and he was like, "It's good. You just need to not go so intense." Because he's like, "You need to recognize what the scope of this project is. You're trying to encompass every single thing, but you need to realize that you're focusing on one really small portion, so it's important to get the depth rather than the breadth of it." That was really helpful to me when writing, because I think I could have gone for like 300 pages. And he was like, "Okay, you need to stop," and helped reel me back in.
Hannah [00:15:44] Yeah, there's a lot to say about additive manufacturing, for sure.
Natalie Cannon [00:15:47] There really is.
Hannah [00:15:49] It sounds like a very cool field. I have one more personal question and then I actually do want to dive back into some of the research because we only got partway through that. But what does a day of research look like for you now, and maybe how is that different from when you were doing your master's? And they're different topics, obviously.
Natalie Cannon [00:16:08] Yes, so when I was a master's student, they wanted me to focus largely on classes. And so, it was basically get in around nine. I'm not an early riser, so I always get in around nine. And typically, I would start by reading papers that had recently come out. I am someone who has to read papers multiple times before I actually really understand them and annotate. And after that, I'd head to class. After class, I would be so done with that class that I would just go back and sit and look at what I needed to accomplish for that week.
Natalie Cannon [00:16:47] When I was writing my master's thesis and when I was researching, I gave myself a very strict timeline because this was very policy focused, so I'm not running experiments in a lab. And so, I needed to give myself little milestones that I needed to meet. And so, to make sure I was meeting those milestones. Having two advisors means that I have two lab meetings every week. So, I normally have to be in a lab for an hour or two just going over what I did, listening to what everyone else is doing, seeing if I could get feedback, or just learning from what other people are doing and seeing if that would help me in my future Ph.D. work. Then, probably another class and just basically spending the day writing policy memos either for my advisors or just for myself, for future reference. And a lot of reading. A lot of reading for this master's thesis.
Natalie Cannon [00:17:43] Nowadays... So, my Ph.D. research is through Los Alamos National Laboratory, specifically with the NEN II, which is the Advanced Nuclear Technology Division. And so, I'm splitting my time between Los Alamos and Georgia Tech because I still want to contribute to the research that's going on here within the lab, but I have obligations because they're paying me at Los Alamos. And so, I went to Los Alamos this past summer. I worked 40 hours a week and I just did a bunch of little projects that kind of encompassed everything that the NEN II criticality experiments division did.
Natalie Cannon [00:18:23] And nowadays, I'm working on a bunch of MCMP codes for this experiment that we'll be doing at the Nevada National Security Site in 2024... I don't know when. And getting frustrated at the code because I am not a programmer. And then, asking my labmates for help. And then, I'm also getting more experimental hands on work. So, I'm doing a lot of neutron noise work for my Ph.D. And we have quite a few neutron sources here at Georgia Tech, so I'm getting trained on how to use those and developing somewhat preliminary experiments that I could do that could help my research down the line.
Hannah [00:19:09] Interesting, interesting. For those of our audience who don't know, can you explain neutron noise?
Natalie Cannon [00:19:16] Yeah, so neutrons are weird. That is the one thing you need to know about neutrons if you didn't know anything, is that neutrons are really weird. So when we have these critical assemblies, say a critical assembly like a fast first reactor. We have a bunch of neutrons come out and they can interfere with detectors. Specifically, when we're trying to measure neutrons we can have weird anomalies within our detections. We want to get rid of those, but how do we do that?
Natalie Cannon [00:19:57] Currently what we do is do post-processing. It's really time consuming. And if we are in a scenario where we need to have results really quickly, whether it's like a criticality accident or any sort of incident or maybe even just reactor monitoring, we want to be able to do that in real time. So, what I'm trying to do is get real-time measurements from these neutron detection events and figure out an algorithm to get rid of those strange little anomalies that give little noise and random peaks so we can get an actual clear image of what the neutron spectrum and what the detection event is.
Hannah [00:20:37] And you mentioned doing a couple of little experiments on this. What do some of those look like?
Natalie Cannon [00:20:44] I haven't started any of those yet. I am currently in the process of getting certified to go into what's called our RCELL. It's where we keep all of our radioactive sources. They don't just let anybody in there, so I have to go through the screening process. So, I'm still looking at what we can do. But we have our deuterium tritium sources, depleted uranium, and probably just doing some basic measurements with some of our neutron detectors, maybe some organic scintillators. And then, I would like to see if we have any anomalies within those detection events and see if I can start building a basic algorithm to get rid of those.
Natalie Cannon [00:21:32] But currently, right now, because I'm at Georgia Tech... I'm here for another year and then I get to go to Los Alamos and do my research full time, which is a dream. I'm so excited. Los Alamos' goal for me at Georgia Tech currently is to just learn how to use every single detector we have and I get to play around with stuff, which as someone who is an experimental physicist, I love. I once had a professor that made fun of experimentalists who was like, "Oh, they just play with toys in a lab." And it's like, "Yeah. If I'm doing science, I want to wear the white coat. I want to have my crazy set up. That sounds amazing." But yeah, that's what I'll be doing.
Hannah [00:22:16] That's so cool. And when you say putting together an algorithm like this, I'm imagining running a ton of experiments to try and understand what those anomalies look like in a very general sense and then having a computer do that post-processing that you talked about for you. Is that the general idea?
Natalie Cannon [00:22:37] Essentially, basically we want to have a really good understanding of what these neutron spectrums are supposed to look like. And that means in multiple configurations. Because I can take data from a single neutron source over and over again and get a really good algorithm to do the real-time neutron noise analysis. However, if we're in the field or during a criticality experiment, we might not have that perfect experimental setup. So, I want to take as much data as I possibly can with different configurations, different neutron sources at different depths and different detectors and then be able to say like, "Okay, so this is what the neutron spectrum is supposed to look like under all these different circumstances," and try to see the pattern there.
Natalie Cannon [00:23:31] And then from there, we can see everything else that's not supposed to be there that we've gotten from all these and then see how we can get rid of them. And then, start with that basic algorithm, sort of doing like machine learning and start training this system to detect them in real time. So, that's kind of the premise of this. Obviously, this needs to be developed further, but those are the fundamentals of it.
Hannah [00:24:01] What is the application of not only the algorithm but being able to remove this neutron noise in the field. You mentioned criticality events and some issues with that. But what's the goal? What were we trying to do in the first place?
Natalie Cannon [00:24:18] Yeah, exactly. What is the point of it? So, this was originally brought up to me by a few scientists I work with at Los Alamos. And it was for the STACY Decritical Assembly in Japan. And the STACY Decritical Assembly was originally created after Fukushima to do debris analysis. And so, that's ideally what we would be able to train on. Whether that happens or not depends on a lot of different factors. But basically if we have an incident... God forbid anything like Fukushima or anything like that... We need to be able to know what spectrum we're getting really fast.
Natalie Cannon [00:24:58] And so, basically it is to allow people who are in the field who are going to be dealing with this to know exactly the neutron dose or the neutron spectrum that they are encountering which can help them identify exactly the radioisotopes that are in the environment, and then be able to deal with that in an appropriate manner. Because obviously, not all radioisotopes are made the same, or equally. To know what you're dealing with can radically change how you approach the situation. And it can speed up response time; it can save lives. And that's the goal, to just make things easier for these first response teams.
Hannah [00:25:41] Very cool, very cool. And. This is a little bit of a hypothetical situation, but over time, as power plant processes become more automated, people are sending in robots to do jobs that they used to be doing. Do you think that it's a combination of keeping people away when you can and then having technologies like this for events where you do need to send in people that are going to make these processes safer?
Natalie Cannon [00:26:09] Yeah, I think at the end of the day, all we want is to make nuclear energy as safe as possible. Nuclear energy is very safe, as we know. But if we can do every single thing in our power to make sure that we are protecting the environment and people, then we have to do it. And that's what I love about this project, that I actually am going to see this project being used in real time to help people. And it's just so cool.
Hannah [00:26:44] So far in your career, or do you think in the next couple of years while you're doing your work at Los Alamos, will you be working with people in the nuclear energy industry, or do you primarily work with other academics and government officials?
Natalie Cannon [00:26:56] I hope that I get to work with people within the industry. Not just at power plants, but people doing the small modular reactor startups. I'm interested in learning from people from all parts of the nuclear industry, because I feel like at times, when I'm in academia... You're just surrounded by other people who are in academia. And you're like, "I need to branch out." And the same thing happens with National Labs. You're just surrounded by people who work for the National Lab complex. And I think it's important to branch out and talk to everyone. Because one, that's how innovation is made. And two, that's how you learn. Because everything that I can learn at a National Lab... Which I can learn a ton, but I can learn more if I'm talking to people outside of where I'm working.
Hannah [00:27:48] Right. Do you have a view of the nuclear energy industry from your vantage point outside of it that motivates your research? Or, is it a purely academic, like, "This project is interesting to me and I want to solve this particular problem?"
Natalie Cannon [00:28:08] That's a really good question. When I first started, I was very much a physicist and was like, "I want to do the fundamental science and I want to get into the nitty-gritty of even approaching the policy stuff. I want to do it from a very academic perspective." However, when you're in nuclear you can't have that perspective because...
Natalie Cannon [00:28:28] A lot of people are talking about how we're on the verge of this nuclear renaissance, and I'm very hesitant to agree with that or to use those terms. Because it would be amazing if this is like a nuclear renaissance and we see nuclear energy expanded, but the way we do that is by talking about it. And so, you can't take a passive role when you're a nuclear engineer. You have to be out and willing to talk to people. There are so many ways to do that, whether that's just like interacting with other people in the industry, taking a vested interest in...
Natalie Cannon [00:29:02] I'm not a reactors person, but I am constantly reading about the Vogtle power plants in Georgia because I just think that's such an important thing to do as a nuclear engineer. I think that's what's going to be what actually propels the industry forward and propels nuclear energy forward, if we start taking a more active role as spokespeople of nuclear energy.
Hannah [00:29:25] Very cool. How do you think the nuclear energy industry is going to change over the next couple of decades? Maybe not decades, let's say five to ten years. Ideally informed by the research that you and people like you are doing, what's coming?
Natalie Cannon [00:29:45] There is so much coming and it's so exciting. I'm not a reactor person as I said, but the small modular reactors are coming online and slowly making their way through the NRC. But in order for nuclear energy to be successful, we have to change our perspective because a lot of people are afraid of nuclear energy. And we as nuclear engineers are kind of in a difficult spot because we want people to be afraid of nuclear weapons but we don't want people to be afraid of nuclear energy. So, how do we approach separating nuclear energy from nuclear weapons?
Natalie Cannon [00:30:19] I know people that like my roommates, who are also getting Ph.Ds, had no idea how a nuclear reactor worked. After explaining it to them, they're like, "Oh, really? That's it." And I think the way that we're going to do that is not just by the technology that is being created but it is by the people who are talking.
Natalie Cannon [00:30:35] There are a lot of young people in my generation who are starting to really develop platforms. Miss America is a perfect example of somebody who's young who's going around the country and talking. There are also people on TikTok. Kaylee Cunningham, who is an MIT graduate student, has this TikTok account where she just talks about the myths of nuclear energy that people have and she'll respond to people's comments who were like, "What about nuclear waste and how bad it is?" And she'll be like, "No, this is what actually is going on." And she has a big following and it pops up on my "For You" page, it pops up for my friends who have nothing to do with nuclear. And that's how we're going to change and grow, by people like Miss America, Grace Stanke, and Kaylee Cunningham.
Natalie Cannon [00:31:22] Not even just those people who have giant platforms, but talking to your family at Thanksgiving. That's something that I'm notorious for doing. If I am in a group of people who don't know about anything about nuclear, I'm going to be so annoying because everybody is going to leave there understanding that nuclear energy is clean energy, even if they don't want to hear it. Next Thanksgiving, so much fun for me. But we need to keep doing that. I think I see a lot of young people starting to do that more and taking a more vested interest in growing this community, and it's amazing.
Hannah [00:31:59] I am the exact same way at my Thanksgivings. But yes, it's tricky, I think, as a scientist in particular. Particularly as an engineer working on these systems, your job is to think of all the ways that things could go badly and be talking about that and saying, "We need to figure out solutions just in case," and then turn around and be able to communicate to the general public and to audiences that, "Just because we're preparing for things doesn't mean that they are even close to likely." That's been a tricky one for me, I think.
Natalie Cannon [00:32:34] Yeah, especially with Oppenheimer coming out. I love that Oppenheimer came out. I actually saw it when I was working at Los Alamos. I sat next to somebody who was in the movie as an extra. That was so neat, but it kind of started a conversation because my friends and people I went to high school with who have me on LinkedIn, they see that I work at Los Alamos and then they start wanting to have a conversation with me. And a lot of times they approach it really aggressively, like, "How could you work at this lab that did this thing?" And it's like, "Yeah, okay. Let's talk about it. Let's have a conversation. What are you afraid of? I want to know what you're thinking." Because not only is it important for us to be talking to people, but we need to be listening to what the public is thinking, because it's the only way we're going to understand them.
Hannah [00:33:22] Yeah, absolutely. I want to shift the focus a little bit to the academic world and people working on nuclear energy. As part of this series on young people in nuclear, I would like to know what do you think our generation has to offer this field and how do you think people our age are going to change it?
Natalie Cannon [00:33:44] Something that I love with this generation is that we are so intense about climate change. I think we all are aware of the climate crisis and have taken it upon ourselves to be like, "Okay, we are the new stewards of this earth. What are we going to do to save it and make it better for future generations?" With our generation and these young people that I get to talk to all the time, we just have a lot of... Not anger, but we have a lot of passion for what the future is going to look like. We are at the precipice where we're the ones who are starting to make the decisions or about to start making those decisions.
Natalie Cannon [00:34:29] And so, you see all of these young people who are very into advocacy. I think that, not even just with nuclear, but in general, that's how we're going to propel ourselves forward because we care about each other a little bit more. That might be... I assume that somebody who is in a older generation is going to hear this and be like, "These youngins don't know anything." I think we are more open and interested in trying to push society forward even with equality. I think that's probably a bad way of explaining it, but...
Hannah [00:35:05] I think there's something to the forced connectivity of, frankly, the internet and how exposed we've been to just so many more different people and online presences that has made us a lot more aware of the community around us.
Natalie Cannon [00:35:22] Yeah, and sometimes I feel like the internet and how connected everything is is like a curse. But at the end of the day, it helps so much because there are so many things that have made national news or people have become aware of because of the internet that in previous generations would have gone completely unnoticed and not talked about. And so, we're able to put more energy into these issues than we have ever before, and that's very cool.
Hannah [00:35:52] Yeah, and nuclear energy is one of those topics of conversation that I think has seen, to borrow your word from earlier, a renaissance because of the internet and the way that young people use it. So, that's really interesting. And a of couple personal questions... What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your career?
Natalie Cannon [00:36:13] Well, I never thought that I would go to grad school. I mean, going to grad school has been an amazing experience. I am part of this group. It's called the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation. It is a group of nuclear engineering students or people who are interested in nuclear engineering, typically graduate students, who meet in Washington for a week and go talk to different legislators and the White House about nuclear energy. And I have wanted to be part of this group for a couple of years. My mentor at Los Alamos was actually a former chair of it and really pushed me to do it.
Natalie Cannon [00:36:58] I interviewed, didn't think I was going to get it, and then got in. And actually next week, I go to Washington. And to be a part of something like that where I know that I get to actually be face to face with people who are making the laws that will affect nuclear energy is amazing. There are a lot of times where I stop and think like, "How did I get here?"
Natalie Cannon [00:37:20] Overall, coming from someone who went to a community college... I started my community college career in Algebra II. That's something you learn as a freshman or sophomore in high school, and I was in college doing that. And now I'm getting a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. I'm not supposed to be here. Like, I'm really not. I guess that's really what I'm proudest of, is that I get to do what I love but also still get to teach people.
Hannah [00:37:51] That's great. And we're glad that you're doing the research that you're doing. That's important work. Looking forward, and goodness knows I don't have this figured out either, but what do you think is next for you? Are you aiming for lifelong research or do you want to try other things?
Natalie Cannon [00:38:11] I switch back and forth on this all the time. I know that I want to remain active in nuclear policy. It's something that I'm really passionate about. It's something that I think I'm relatively good at doing. I love reading all of the really boring documents, so they're not boring to me. And I would love to continue doing that, however, I also love the research aspect of it. What I'm currently hoping is that I get to continue working for Los Alamos National Laboratory because that is kind of the perfect intersection of being able to work on policy while also working on some fundamental experimental science while doing stuff that actually matters. That's kind of what I am hoping for in the future, the National Lab route. Hopefully Los Alamos, if they hire me.
Hannah [00:39:05] Very cool, and good luck. Any particular research areas of interest that you want to check off your bucket list at some point?
Natalie Cannon [00:39:12] I know I want to stay nonproliferation. That is, in my opinion, the most interesting. I think it's the most dynamic as well. It's constantly changing. I would love to just be able to actually help formulate policies and have actual input. To be able to advise people who are actually writing the policy and be like, "This is what you actually should do. Here's the evidence and the research and data to back it up." I would love to see where I can go with that.
Hannah [00:39:55] It's really interesting to see when you can take an experiment and then actually have it inform the way that we regulate something like nuclear. So, that's very cool.
Natalie Cannon [00:40:05] The policy is what really affects us day to day. Sometimes I watch the news and I hear some of our elected officials talk and I'm like, "Oh, someone needs to talk to your advisors because that is so wrong." There's a lot of fear mongering out there, especially for nuclear energy. And I just think it's got to stop. And so, I would like to be part of that change, to stop fear mongering and just give facts and data in a way that everybody can understand so people aren't so afraid.
Hannah [00:40:43] Yeah, communication is half of changing minds and making sure that science actually makes it all the way to the public.
Natalie Cannon [00:40:48] It really is, yeah.
Hannah [00:40:50] I see that we're getting towards the end of our time and I want to end on a fun note. What advice would you give to someone who's interested in nuclear energy and wants to do research in a lab the way that you are? How would you advise them to get off the ground?
Natalie Cannon [00:41:09] The way I did it was by trying everything. I got really involved in extracurriculars. I would say the worst thing you could do is just go to class and that's it. Obviously, classes are important. Do well in classes and all that. But I think really when I have learned the most is when I have been outside of the classroom.
Natalie Cannon [00:41:29] So, I was ANS president at my college this past year. I learned a ton about nuclear energy just by interacting with people who I invited to speak at events. We had the NRC chair come and I got to have lunch with him. And how I got in contact with you guys is just by being around and just saying yes to opportunities when they arise. Every single time that I have been able to do something incredible, it's because I just said yes to something random and it's just grown into this amazing thing. And so, you really don't know where these small little opportunities are going to take you, so I would just say, "Say yes to as many opportunities as possible."
Hannah [00:42:18] That's great advice. Thank you. And thank you so much for joining us for this conversation today. We're really glad to talk to you.
Natalie Cannon [00:42:26] Thank you for having me. This was so much fun.