Kayla Coleman wasn’t the only student frustrated at times in her high school algebra and calculus classes, but she was one of the few who reveled in the challenge. As she explored mathematics and learned how algorithms and formulas could be applied to solve tangible, real-world problems like the spread of diseases and pollution, she resolved to become an applied mathematician.

That resolve led her to obtain her master’s degree in applied mathematics from North Carolina State University (NCSU), and it helped earn her a summer research experience in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) program at a prominent research facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

ORNL Research Profile: Kayla Coleman

Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) participant Kayla Coleman helped develop models of nuclear fuel systems that scientists and engineers will use to design safer, more efficient nuclear power plants.

The highly competitive NESLS program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It pairs students in nuclear engineering or related fields with national laboratory staff scientists on projects related to nuclear security technologies and other nuclear science disciplines. Coleman applied to the program to explore sustainable energy development and to gain invaluable research experience that could better prepare her for the workforce.

“Among other benefits, the program strengthened my independent skills, which I feel will benefit me in my early career,” said Coleman. “I had several experiences where I was struggling to solve a problem, but I persevered until I found the answer.”

Coleman interned in the lab’s Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division under the mentorship of Kevin Clarno, Ph.D., a senior research and development staff member. Her research was part of the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), an Energy Innovation Hub established by DOE to provide leading-edge modeling and simulation (M&S) capability to improve the performance of currently operating light water reactors.

Coleman’s goal was to help design surrogate models of heat transfer through nuclear fuel that can be calibrated using minimal high-fidelity nuclear fuel performance simulation data. High-fidelity experimental data is costly and difficult to attain due to the harsh environment and complex physics of nuclear fuel.  High fidelity simulation data—or data collected from real-world, real-time simulations—is costly and intrinsically time-prohibitive to obtain for the tens of thousands of nuclear fuel rods in a reactor.

Coleman’s task was to create a “low-order” model that would take less time and utilize smaller amounts of this data while still effectively and efficiently granting researchers insight into the behavior of the nuclear fuel. This is termed “high- to low- fidelity” modeling.

“The research of nuclear systems and processes can lead to higher levels of performance and longer lifetimes of nuclear plants, but oftentimes it is computationally or even economically expensive to collect experimental data to calibrate many nuclear fuel models,” said Coleman. “In cases where experimental data can be both time and cost intensive, high- to low-fidelity methods can be employed to help reduce the time and cost. Once the low-order model has been properly calibrated using minimal high-fidelity data, it can then be used for various types of analysis.”

Coleman spent the majority of her days researching independently, but not in solitude. Every day, Coleman interacted with staff scientists, visiting researchers, interns and post-docs from around the world.

“My favorite part of the program was getting to meet new people. Through numerous conversations with my fellow interns and other researchers, I learned about other cultures and experiences. In my opinion, cultural learning experiences are just as important as learning academically and professionally,” said Coleman, who envisions returning to the lab once she obtains her doctorate in applied mathematics from NCSU.

“My ultimate career goal is to do research at a national lab, such as ORNL,” she said. “I envisioned the NESLS program would provide me with the opportunity to learn what that’s like, and I thoroughly enjoyed the insight I gleaned. Overall, I had a very positive experience and would definitely recommend the program to other students.”