Rachel Gaudet sat through a high school U.S. history lesson about World War II, including the start of the Manhattan Project, and became enthralled. Although she had always envisioned herself as a talk-show host in television broadcasting, her sudden desire to understand everything about Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) foretold a different career path: one that, many years later, landed her a prestigious internship at the historic facility itself. 

“The science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career opportunities were even more exciting than broadcasting and offered much room to grow and rotate to experience a variety of positions; something that I felt was invaluable to my future,” said Gaudet, a senior in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “I knew that nuclear engineering was everything I desired from college with its many interdisciplinary course offerings, technical applications and opportunities to perform research in unique facilities. There was nothing more I could imagine doing, and I made it my main goal to become a research scientist at ORNL.”

ORNL Research Profile: Rachel Gaudet

In the NESLS program at ORNL, Gaudet is creating a user’s manual to facilitate researchers’ utilization of an expansive technical database used to improve tools for nuclear detection.

Gaudet’s participation in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) has only deepened her passion for nuclear engineering and furthered her desire to pursue a degree at the masters and doctoral level and eventually employment at ORNL. The program, administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education for the U.S. Department of Energy, pairs students in nuclear engineering or related fields with staff scientists on projects related to nuclear security technologies; nuclear systems analysis, design and safety; and nuclear fuels, isotopes and nuclear materials. 

Under the guidance of Dr. Louise Worrall in the Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, Gaudet is creating a manual to help researchers navigate the International Database (IDB) of Reference Gamma-Ray Spectra for the Measurement of Uranium and Plutonium Isotopics. The database provides reference spectra used for the development of key safeguards tools. Spectra provides characteristic signatures of gamma radiation emitted by nuclear materials and are used in nuclear material detection methods around the world.

“The library of spectra is expansive and meticulously organized by technical criteria and distinguishing properties, which makes it difficult for users to maneuver to either find a spectrum they are looking for or determine where to upload a spectrum they would like to add to the library. Therefore, the user’s guide is a necessary component,” said Gaudet.

The more researchers utilize the database and upload their own spectra measurements, the more effective the IDB will be in improving current nondestructive nuclear detection methods as well as international nuclear safeguards as a whole.

“As the number of users increases, the amount of repeated measurements drops significantly and fosters new ideas for measurements to arise from the results of the uploaded spectra,” Gaudet explained. “This furthers the applications of gamma spectrometry and ensures the field is constantly evolving to fit new conditions, materials and measurements.”

Gaudet will be in the NESLS program a total of two years with a possible extension to a third year. So far, she has significantly improved her technical communication skills and has carried the knowledge gained through her internship to her relevant nuclear science classes at UTK. Furthermore, by attending tours and seminars and networking with peers, Gaudet has developed an all-around awareness of the value of ORNL to the global scientific community.

“It is truly mind blowing how much of an impact ORNL has on science, technology and government policy,” said Gaudet, who continues to make her own impact via her user’s guide that will be read by gamma-ray researchers around the world.

The opportunity to make a resounding, positive impact not only on the research community but also the general public is what inspires Gaudet to pursue nuclear engineering as a career.

“My ultimate career goal is to simply wake up every morning excited to go to work and tackle that day’s tasks. It would be a dream to travel the globe and ensure nuclear materials are only being used for peaceful purposes while educating citizens about the truth behind radiation and nuclear energy,” said Gaudet. “In all honesty, interning here Oak Ridge National Laboratory has itself been a dream come true. I am so thankful for all of the researchers and staff I have been able to interact with, and I will always encourage my peers to apply to the educational programs.”