Engineering takes center stage for NESLS intern Meet Kaylee Cunningham

Growing up, Kaylee Cunningham had her sights set on a career in theater.


Undergraduate Kaylee Cunningham created computer models for metallic nuclear fuel during an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

All that changed during her sophomore year of high school, when classmates in her Advanced Placement physics and calculus classes encouraged her to check out the school’s Academy of Engineering, a specialized program focused on engineering and computer science.

She was hooked instantly.

“I quickly found myself swept up in a whirlwind of engineering-based extracurriculars,” she recalled. “I was so intrigued and engaged in what I was doing that I switched out of theater, into the academy, and never looked back.”

Now an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Cunningham recently participated in the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) Program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The NESLS program at ORNL offers research opportunities in nuclear engineering for undergraduate and graduate students.

Under the guidance of Jeffrey Powers, Ph.D., and Robert Lefebvre, research and development staff members in the Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division, Cunningham contributed to research efforts related to the Department of Energy’s Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project. The VTR project aims to accelerate the development and deployment of nuclear reactors.

Cunningham created a two-dimensional computer model of a pin from the Integral Fast Reactor 1 (IFR-1) experiment, a metallic fuels experiment performed in 1985 at the Fast Flux Test Facility in Hanford, Washington. To do so, she used the Bison fuel modeling code on the ORNL-developed Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation (NEAMS) Workbench platform.

“The purpose of my research is to explore Bison’s capabilities in modeling metallic nuclear fuel, so new fuel concepts can be tested using the software and eventually fabricated for use in new nuclear reactors,” she explained.

Through her internship, Cunningham expanded her general knowledge of the nuclear field and honed her computer science skills. She also began to build a professional network, forging connections with ORNL staff and other interns.


Kaylee Cunningham in action during the summer 2019 Ignite-Off competition. (Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL)

She racked up a few accolades, too.

Cunningham was named one of three finalists from ORNL in the second annual Argonne vs. Oak Ridge Ignite-Off. In the Ignite-Off competition, undergraduate and post-bachelor’s interns from Argonne National Laboratory and ORNL summarized their research in five-minute Ignite talks.

She also earned Best Poster honors at the summer 2019 NESLS poster session, beating out nearly 50 other interns in the program.

“This summer has been life-changing,” Cunningham said. “Being a first-year nuclear engineering student, I didn’t know much about the field or what to expect diving into this. But my mentors taught me everything I needed to know in time for me to get my research done, while simultaneously connecting me to other full-time staff and introducing me to different nuclear fields. They’re essentially guiding me in helping determine what I want to do for the rest of my life. That kind of mentorship is invaluable.”


Kaylee Cunningham, center, earned Best Poster honors at the summer 2019 NESLS poster session. Here she is joined by her mentors, Robert Lefebvre, left, and Jeffrey Powers. (Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL)

Cunningham’s experience in the NESLS program at ORNL solidified her desire to pursue a career in nuclear research. She intends to explore different sub-disciplines as an undergraduate to determine which area is right for her.

“I would 100 percent recommend the NESLS program, and I will be telling all my friends to apply,” Cunningham said. “I spent a summer getting paid to do what I love in a beautiful place—why wouldn’t someone want that?”

The NESLS program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.