Chain reaction: A conversation with early-career nuclear researchers about open research
In a double celebration to mark both Nuclear Science Week and the first published articles going live on the American Nuclear Society’s (ANS) Nuclear Science and Technology Open Research (NSTOR) Platform, including the ANS Student Conference 2023 Collection, David Strutz and F1000’s Kay Burrows joined early career researchers (ECRs) Alex Bendoyro and Edward Mercado in conversation.
The discussion explores how open research is helping Alex and Edward to develop their research and communicate it to both expert and public audiences, as well as why they believe public understanding of nuclear science and technology is so important.
- Alex Bendoyro, Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, The University of Alabama in Huntsville
- Kay Burrows, Senior Content Acquisition Editor, F1000
- Edward Mercado, Undergraduate Research Assistant, Chemical Engineering, Brigham Young University
- David Strutz, Production Editor, American Nuclear Society
David, to kick us off could I ask, how is the communication of nuclear science and technology research changing, and how are the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and its Nuclear Science and Technology Open Research (NSTOR) publishing platform supporting the research community, particularly ECRs?
David: Communication of research, in general, is more and more driven to be open—the public wants to know. This has been going on for many years, but perhaps two factors have spurred it on: the pandemic (more so in the medical research area, of course, but also generally in the “trust experts” movement), and the growing awareness around climate and greenhouse gas emissions mitigation. Nuclear energy aims to address that, as a strong partner alongside renewable energy, both in the electricity sector and in other energy areas that will require emissions reduction to fight climate change. Nuclear can provide heat energy for industrial processes and hydrogen production, for example, to help decarbonize hard-to-electrify sectors. The public is looking to the scientific community more than ever for innovations to confront today’s challenges—as well as exciting advancements pushing the boundaries, such as space exploration and fusion energy breakthroughs.
Younger generations have grown up in a world of electronic communication, and so it makes sense that there is a craving for easy-to-access information—with research being no different. ANS and NSTOR seek to provide avenues for wide, open dissemination of research and knowledge. ECRs may face barriers to publication in established, traditional journals, which expect mature research results and have set definitions for the type of work published. NSTOR aims to give students and early-career academics more options for publishing and communicating their research—NSTOR is a platform where ECRs can publish openly, publish more types of articles (such as preliminary studies), and receive open, expert feedback.
Alex and Edward, could I ask what someone relatively early in their career aims for—what matters to them—in communicating their research and findings to the nuclear science and technology community and to the public?
Alex: I want as many readers as possible to understand the main points of my research. While it is important to present the technical details on how I reached my conclusions, the accessibility of these findings to the public will help foster curiosity and discussion among diverse groups of people across the globe. Innovative ideas created as a result will hopefully lead to advancements in nuclear science and technology that will help everyone.
Edward: As a new researcher in the field of nuclear science and technology, my primary aim is to provide the public with a better understanding of the improved safety capabilities of Generation IV reactors—the latest plants being designed now for future deployment. Many people still believe that we are working with the same technology that built Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and that is certainly not the case. Since then, we have learned a substantial amount about how to make these reactors safer, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t communicate that to them. It is important that the public understands how these advancements affect them and what safeguards we are taking to ensure their safety.
David: Those are interesting perspectives. Would you say you aim for your work to inspire others to take an interest in the field? Perhaps students picking a career, or members of the general public voicing support for nuclear and wanting to share research with their friends or neighbors, or even alert legislators to the latest developments or provide them with evidence?
Alex: Absolutely, prospective students can browse the research in hopes of finding topics that interest them and we could also develop legislation using the latest information available. The advantage of the open research model is that anyone who wants to know what the developing science is can access the source information.
Edward: Yes, I think that there is no better time than now to get into the nuclear industry. I want people to get as excited about nuclear energy as I am. If we are going to make nuclear energy work, it is going to take a collaborative of engineers, technicians, businesspeople, and advocates that are willing to publicly share their support.
David: How do you find a balance between the technical detail needed to be included to advance your scientific career, versus accessibility for a general audience? Do you use different voices in different venues, for instance?
Alex: I start by writing all the information down, then I trim and focus the content to only what is necessary to get the points across. Field experts then look over the paper for technical accuracy. Finally, I ask for readers outside of my field to review the text to ensure I am communicating my ideas clearly. If someone is confused about a concept in my paper, I take it as a sign that I need to rework that section.
Edward: I definitely change the way I talk about things depending on who I am talking to. It would be foolish of me to expect someone to know what reactivity worth is if they have never heard about it before. Fortunately, I have had excellent practice by talking to my father about some of the things that I have learned in my studies. He is not afraid to tell me when I have lost him, and I get the opportunity to back track and help him understand. It made me realize that people are very interested in how the science works but it takes some patience and willingness to help people digest what you are saying.
Alex and Edward, picking up on David’s point, could I ask how does open research publishing help you achieve your aims of reaching as wide as possible an audience and making your research accessible to that audience?
Alex: Publishing my research in the open research model reveals the peer review process to the public. It is important that people understand what the peer review process entails. Curious enthusiasts will better trust the results, and prospective researchers will have a better perspective on what goes into a peer-reviewed publication.
Edward: By publishing in an open access research journal, this provides my research group and me the opportunity to share our work with like-minded students, researchers, and people interested in molten salt small modular reactors and other aspects of Brigham Young University’s research. This also opens more doors to collaboration, with ongoing peer review increasing the quality of our work.
Thank you for mentioning your area of research, Edward—could you and Alex both give a 100-word snapshot of the work you have published on NSTOR and what you hope for in the open peer review process for this article?
Alex: Certainly. My research focuses on using small (3.4–10 kWe) nuclear reactors to enhance the capabilities of Martian exploration crews. These reactors, mounted inside of the rovers themselves, would allow astronauts to explore vast regions of the planet’s surface without needing to return to base to recharge. This paper focuses on what factors affect the amount of shielding (radiation protection to keep the crew safe) needed for the on-board crew and recommendations for further designs. I hope that the peer review process will foster discussion and improve the quality of this work. I also hope that these findings will be useful to others in their future research pursuits.
Edward: The work that we published describes the reactor kinetics of a 45-MWth small modular molten salt reactor concept. The novelty of this reactor is its ability to dissipate the remaining decay heat via conduction only (that is, totally passively) in the case of any unforeseen transients. Under steady-state conditions we found the neutron multiplication factor, axial and radial peaking power factors, flux and power profiles, and reactivity feedbacks. Notably, the largest contributor to the negative feedback reactivity comes from the fuel salt rather than the moderator. This work highlights the potential for this molten salt reactor design. My goal in publishing this article is to show the community that BYU is doing noteworthy work in the nuclear field—and also to give credit to those that have put so much time and effort into building this particular reactor model.
David: That is fascinating research in two developing areas of nuclear technology. Thank you for sharing, Alex and Edward.
Kay: Indeed, it was lovely chatting with you. Readers, please find Alex and Edward’s research, among other articles, online now in the NSTOR collection on the 2023 ANS Student Conference.
Learn more about NSTOR