Undergrads Try Hands at Energy Research

After spending part of his school year running computer simulations of a next-generation nuclear reactor, Justin Carey spent his summer working for GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Inc., in Wilmington. Back on campus, Alexandra Blalock performed energy-related classroom research that professors in the Colleges of Education and Engineering are using as the pilot project for a National Science Foundation-funded study.

Carey and Blalock aren’t graduate research assistants conducting experiments while pursuing advanced degrees. They and 14 other NC State undergraduates won energy research fellowships funded last fall by the Office of Research and Graduate Studies and Progress Energy, Inc. The students proposed research projects and were selected in a competitive process, Director of Undergraduate Research George Barthalmus says. “These fellowships get them doing early hands-on work with mentors, which is what both our faculty and industry want,” he says. Because of Progress Energy’s commitment, students were asked to focus their research on topics like alternative fuels, energy conservation and efficiency, and education tools related to energy production and use.

Carey, a rising junior, simulated the power distribution in the core of a Generation IV nuclear reactor, a concept in the design phase and not expected to be operational for another 30 years. Increasing the accuracy of how the power distribution is measured will cut costs in building the reactor and allow it to be operated more efficiently, he says. “I was looking for an opportunity to get into research for some hands-on experience,” he says. “The fellowship helped me land my internship with GE-Hitachi and will be important as I choose my future career path.”

Work done by Alexandra Blalock, a rising senior, became a stepping stone for GRIDc, an NSF-funded project led by Dr. William DeLuca, a professor of math, science and technology education. The project’s goal is to use renewable energy data collected by the NC Solar Center so students can analyze and synthesize it in various science and math contexts. Blalock tested the idea on a class of NC State students, allowing them to experiment with solar cells and construct their own wind turbines to determine if the projects increased their critical-thinking skills. “If I pursue a graduate degree,” she says, “getting a taste of research now will help.”

“The next generation of scientists is now sitting in undergraduate classrooms.”

Barthalmus says the fellowship program will be expanded with more financial support in future years, especially for the dozens of undergraduate research experiences to be funded by the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center (see story on page 7). “The next generation of scientists is now sitting in undergraduate classrooms,” he says. “We want these students to be prepared for graduate school and graduate research before they leave here.”


Undergraduate Research Director George Barthalmus says graduate schools and businesses want college students to conduct hands-on research with faculty mentors as early as possible.

Working as an intern at GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, NC State junior Justin Carey measures the activity of a motor that moves control rods into and out of a nuclear reactor core to maintain the stability of a reaction. Photo by Cathleen Wessely.