Insights into the NEST Framework: A chat with Ethan Robert Kirkby

Ethan Kirkby

Ethan Robert Kirkby is a BSc student at the University of Calgary in Canada and since September 2021 he has been working with the NEST-HYMERES project at the Paul Scherrer Institute under the mentorship of Dr Ralf Kapulla.

Ensuring nuclear skills and education is an increasingly important challenge for NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of scientists and engineers for the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. In this context, the NEA Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework was launched in 2019 with the collective effort of ten NEA member countries in order to build up skills vital for the future of the nuclear sector through multilateral co-operation.

The NEST-HYMERES Project, conducted at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland alongside the NEA Joint Project Hydrogen containment experiments for reactor safety (HYMERES), addresses safety-relevant phenomena in nuclear reactor containments during accidents. Led by Professor Andreas Pautz, the project provides NEST Fellows with hands-on training opportunities during the experimental test campaigns carried out at the PSI Multipurpose Integral Test Facility for LWR Safety Investigations (PANDA), one of the most advanced containment test facilities worldwide.  In parallel, it also aims at developing exploratory research projects under the guidance of experts at other NEST participating organisations.

The NEA spoke with Ethan Robert Kirkby on his experience as a NEST Fellow with the HYMERES Project.  


Why did you decide to join the NEST Framework as a NEST Fellow and what is your goal?

I joined the NEST Framework to fulfil my internship requirement at the University of Calgary. Typically, students are required to take a 12-16 month engineering internship position at an engineering company. However, I was interested in research, so instead I opted to pursue a NEST Fellowship at PSI, where I could conduct research in closer contact with the academic community. While my primary objective as NEST Fellow is to develop my nuclear skills as well as contribute to the development of my research field, I also have a personal goal to publish at least one article in an academic journal.


You joined the NEST HYMERES Project in September 2021. Tell us more about your current Fellowship topic and training activities.

As a Nuclear Thermal Hydraulics Fellow in the NEST HYMERES Project, I focus on fluid mechanics, specifically Proper Orthogonal Decomposition analysis. So far, I have helped author an article, taken part in reviewing the academic articles of others, and presented my research topic at a conference. While these are my most prominent activities, much of my hands-on training involved progressing on my own research. In almost all my activities I am learning new skills or refining others.


A cornerstone of the NEST Fellowship is knowledge transfer across generations by working in close contact with a NEST Mentor. What is your experience in this context?

I believe that knowledge is not just about learning in a classroom or from a book. Building comprehensive and reliable thought processes, organising tasks and projects – whether individually or as a group – and writing concise and useful papers are all skills acquired by practical experience. Working in close contact with an experienced mentor is the fastest way for young people to learn these skills. It is the frequent exposure to my NEST Mentor, Ralf Kapulla, and his thinking, paired with his careful challenging of my own ideas that has led to my own development.


Have you been able to work or network with other NEST Fellows? What have you gained from these interactions?

The other NEST Fellows are wonderful people and allow me to expose myself to lots of different cultures from around the world. In addition to the exposure, I also got the opportunity to learn about different projects and activities at PSI and in the NEST participating organisations. This helps me keep my work in perspective, and is a good reminder of other perspectives the world has to offer. I hope we will stay in touch in the future.


How will your experience in the NEST-HYMERES project help you to pursue a career in the nuclear field?

While the work I do is related to the fluid mechanics world, working as part of the NEST-HYMERES project exposes me to new research topics within the nuclear field. I feel like I have built a conceptual understanding of nuclear safety and the work that needs to be done in this field, but also how this interacts with other areas in nuclear energy. This has broadened my knowledge of the nuclear sector and its multiple facets and will be surely useful in whatever sector I wish to pursue my career.


What would you say to other students or young professionals thinking about joining the NEST Framework? What are the main benefits in this programme?

Do it. I already mentioned the professional and academic benefits of participating in the NEST Framework, but I would also like to emphasise the international experience aspect. The NEST Framework is incredibly helpful in setting up international students to work and study abroad. For me, being able to live and work in Europe is one of the most valuable experiences I have had in my life. Experimenting living in a different country is beneficial not only for personal development but also contributes to broadening one’s views and approaches to a problem, whether it is related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or not. I am having a wonderful time living in Switzerland, and even if I struggled at the beginning, I would still choose to do it again.

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