I had always enjoyed math and science, but when a nuclear engineer visited our middle school classroom it opened a whole new world to me. In high school I had the opportunity to tour some nuclear power plants, and it helped confirm my choice to seek nuclear engineering programs when I started looking into colleges. The College of Engineering at Illinois was particularly intriguing because I could pursue a degree in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) – essentially offering three tracks to explore everything from power, to fusion energy, to materials research, and more. This was quite different from other colleges (which tended to focus in one area), and I appreciated the variety.

A highlight of my undergraduate experience was conducting research in the Center for Plasma-Material Interactions. CPMI’s Director, Professor Ruzic, visited our NPRE 100 class during my first semester to introduce us to the types of research conducted at the lab. He invited interested students to reach out to learn more. When I did, Professor Andruzcyk put me to work in a volunteer role right away – it was challenging, but with the guidance of current students and professors it was a fantastic experience! By my second semester, I was offered a paid research position. I continued to work at the lab on a variety of projects throughout my undergraduate degree program. I played a key role in projects related to fusion energy research using the Hybrid Illinois Device for Research & Applications (HIDRA), including helping to build instrumentation, run experiments, analyze data, and present results.

Of course, school isn’t just about hard work. Spending time with friends and participating in events around campus was also an important part of my experience. Personally, I enjoyed club soccer and Greek life at Illinois, and worked my way up into leadership roles in both of these activities. I’m also a huge Illini sports fan!

Now that I’ve completed my bachelor’s degree, I’ve moved on to pursue a PhD in Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering here at University of Illinois. I’m excited to take my academic learning to a professional level, learning additional techniques and deepening my knowledge about this field that I enjoy so much. And, I’ve noticed a difference already. As a PhD student, I’m treated as a colleague both at the lab and when I go to conferences. I have increased freedom to select research projects and to figure out paths to take to pursue them. I have to be self-motivated; the responsibility to succeed is on me. I love the challenge.

My advice to current students is to intentionally get out of your comfort zone. If you are comfortable all of the time, you are probably doing something wrong. For example, go try a lot of new organizations on campus to explore the possibilities. Then, find a few organizations that you feel connected to, and get deeply involved. Aim to be on the executive board, or to make a substantial contribution that requires personal effort and growth. Experiencing personal struggles to learn and achieve is what makes us better in the end. It also creates meaningful stories to share in future interviews with potential employers or graduate schools.