On Course for a Nuclear Research Career

U of I Graduate Student Overcomes Medical Condition to Pursue Dream

Published online: Oct 05, 2020 Articles, Education And Arts Brian Walker
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Kristen Geddes’s medical condition may have temporarily prevented her from activities she loves, but it didn’t deter her from the steadfast pursuit of a college degree. While working toward her bachelor’s degree in physics, Geddes, now a Ph.D. student in nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Idaho Falls, lost her ability to hike, run and dance. 

“I was exhausted all the time and would fall asleep in class regardless of how hard I tried to stay awake,” she said. “I couldn’t eat, resulting in weight loss that I couldn’t really afford. 

Geddes said she wanted her degree more than anything and refused to let anything prevent her from achieving that goal.

“So, I fought through the sickness and made it to graduation at Brigham Young University-Idaho,” she said. Geddes then took six months off after earning her degree and before starting graduate school at U of I. 

After years of frustration without finding medical answers, a surgeon finally discovered the cause of Geddes’s illness and performed surgery.

“It doesn’t have a name, but all of my organs in my lower abdomen were stuck together,” she said. “Every time I would move, they would pull on each other, causing strain on my digestive tract, resulting in nausea and cramps.”

Geddes said she still has occasional nausea, but nothing close to the pain she experienced pre-surgery. 

When Nuclear Engineering Clicked

Geddes, who grew up in rural Sanford, Colo., became interested in nuclear engineering during her undergraduate years when she enrolled in an elective nuclear physics course. 

“It was the first time I had been exposed to the subject,” she said. “I found nuclear reactions and radiation extremely interesting and began entertaining the idea of pursuing nuclear research.”

The route became clear, she said, when she toured Idaho National Laboratory’s facilities.

“I was intrigued with everything I saw and knew nuclear research was what I wanted to study in graduate school,” she said, adding that her dream is to work at a national lab, performing research involving radiation. “I like hands-on lab work and would love to be able to have access to radiation generated within the nuclear reactor for experimentation.”

 Geddes said she opted for U of I for her graduate studies over the University of Florida due to the university’s connection with INL. Geddes, who hopes to complete her master’s degree in May 2021 and her Ph.D. in June 2023, recently received a big boost toward her career goal, earning a three-year, $161,000 fellowship from the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP). 

 “It removes a lot of stress related to finances,” she said. “I can focus on my research and not worry about my family’s needs not being met. Plus, I am excited for the research this fellowship allows.”

The fellowship allows Geddes to continue her research on decay radiation’s influence on molten salt. “Knowing the behavior of molten salt is critical in the development of molten salt reactors,” she said, referring to the importance of her research. “Understanding the effect of decay radiation on the molten salt along with the production of decay products within the mixture will help engineers know if fuel must be fabricated just before use or if it can be stored for a predetermined amount of time.”

Her hands-on science work sprouted when she performed an internship with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, while pursuing her bachelor’s degree. It was the first time she’d been exposed to designing test apparatuses.

 “I experienced working in a machine shop while constructing our test instrument, which was my favorite part,” she said. 

 Geddes also educates youth about the world of radiation and how they are impacted daily through her volunteer work with the U of I Section of the nonprofit American Nuclear Society. 

Click here to read more of the November issue.

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