An Education En Route

Emerson a leader in nuclear field

Published online: Feb 26, 2021 Articles, Education And Arts, Lifestyle Brian Walker
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Leigh Ann Emerson jokes that she earned her master’s degree on a bus travelling to and from her job as an experiment manager at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

“The number of lectures that I watched and textbooks that I read on the bus is astounding,” said Emerson, a doctoral student in nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho who received her Master’s of Engineering in engineering management in 2018. 

Emerson said she couldn’t afford to give up her job while attending graduate school full time, so U of I’s Engineering Outreach (EO) program was the perfect solution to juggle both. 

“I could take classes either live or pre-recorded and watch them at my leisure,” she said. “Exams were scheduled with a proctor on campus, allowing me to take classes around my career and personal life. I combined advanced engineering courses with business courses to enhance my understanding of the projects I work on.” 

Emerson said co-workers who also earned degrees through EO encouraged her to make the jump to graduate school and supported her throughout her journey. 

“Going back to school while working can be tough, but they helped remind me what the end goal was,” she said.

Denise Engebrecht, Engineering Management’s program manager who was Emerson’s adviser, said she was impressed with Emerson’s drive to complete the program in short order by taking two graduate courses per semester while working full time. Emerson was one of the first students and the first female to pass the Certified Professional Engineering Manager (CPEM) exam on her first attempt. It was a new end-of-program option for graduate students. 

“Others who have taken the CPEM exam have not had the same fortune on their first try,” Engebrecht said. “She’s a very bright young lady, and it was a pleasure to work with her.”

In her current role at INL, Emerson is a project manager for fuels and materials experiments designed for the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT).  

According to Emerson, their goal is to find better, more accident-tolerant fuels and irradiation-resistant materials. “This research could help our current generation of nuclear reactors become even safer and also enable major enhancements for the next generation of reactors,” she said.

Emerson said her short-term career goal is to combine her business experience with her technical training to become a more effective project manager, skills she gained during her experience in the Engineering Management program.

“INL’s complex research projects make the combination of business and scientific experience a desirable trait,” she said. “Having experience in both fields will ultimately allow me to be a more effective manager.” 

Being a female in the male-dominated nuclear engineering field has not stopped Emerson from being a leader in the field. Her involvement includes Women in Nuclear, American Nuclear Society and the Society of Women Engineers. 

Emerson also applies her engineering skills to her hobby of building furniture.

“My coffee table, bookshelf, dining table and benches were all built by me,” she said. “I love hands-on work.” 

Emerson said U of I’s relationship with INL has created a collaborative environment for her to work while attending college. 

“At the Idaho Falls campus some of the professors are also INL employees,” she said. “This relationship as well as the positive reputation of the Engineering Management program were big drivers for my decision to go to U of I.” 


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