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College of Engineering and Computing

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Alumni Q&A: Kallie Metzger

Kallie Metzger, who earned her master’s degree (2013) and Ph.D. (2016) in nuclear engineering from the College of Engineering and Computing, is the manager of Accident Tolerant Fuels technology for Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC in Columbia. As a technical leader, she manages an interdisciplinary engineering team and leads programs to ensure the successful delivery of advanced nuclear fuels. Metzger previously worked at the Savannah River National Laboratory and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Metzger will present, “Westinghouse EnCore® Accident Tolerant Fuel and High Energy Program,” on Thursday, April 7 at the college. The presentation will provide an overview of the Westinghouse Encore© Accident Tolerant Fuel Program, including research and development, licensing, and commercialization processes for implementation of new nuclear fuel products. The talk will also discuss Westinghouse innovation areas intended to accelerate the traditional fuel licensing and qualification process.

How did you develop an interest in engineering and nuclear engineering?

“I excelled in math and once I started learning physics, it was like an applied form of math. I majored in physics in college thinking that as a fundamental science, it would provide the most career opportunities. But I realized I wanted something a bit more applied and specifically, to work with materials. Through the Honors College, I took a Maymester course at a test reactor in Germany. I saw an actual nuclear reactor and thought, ‘Where has this been my whole life?' I asked someone what I needed to do to work at a reactor and they told me, engineering experience. I didn’t know anything about engineering. I assumed everything revolved around physics.

As I was graduating, I had a friend of mine in the nuclear engineering program and they said that the program was interested in people with a physics background. I talked with a few advisors in the program, and it was everything I wanted – applied math and learning about materials science. It was sort of serendipity that this was in my backyard.”

How important were the relationships you developed while at the college?

“While at the CEC, I had the opportunity to develop relationships that positioned my early career for success. The research I did as a student for Dr. [Travis] Knight introduced me to key leaders in academia and national labs that led to some of my first jobs. Opportunities, such as speaking at conferences and engaging in industry projects really helped build my network.

Now that I'm on the other side, we've looked to the university for collaborations on Nuclear Energy University Programs (NEUP). The Department of Energy funds a specific amount for different university projects that solve a nuclear energy challenge. Westinghouse has collaborated with Lucy [Yu] and Travis on the NEUP projects. It’s incredibly convenient to have local access to some of the country’s brightest engineers and students.”

What skills have you found to be successful in an engineering field? 

“I attribute my greatest success to exposure to multiple projects and topics. Being exposed to different research and challenges across the industry has given me the versatility I needed to maneuver between industry projects. If I only had a single focus, I don't think I would have the flexibility I have observed so far in my career.

In graduate school, I was reluctant to learn computational modeling, but [Travis] said that both experimental and modeling experiences would be better for me. Sure enough, I went to Idaho and learned BISON, a fuel performance modeling code and have valued that learning experience so much. I am able to connect colleagues across projects because I speak the language of both experimentalists and modelers.”

Are there challenges working in a male-dominated field? 

“I honestly thought that there would be more challenges. When I started my career, it was very clear that nuclear engineering was a male-dominated field with an experienced workforce. I was a female and young, so it was a double whammy.

But the assumptions I had about being in a limiting career have not been true. I have seen at Westinghouse, especially in my current management leadership role, that the company is really investing in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives. It’s been a pleasantly surprising realization to see that people are not only recognizing a disparity but doing something about it. Everyone has been extremely respectful. More than anything, you just have to remind yourself that you are there for a reason. You are an equal and your opinion is equally valid.”

Why is it important to increase the number of females and underrepresented groups in STEM education and careers? 

“Equality is something we should all strive for. But there's also a lot of benefit to having diversity of thought. If you have a pool of people working together on a problem and they come from diverse backgrounds and different experiences, they'll approach problem solving differently. And when you have multiple ways of approaching a problem on a single team, you're going to be more successful. That translates to profitable research and innovation within a business. It's hard to have diversity of thought unless you have people from different backgrounds on the same team.

Finding a role model may also encourage more people into the field because they see that there is a pathway for success and room for them. Travis was an amazing supporter for me and showed me what my career could be. He never minimized my role in academia or industry and gave me ample opportunities outside my comfort zone and truly challenged me. In many ways, he played a tremendous part in setting me up for the success that I’ve found. You need a champion in your corner.”

What are your future goals?

“I've seen an evolution in my own skills and talents as I’ve found them along the way. Coming out of graduate school, I was still focused on personal research. I've graduated into a portfolio of innovation and technology development, rather than individualized, focused research. And I'm taking advantage of leadership skills that I hadn’t tapped into before, so I'm excited to see where the next step takes me.

I'm really enjoying technical leadership and mentoring new engineers in the Accident Tolerant Fuel Program at Westinghouse. I’m also seeing how this innovation field connects to a business need within the commercial energy industry, and I'm excited to keep my career moving in that direction.”

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