** Disclaimer: The model in the video is NOT the interviewee in the writing pieces **
Just a Girl Who Likes Nuclear Physics
by Patrick Grey
** Kaylee Cunningham, the interviewee for "Just a Girl who Likes Nuclear Physics", is also the model in these pictures **
Kaylee Cunningham (she/her/hers) is currently a fourth-year nuclear engineering student at the University of Florida whose passion and purpose have made her excel and achieve great things.
In high school, Kaylee did not know what she wanted to do in life or what her calling was. She did various activities that she was interested in to explore different aspects of her personality. She became so interested in the performing arts that she was strongly considering studying musical theater after high school. However, in her sophomore year, Kaylee’s friends convinced her to take part in the Astronaut Challenge at the Kennedy Space Center and her plans to pursue theater were no longer so concrete. She had found a new love.
Kaylee’s visit to the space center opened up a new world for her. Engineering and science inspired her creative nature to think of new ways to improve the world that she lives in. The most memorable part of the entire project was that she learned how to write a research proposal and had the opportunity to present it to NASA engineers. At this point, working in this field became something that would push her interest.
During her senior year, Kaylee's engineering teacher encouraged her to sign up for the science fair. She decided to do it and make a difference at the same time. She wanted to find a practical solution for a dangerous situation that people face everywhere: radiation.
Radiation is the emission or transmission of energy through space or matter. It comes from many places such as concrete on the street and even bananas! We are exposed to radiation nearly every day in ways that we are unaware of. The science fair had Kaylee thinking about her hometown in Boston where radon poisoning and radon detection devices are prevalent in homes.
Radon is a radioactive gas that can potentially cause lung cancer if it is inhaled. Kaylee conjured the idea of making a mask for homeowners to wear if their house is exposed to radon. She decided to use boron nitride nanotubes, the same material she used for her NASA experiment, however she found that it cost $700 a gram, which was out of her budget. She decided to use carbon nanotubes, which are less expensive, and put carbon fabric in a carbon nanotube infused epoxy. The big problem was that epoxy is an airtight material, making the production of a mask unlikely and impractical.
Kaylee now had the material but without much use for it. Kaylee had seemingly reached a dead-end, but this is where her research skills came in handy. She pivoted topics for the science fair to help other populations exposed to radiation. She found a Harvard study that discovered that female flight attendants were 50% more likely to develop breast cancer because of their constant exposure to cosmic radiation — radiation coming from space.
Kaylee then had the idea of developing a bra that would protect women who work in close proximity to radiation using the moldable epoxy she originally intended to build a mask with. This product could protect not only flight attendants, but radiologists, nurses, and nuclear engineers, among others. The idea was to create a comfortable and practical piece of clothing that would protect the body as a replacement for the uncomfortable and heavy lead vests typically worn to protect against radiation.
To put the genius of Kaylee's invention into perspective, think of how uncomfortable and heavy the lead vests used at dental offices during X-Rays are, and then imagine wearing that lead vest throughout the entire day.
Kaylee started on her project, first making an ionization chamber from a soup can. She set up a GoFundMe account to fund the rest of her research. What would have been a waste of nanotube material became the fourth place winner at the International Science and Engineering Fair. This distinction granted Kaylee acceptance into the University of Florida’s College of Engineering in Fall 2018, where she would continue to further her project with funding from the university.
Kaylee decided to pursue nuclear engineering at UF, which focuses on using atoms to make heat, which can be converted into electricity. Kaylee explains that this is mediated by nuclear fission: the process of taking an atom and hitting it with a neutron. When that atom is hit with a neutron, that atom splits into two and spits out two more neutrons.
It is essentially a continuous chain reaction. "It is like a food fight in a cafeteria that begins with one person throwing a meatball at someone and that person throws it to someone else until eventually the entire lunchroom is throwing meatballs everywhere," Kaylee explains. "It's just like neutrons flying all over the place."
However, nuclear reactions are closely monitored and controlled so that scientists can get the amount of heat that is needed in order to produce energy and to make the chances of an accident close to zero, in order to make sure the 'meatballs' don’t hurt anyone.
She explains that after the devastating events of Chernobyl and Fukushima, experts came together to prevent future accidents from happening. Despite the few accidents that have happened in the past, she is confident that nuclear engineering is paving the way of the future. With this being said, Kaylee sees herself opening her own company focused on nuclear energy for space applications to aid in nuclear propulsion and fission surface power technologies for space companies such as SpaceX and Kennedy Space Center.
Kaylee attributes her success to two people in particular. Ms. Nimmi, Kaylee’s high school engineering teacher, who taught all of Kaylee’s engineering classes, encouraged her to do the science fair, and introduced numerous opportunities to her. Being a woman in STEM, seeing a strong female in engineering inspired her to pursue nuclear engineering as a career path. Kaylee also attributed her father as someone who inspires her because of all the work that he had done to maintain his family. She derives her strong work ethic from him.
Kaylee wishes more people knew about how safe nuclear energy is. Taking the protective bra that Kaylee created as an example, nuclear engineering has paved the way for innovation. Nuclear energy is a vehicle for clean energy that does not require fossil fuels; with its tight regulations, nuclear power is a safe alternative.
“The Simpsons is not an accurate depiction of nuclear waste,” as Kaylee mentions. “All nuclear waste that has ever been produced could fill a football field. . . and we have been doing nuclear fission since the 1950’s,” says Kaylee. Almost a century of using this resource, and this waste is minimal in comparison to other forms of energy.
Misconceptions about nuclear energy inspired Kaylee to create a Tik Tok account last summer while she was in Iceland on a short study-abroad program. During her program, one of the lecturers from the University of Reykjavik made an incorrect comment about nuclear energy, so Kaylee made a video to bring awareness to how nuclear energy could be a possible solution to combat climate change. The video has since received about a hundred thousand views.
Although she has received a lot of positivity on her social media page, she has received misogynistic, hateful, and mean comments as well. She has since posted more videos to combat misconceptions about nuclear energy that have garnered millions of views. Kaylee’s hope is that one day nuclear energy will be regarded as a viable option for clean energy like wind, solar, and geothermal energy are.
Kaylee leaves a small piece of advice to young women interested in Nuclear Engineering:
"Don’t be afraid. It is a male-dominated field but the rewards are worth the negativity that you have to deal with. We are moving away from misogyny and hatred. Ultimately, if you don’t create change then who will? If you are passionate about it, do it! Don’t let any of the negativity stop you.”
Kaylee has recently accepted her offer of admission to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Ph.D. program.
You can also learn more about nuclear energy through the Nuclear Energy Institute’s website, and other resources.
If you would like to learn more about Kaylee and about nuclear energy, her Tik Tok is @cunningham.kaylee, her website kayleecunningham.com, and her Instagram is @cunninghamkaylee.
** Disclaimer: The model in the video and pictures is NOT the interviewee in the writing pieces **
Books to Prisoners
By Sam Cohen
The core of a tree is a peculiar thing, really.
A tree’s core develops a new ring annually, the appearance of which depends on how the year’s climate has varied in comparison to previous years. Each ring represents a season of growth. A glimpse of these rings can reveal environmental changes that a given tree has experienced and when.
The human self is like this too. We go through different seasons and develop our own rings that reflect this change or growth. We can become inspired and motivated by this change. We can even use this change to inspire and motivate others.
A local organization that brings these rings to life is Gainesville Books to Prisoners.
Gainesville Books to Prisoners is a local chapter of the Prison Book Program, a national grassroots organization that sends free books to prisoners. The Prison Book Program began as an organization started by the Red Book Store Collective (now called the Lucy Parsons Center) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1972. The founding members recognized the need for accessible literature for prisoners who lacked an adequate education and basic entertainment. Today, there are different chapters of the Prison Book Program across the country under varying names such as Read Between the Bars in Tucson, Arizona and Books Behind Bars in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Today, the Prison Book Program’s states books as being “crucial to the political, spiritual, and educational development of all people”.
Beyond serving as an escape, books can serve as a way for incarcerated people to practically navigate the U.S. justice system, so Gainesville Books to Prisoners makes special efforts to offer books such as dictionaries, GED study guides, and a particular book outlining specific legal jargon and practices titled We the People Legal Primer.
However, the process of donating books to most prisons is filled with hurdles for prospective donors.
Bryn, a 25 year-old rehab science PhD student, volunteers for Gainesville Books to Prisoners and described the barriers book donors face. Bryn described not only a lack of literary material available to prisoners, but also that organizations must be registered as a publisher in order to send books to most prisons today. Most prisons don’t even allow family and friends to send books directly to loved ones in prison. All books donated by Gainesville Books to Prisoners have “CMC Publishing” as the return address.
“Most of us haven’t been inside [prison], but for the people inside, it’s Hell,” Bryn said. “It’s constant fear, hunger, cold, worry about what’s going to happen to you next. Literature is the least we can [offer] to provide some type of solace during a difficult time. It gives a lot more humanity as…groups managing these systems want prisoners to have as little humanity as possible. When you send a book to someone, talk about it, it is a recognition of humanity, shared experiences ....”
With this being said, it is especially remarkable that one’s passion for reading has led to something of a reprieve for prisoners.
The restrictions on book donations that prisons impose is at odds with the benefits of literature for incarcerated people. Prisoners go through an undeniable psychological change in order to survive the prison environment that makes it mentally draining to navigate life in prison as well as difficult for them to readjust to the outside world. Books serve a practical and educational purpose, but they can also be used to reduce recidivism and boost their mental health by providing prisoners a reprieve from their surroundings.
Many prisoners who have received book donations have reached out to different chapters of the Prison Book Program with thank you notes in the forms of artworks and book reviews that they’ve written about books that have been donated to prison libraries. Many book donations by different chapters of the Prison Book Program will be accompanied with essay prompts that prisoners are encouraged to respond to, some essays titled, “Books Are Worth Their Weight In Gold,” “Webster’s Dictionary Has Made An Impact On Me,” and “Through Reading, I Found Myself”. If they are interested in prisoner organizing, prisoners are additionally recommended to write to the Florida Prisoner Solidarity and they will be provided with materials such as stamps to ensure communications between both parties.
The capacity of art and literature to help us find ourselves — to help us even realize that we were astray to begin with — strikes a chord with those incarcerated and walking free alike. It is too easy to lose oneself in the outside world — this sentiment is tenfold for prisoners who have limited access to leisurely activities such as literature to cope with their circumstances. Regardless, books help us all transcend the confines of the mind and body.
“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self,” said Franz Kafka.
Books empower us to discover and resonate with themes that we weren’t conscious of. They encourage readers to expand their minds and live vicariously through figures and figments of the mind that are just as complex as we are in real life.
If the human self is truly akin to the core of a tree, making books more accessible to prisoners uplifts folks to use the seasons they experience to better their communities and themselves.
Below is an artwork that someone who was incarcerated created to show what they found in themselves by reading these donated books.
Artwork by Eddie
Recidivism is the act of a person being rearrested, reconvicted, or returned to prison during a three-year period following the person’s release.
Franz Kafka was a major 20th century novelist famous for writing on themes related to the existential and the absurd.
If you’re interested in donating to Gainesville Books to Prisoners, our local branch is largely in need of monetary donations to their Paypal, which is @gnvb2p. These donations go towards shipping costs and materials, allowing Gainesville Books to Prisoners to send all of their books to prisoners. If you want to check them out on Instagram, you can find them @gnvbooks2prisoners.
** Disclaimer: The model in the video and pictures is NOT the interviewee in the writing pieces **
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