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Sparking interest: Q&A with nuclear engineer Diego Mandelli

High-achieving alumni are making great impacts on their fields in research, industry and academia. One such alumnus is Diego Mandelli (PhD NE ’11, MS NE ’08, advised by Tunc Aldemir), a nuclear engineer who works as an R&D scientist for one of the nation’s leaders in nuclear research at Idaho National Laboratory.

Photo of Diego MandelliDiego specializes in employing new system modelling and data analysis methods for safety analysis and management of nuclear power plants; he has developed artificial intelligence and data-mining-based methods to help him analyze and assess the safety measures of multiple kinds of nuclear reactors.

With eight years of professional experience, Diego provides some insight on being a nuclear engineer and how students can best prepare themselves to pursue such a career.

Q. How did you become interested in nuclear engineering? What drew you to work for Idaho National Laboratory?

I started to study nuclear engineering back when I was an undergraduate student in Italy at Politecnico di Milano; I really liked a study program that heavily focuses on mathematics and physics. At the beginning, I was, in fact, considering a mathematics or an engineering degree. Looking back, I think I made a good choice; for me was ideal to develop analytical skills and apply them to safety and reliability problems.

Idaho National LaboratoryCredit: Idaho National Laboratory

When I arrived at Ohio State in June 2005, I became involved in several projects in collaboration with NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and INL. After several interactions with INL, I really admired the research activities under development, and this pushed me to apply at INL when I graduated.

Q. Are there other backgrounds or disciplines that work well with a nuclear engineering career?

During my eight years’ experience at INL in the field of safety/risk/reliability, I have been working not only with nuclear engineers but also with people with a computer science and statistics background. Analysis of complex systems requires heterogeneous teams that can bring fresh ideas to the table.

Q. What skills and abilities are required to be successful in your role?

I think that strong analytical skills are going to be very important in the future in my field. In particular, strong mathematics and statistics skills (e.g., machine learning and data mining) are going to be very essential. In addition, I have seen that good programming skills (e.g., Python, Java or C++) are often required for people working on the projects I have been involved with here at INL.

Often the math/stat departments offer series of courses (three to four courses typically) that provide essential knowledge to engineering students: I'd suggest to current students to explore these options.

Nuclear reactors against blue skyQ. What do you find most rewarding about your work? Most challenging?

Regarding my work challenges, this is the typical engineering challenge: there is a problem to solve. Sometimes I have the solution (often with limited resources). Sometimes I don't have a clear path. In the first case I just get the most out of what I have. In the second case, I just try to do my homework, understand and explore directions and solutions, ask and involve people with knowledge, skills and passion.

Q. What does a typical workday look like? Do you have daily responsibilities or longer projects?

I'd say that my work is characterized by a standard office schedule. Depending on the project there might be work on code development, methods development and activities on high performance computing systems. In addition, I often travel for project related needs that require cooperation with industry partners, other national laboratories and universities.

Q. What advice do you have for students who want to work in your field?

My main advice for the students that are now interested in the nuclear engineering field is to find an area that makes them really excited. Working for something that you really enjoy can open a lot of doors in a person career. Another suggestion I'd like to give is to don't be afraid to make hard choices or change path in your career: good things come out of these moments.

by Jonathon Miles, department communications intern