A first-year doctoral student in nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (NSE). Kylie Cunningham He’s not the first person to notice that nuclear power has a PR problem. But her commitment to dispelling myths about the alternative energy source has earned her the nickname “Mrs. Hans”. “Nuclear Power” on TikTok and a loyal fanbase on the social media platform.
Cunningham’s work began shortly after a week-long trip to Iceland to study geothermal energy. During a discussion about how the country would achieve its net-zero energy goals, a representative from the University of Reykjavík rejected Königgham’s proposal to include a nuclear option in the alternative energy mix. “The response I got was that we are a peace-loving nation, and we don’t,” Cunningham recalled. “I was freaked out by the reaction, I mean we’re talking about energy here, not weapons, right?” she asks. Incredible, Cunningham to make Tik Tok that targeted misinformation. Overnight I got 10,000 followers and “Mrs. Nuclear” came out to the races. Ms. Nuclear Power is now Cunningham’s TikTok handle.
Nerd Theater and Science
TikTok is a platform for theater geeks like Cunningham. Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, Cunningham’s childhood was marked by moving to places where her father’s roofing business had taken the family. I moved to North Carolina shortly after fifth grade and fell in love with the theatre. “I was studying theatre, the Spring Musical, it was my whole world,” Cunningham recalls. When she moved again, this time to Florida in the middle of her freshman year of high school, she found that the spring musical had already been cast. But she can help behind the scenes. It was through this work that Cunningham gained her first real exposure to practical technology. She was hooked.
Soon, Cunningham became part of the team representing her high school as a freshman Astronaut challengeAn aviation competition run by Florida State University. State winners got to fly a space shuttle simulator at Kennedy Space Center and participate in additional engineering challenges. Cunningham’s team co-created a proposal to assist NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is designed to help the agency collect a large rock from a near-Earth asteroid. The task was to familiarize Cunningham with an understanding of radiation and “anything nuclear”. Cunningham’s interest in the subject was encouraged by her high school geometry teacher, Nirmala Arunachalam.
The astronaut challenge would have been just the end of Cunningham’s nuclear engineering career were it not for her mother. In high school, Cunningham also took computer science classes, and her love for the subject led to her being offered a scholarship to Norwich University in Vermont where she pursued a camp in cybersecurity. Cunningham had already placed a college deposit for Norwich.
But Cunningham’s mother persuaded her daughter to make another visit to the University of Florida, where she had expressed interest in pursuing nuclear engineering. To her pleasant surprise, the head of the department, Professor James Pasiak, did everything he could, bringing mother and daughter on a tour of the on-campus nuclear reactor, and promising Cunningham a paid research job. Cunningham was sold and Paqiak was a mentor throughout her research career.
Integration of nuclear engineering and computer science
Undergraduate research training, including one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she was able to combine her passions, nuclear engineering and computer science, convinced Cunningham that she wanted to follow a similar path in graduate school.
Cunningham’s undergraduate application to MIT was rejected, but that didn’t stop her from applying to NSE for postgraduate studies. After spending her early years at an elementary school just 20 minutes away from campus, she grew up hearing that “the smartest people in the world go to MIT.” Cunningham believed that if she went to MIT it would be “like coming home to Massachusetts” and that she could fit in perfectly.
under tip Professor Michael ShortCunningham is looking forward to pursuing her passions in both computer science and nuclear engineering in her doctoral studies.
Meanwhile, Cunningham is determined to continue her activism.
Her ability to take “complicated topics and turn them into something understandable to people who have no connection to academia” has helped Cunningham on TikTok. “This has been something I’ve been doing my whole life with my parents, my siblings, and my extended family,” she says.
Infusing humor into her video excerpts — a nod to The Simpsons par for the course — helps Cunningham reach an audience that loves her goofy, sarcastic approach to the subject matter without compromising accuracy. “Sometimes I do stupid dances and make a complete fool of myself, but I really found my niche by being willing to engage, entertain and educate people at the same time.”
Cunningham says such education should be an important part of an industry that has had its share of misunderstanding. “That technical people are trying to communicate in a way that the general public doesn’t understand is troubling,” she adds. Case in point: the response in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, which prevented massive pollution spills. It was a perfect example of how well our safety systems work, says Cunningham, “but you’d never imagine the PR ramifications of all that.”
As Mrs. Nuclear, Cunningham receives her share of skepticism. One of the viewers asked about the safety of nuclear reactors, if they emit “tons of pollution.” Cunningham produced a Tik Tok who addressed this misconception. Cunningham referred to the “pollution” in the image, explaining that it was just water vapor. TikTok has more than 1 million views. “It really shows how hungry the public is for accurate information,” says Cunningham. “In this era when we have all the information we could want at our fingertips, it’s hard to sift through and decide what is real and accurate and what isn’t.”
Another reason to advocate for it: to do its part to encourage young people to pursue a career in nuclear science or engineering. “If we’re going to start building a large number of small modular reactors across the country, we need people to build them, people to run them, and we need regulatory agencies to inspect them and keep them safe,” Cunningham notes. “We don’t have enough people entering the labor market compared to those retiring from the labor market,” she adds. “I’m able to engage these younger audiences and put nuclear engineering on their radar,” says Cunningham. And that advocacy is bearing fruit: Cunningham regularly receives – and responds to – inquiries from young high school girls seeking advice on pursuing nuclear engineering.
All activity is in service towards a clear end goal. “At the end of the day, the battle is to save the planet,” says Cunningham. “I honestly believe that nuclear power is the best chance we have to fight climate change and keep our planet alive.”