The Innovators with George Davison

Advanced Nuclear Research with Rita Baranwal, EPRI

November 02, 2021 Tomorrow's World Today Season 1 Episode 7
The Innovators with George Davison
Advanced Nuclear Research with Rita Baranwal, EPRI
Show Notes Transcript

Nuclear energy is a quickly growing field with a great deal of research and development behind it. 

Rita Baranwal, the Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer of the Electric Power Research Initiative (EPRI), knows the importance of advanced nuclear research well. On this episode of The Innovators, host George Davison talks to Rita about working with submarines and aircraft carriers, the importance of teachers, 3D printing nuclear fuel, and more.

For more information on nuclear energy, head to TomorrowsWorldToday.com.

Introduction:

It all starts with one idea. Have you ever wondered how today's top CEOs in business leaders and people who work for the most innovative companies in the world found success? Join host George Davison, as he explores the innovators that are shaping tomorrow's world today.

George Davison:

Well, hello everybody. And welcome to another edition of the innovators. And today we have Rita Baranwal, and she is the Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer of EPRI, which stands for Electric Power Research Initiative. Welcome Rita. Well, I'm hoping that you're going to share your, all your life stories with us today , uh, so that our audience can pick up on how you became who you are and this , uh, in, in your professional world,

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I'm looking forward to our conversation.

George Davison:

Thank you. All right. So let's chat, first of all, about your organization, electric power research initiative. What do you do?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

So electric power research Institute is a nonprofit research and development organization, really serving the benefit of society. And we focus on research and development for the energy sector. Uh, we look at renewables, we look at , uh , fossil, we look at nuclear and I, as the vice president of nuclear oversee all of the nuclear sectors activities.

George Davison:

That sounds exciting if the see over everything. Um, so at your organization, can we talk a little bit about where are you headed in the future? How so in your field with your title , um, what role does innovation play in your, you know , in the future?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Oh, it's very important. We need to continually innovate in the nuclear field so that we can continue to improve operations, reduce costs and stay on top of our game, essentially. Yeah , it is crucial that we continue to innovate and we think it's so important that we actually have , uh , an organization that focuses really just on innovation. And we are actually looking forward to having a global innovation forum early next year in London, where we're inviting different, I would say, diverse folks to come and help us innovate , uh, for the nuclear sector.

George Davison:

All right. Well, well done. It sounds good. Uh, can you talk a little bit about your specific position and what you do?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

So I am responsible for the entire nuclear sector at EPRI and EPRI works with its members. So we have members across the world that pay a membership fee so that they can get access to our research and development data and results so that they can continue to operate efficiently, or if they happen to encounter an issue, we've probably done some research in that area that can help them solve the problem that they might be encountering. Um, so that's, that's part of what we do. And then we also go out and work to look at advanced nuclear, right? And so we have a program called advanced nuclear technology where we are working with advanced nuclear developers to help with eventual deployment of new nuclear technology all around the world.

George Davison:

All right . So tomorrow morning I'm waking up as Rita . Let's say, what does my day look like?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Oh boy , uh, I will probably have a meeting to talk with my team. So I have a few directors that report to me. So we'll talk about , um, you know, what are we going to do for the week or what have we done? Have we encountered any , uh, hiccups that we need to go address? Then I might have a meeting with one of my member , uh , CNO . So another chief nuclear officer to talk about what EPRI has done for them and what can we be doing better for them to meet their needs? Uh, I might have a meeting with my boss. Who's the senior vice president at EPRI and oversees not only nuclear, but also all the other generation sources. And , uh, I might have an all hands meeting with my team. So over 200 employees and just talk about, you know , what's going on, we're in the middle , um, uh, making sure that everyone can transition back to the office. And so , um, you know , what does that look like?

George Davison:

Right? It , it has been a little chaotic the last year and a half. Well, it sounds like you have an interesting position, something that's going to definitely keep you , uh, active and , uh , in a mental and physical capacity. Um, so can you run us back in time and talk with us a little bit about how you got an interest in the field of nuclear?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Oh, that's actually an interesting story. Um, when I was in high school, I really didn't know what I wanted to pursue in . I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know what I wanted to pursue. So I applied to schools that had good engineering programs, cause that's kind of the way that my parents were pushing me, but that also had good arts programs because I thought I might want to pursue fashion design. Um, then my freshman year I toured a material science and engineering department and fell in love with this instrument called a scanning electron microscope. And I said, I want to do whatever I can to work with that piece of equipment in my job. So I went to get a bachelor's in material science of engineering, went on to get my master's and my PhD in material science and engineering, and did get to use that piece of equipment in my job. Um, and my first job out of graduate school happened to be at a nuclear facility. I wasn't seeking it out, but it just sort of coincided and it happened to be best atomic power laboratory in Pittsburgh. I was developing advanced nuclear fuel for the U S Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines. And I had the privilege of visiting Newport news shipyard.

George Davison:

That's an impressive site .

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

It was very impressive. And I happened to be there when the Ronald Reagan was being constructed and was able to stand inside the compartment where the reactor was going to go. And I realized that this little itty bitty thing that I'm working on back in the laboratory in Pittsburgh, this a little bit of fuel is going to help power this behemoth of a ship. And that's really what convinced me to stay in this business that we work in an industry that is that's fueled by uranium that's so energy dense. Um, it was really impressive. Now, if we fast forward to today, I've got two snarky teenagers, and I want them to inherit a world that is cleaner than it is today. And nuclear power absolutely has always been a clean and green energy source and will continue to be so, so it needs to be part of the clean energy future that we've been talking about.

George Davison:

I'm glad that I'm glad you're bringing that up because I have a , I have, well, I have one snarky daughter, teenagers still left in my house. And , uh, and you know, she's kind of curious about that part of the world too , you know, sustainability, recycling and , uh, and you know, how power and generating energy is a , uh , it's a , it's a field that's full of fossil fuels and space feels right. And picking the best way to go is , uh, is always a challenge. At least we have a blend to choose from today. Right? Exactly.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Exactly. It's good to have a diverse mix.

George Davison:

Yes. I mean, can you imagine, I mean, having a , like the Ronald Reagan as a , uh , as a aircraft carrier, I mean, you couldn't really run that thing on coal , could you?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

No, not without getting detected often and having to come back into ports and having ships follow you with that fuel. Right.

George Davison:

So there's all sorts of different energy sources that play different roles through the challenges. So you look at your design problem and your logistics problems and you try to come up with solutions, right. And that's, that's kind of a , um, a fun way to look, it's a puzzle and you've got to figure out the best way to go about it. So , um, and the same thing happens with , uh, our lives, right? W we are , we're young, we're , uh , we're a puzzle and how do we navigate it? You have some young , uh, some young children as well. So we're going to try to reach back into that space a little more, and maybe we could shed some light on how you got interested, but further back, like, was there something in high school that may be, or maybe middle school, was there a person, was there a, what was it, was there, can you go back and find a certain thing that ignited your imagination that, that worked for you? Cause if it's, if it's not there for your , your two children, it's not maybe not there for mine right now, but was there one for you or two or something back in middle school or high school that triggered you?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I don't know that it was one event that triggered my curiosity. It was, I have memories of trying to assemble furniture, right. When we would get like a new shelf or something, trying to assemble it without the instructions. Um, and, and usually it worked out, but sometimes it didn't, but , but you know, that kind of engineering hands-on activity was really, really , uh, gratifying to me. Um, my father worked in , uh , polymer research and so I was also kind of had that exposure as well to that side of science and engineering, so that I think certainly helped. Um, but there was one teacher in eighth grade who had a huge impact on me, and it wasn't necessarily in the curiosity side of things, but it was more on how I behaved in group settings. And she held a parent teacher conference with, with my team , with my parents , um, which sounded like it might be bad news, right. Because it was kind of off cycle. And so we went in and we talked and she said, read is doing fine. There's no issue there, but she's really quiet. And I was shy and quiet and the teacher said she needs to participate more and , and contribute to the conversation more. And so that was really a turning point for me, where in , you know, I would start raising my hand more, making my opinions known a bit more, not overly. So, but just knowing that it was kind of a gap. Um, and I think that teacher really put me on a different course than I might have been , um , on originally. And so I do credit her quite a bit.

George Davison:

Way to go teacher. You got her to move into a different area. Well, and, you know , communication and participating as critical in the field of innovation. So, I don't know what we, I don't think we, as innovators here could operate without it, so right. Well done. Uh, so let's see here. Um, did you have a , it sounds like your, your dad was , um, somewhat instrumental in getting you into science because that's his field where he kinda came from, but , uh, were there any other mentors that you bumped into along the way than the teacher and your father?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Oh , there were some , um, there were some that actually articulated something negative to me and I took the position of I'm going to prove you wrong. Right. Like, oh , um, well you're a female and I'm surprised you're doing this well in algebra kind of thing. Um, and so , uh, I remember I went back and visited a high school teacher and I went to MIT and I had an MIT crew shirt on, I rode for MIT. And he said, oh, is that your boyfriend's shirt? And I said, no, it's mine. And so it was, it was that kind of, you know, even my teachers had this mentality of, well, you should pursue this and others should pursue this other route. Um, and so it was more of a , a feisty kind of , um , defiance perhaps, but it worked, but nonetheless, it worked for me.

George Davison:

It got you fired up. Right. And you went to go chase it and then no one was going to stop you well done. We love that kind of determination. And if you want , I think that there's a lot to be said about that. It's , uh , it , the failure, you know, having a failing at something, it's a great motivator, right? It's like, I want to do that again. I, I know I can figure out a way or I'm not supposed to be able to do this. I'm a woman. Right. And I'll tell you what if I was a girl and somebody says , I would just I'd want to go run right through that wall. Right. So I'm glad you did. Thank you for your contribution , uh , to this, to this , um, this event today that we're doing. So , um, let's continue. Uh, let's see here, we're going to talk a little bit about advice and a role toward the future. If you could do any one thing over in high school that really just didn't work for you. Other than the one item we talked about before , um, good . What I'm going to try to relay here is when we're in high school, we don't always do the best things . And , you know , we were in high school, we were growing, we're making all sorts of decisions. Our minds are forming. Were there any, did you have any trip-ups along the way or was it pretty , uh, you know , kind of a straight course to MIT?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Oh, I'm sure there were trip-ups. Yeah, yeah. Um, I was far from perfect. Um, it was , um, it was , uh , it was high school. It was difficult. Um, and I, I certainly was , um, I would, well, you know, how they have those [inaudible] best smile, nicest hair, all of that. Um, I was, of course, given my drive was, was at the point that driving for, or pushing for , um, most, you know, most likely to be successful or most likely to whatever that purlative is. And I got voted most individualistic, so , um, which was fine in hindsight, I'm proud of that, but at the time I thought, well, wow, everyone thinks I'm a loner.

George Davison:

Yeah . Right, right. I would do if I was right.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Um, so it was, you know, I had not hung out with the popular kids or, you know, I would certainly wouldn't consider myself a jock . Um, but I , I did my own thing , um, and felt at the time that it wasn't the right thing. So my, my advice, my thought to , to folks who are kind of in that situation is it all works out. It all works out. Um, and one of the highlights of my career is that I was nominated by the president of the United States to be the assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the U S department of energy. And when that happened, the first thought that came to my mind is if my high school self could see me now.

George Davison:

Wow. That's insightful. It really is. Thank you. Because that is so powerful to think back and look back like that. Because as a young person, we don't do that. Do we?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Well, you don't have that much to look back, right .

George Davison:

It's almost scary to look forward and look into the future and say, what is, how, how do I dress? How do I look? What did I accomplish? What am I doing? Am I married? Or do I have kids? I mean, there's a million other things that are scaring us about that future. And really it shouldn't be scary. No you're going to navigate. Right. But it sounds like you've navigated very well. Congratulations on that.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Well, thank you. But the course was not prepaid. I'll say that

George Davison:

That's so there you go. It's not prepaid everybody. You're going to have to figure it out. And sometimes it's a Rocky road.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Well said.

George Davison:

All right. So let's chat a little, if we could about , um, how important are stem based classes for someone interested in pursuing a career in this field?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I think it's really important, but I wouldn't say it's 100% required, but let me go back to it is really important. Um, we need folks that can think critically in science, technology, engineering, math, that teaches you to be a critical thinker. Um, and so, like I said, I'm a materials engineer, but I've been in the nuclear field, my entire career, but we also need diversity of thought. And so to it's great that we have stem majors in our midst, but we also need a smattering of, you know, English majors, art history, majors , um, Latin American majors. It's we need that mix to bring in , um, thought that prevents us from all thinking the same. Yes.

George Davison:

Understood. So you had, you mentioned earlier in this discussion that you thought maybe you were going to go into the arts. Right. Right. And , uh , when you start to blend, let's say science, technology engineering, and then you throw in arts, or you can really start to create a lot of , uh, new ideas and integrating new thoughts that maybe haven't been seen before. So yeah . I like that idea of , um, of different types of thinking, different types of people, different viewpoints in order to try and frame , uh , what you would consider at that point in time, maybe the best way to go about something that a fair way to say it. Sure.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

The best way we might even think it's the right way.

George Davison:

Yes. Because now you're designing something that is, you know , representing all viewpoints and all thoughts. Um, I'm just kind of reflecting back on some of my , uh, on how we've created a lot of things in the past. And , uh, I couldn't agree more. We have, we , because we do employ quite a few artistic people and then we have technology more or technology oriented people, and there's such deep respect for both sides of that , uh, that discussion. So , um, yeah. Let's all right . So let's keep going. So knowing what you know now, what advice would you give a person interested in entering your industry? Oh,

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Please come join us. Uh, we, we , uh , would be happy to have you, and even if you're just even have an inkling of interest , um, there's a lot of opportunities out there for , um, getting a little bit more information on the nuclear energy field. Um, there are internships to be had all over the country, all over the world , um, with companies with national laboratories, with universities. And I think internships are the best way to try something. It's sort of an audition for you with that entity, but also for , um, you to figure out is this something you want to really pursue for the rest of your life, or, you know, a three-month stint might be good enough for you to realize this is not what I want to do and really no harm, no foul. You've, you've tried it. And now, you know, for sure one way or the other, if you like it or not. Um, so that's really what I would encourage .

George Davison:

Alright . And as a young person, who's never done an internship. That word may be a little scary to them. Um, how would , uh, how do you go about trying to get it one of those and internship?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

So I would , if, if it's , um, a high school student looking for an internship, you know, you need to start probably scouring the internet and , and look at, you know, if you want to stay local, which most, I would say high school students probably do look at local universities , um, look at local companies. And most of them have a tab that would be around careers or job opportunities and look at those, but then also, you know, be a little bit bold and feel free to send a note, send if you have a resume , uh, send your resume the human resource office and see what happens.

George Davison:

Yeah. It's go explore it, make the call, send an email, write a note, put it in the , if you're going to get a snail mail, but , uh, you know, you just muster up the energy, get over the fear and go try. Right, right, right. And that , I think that's a , the young folks , um, because I think looking back and you wandering through life and seeing that piece of equipment that, that just captured your imagination and seemed to be like one of the things that really got you moving. Um, when you go to an internship, you're going to see interesting people, maybe some interesting machines and , um , interesting things being made, which might just ignite your imagination or not. And then you can move on and say, no, that's not right for me. Um, in my, in my world, I went into , uh , when I was in college, I had two fields that I explored and I didn't select either one of them. And, but it was critically important that I learned what I, I thought this is what I wanted to do, but no, I , uh , no, I, I would be bored if I did that. Right. And so it's important that you get exposure. Um, did you have exposure to other fields other than the one that nuclear?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Um, I had exposure , I would say exposure to engineering as a whole , um , and a lot of different science , um, kinds of things , uh, science, scientific activities, I would say. Um, I had internships , uh, at , at , at aerospace companies at NASA. Um, uh, and I mean also through , uh , graduate school, tried a few different things as well. Um, you asked about regrets. The one regret that I do have was in college and MIT had this glass blowing facility in the basement. And to this day, I regret not taking part in that activity because now I've tried glass blowing and I loved, I loved it. And I thought I had that at my disposal for three years. And I didn't take advantage of it.

George Davison:

Isn't it a release you can go in and work and work and work, and then they'll do a creative activity. Some people bake, some people blow glass, but the creative arts are such a great way to just release. And , uh, and then you can get back to that other grinding work that you enjoy, the challenge is your brain, right. Um, I'm glad you found that, you know, cause I've, I've, I , I enjoy doing creative arts myself and that it's at least what I've we actually refer to that around here is we manage it. Right. We manage , um, the process of creativity. And sometimes the mind is open, which we emulate with open hand and we work on the problems and we try to grind through solutions. And as we're doing this, the mind gets tighter and tighter and tighter. We can't get any more ideas. So what do we do? We break it, go blow glass. We go do cooking. We do something else until our mind relaxes. And then when we get back together, we can solve those hard problems

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Again. And that's really important.

George Davison:

It is so managing the process. Um, okay. Well, knowing what you know , um, do you believe that at this day and age, anybody could be successful?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I do. I do. I think , um, the few things that I would encourage folks to listen to is there's going to be other folks in your life that will see something in you that you may not see in yourself that you might get that tap on the shoulder or that phone call or that today text , um , saying, "Hey, I think you should try this". Or, "I think you should apply for this job or this internship might be good for you and you yourself might think I'm not qualified, or I don't think I want to try that". I would say try it because that individual sees something in you that you may not see in yourself. And those opportunities don't come that frequently. I've had two session opportunities and they've both really worked out for me, but both times I doubted myself, I doubted my abilities, the trusted that those individuals who said, you need to apply for this job, or you need to try being a manager. Yes.

George Davison:

Well, you know, Rita, it sounds, you've been very successful in your career. And I'm curious , um, if you had a value out there for some young folks that let's say, they're not all that, you know, that studious, you know, why did you, you know, decide to be studious? Why, why did you do that? Do you recall? Like how did it just, you start doing the math and why did it become important? Was it something that , because your parents said you had to do it, or did you find that you solved a problem? And then you said, I want to do more of that. Um, can you Kenya locate that space in your mind as to how that worked?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Some of it was certainly, yeah. My parents saying, you know , this is important. Um, but also the satisfaction that came with figuring out , uh, you know, a complex math problem or understanding chemical equations and how they worked , um, or physics for that matter. Um, it was, it's like sparked something in me where, oh, I get it, I get it. And let me try this other one. If I don't get it and I'm failing, let me, let me figure it out, let me figure it out and see how to get the right answer. Or maybe there's not a right answer. Um , and you go forth and you provide , uh , uh , uh, your thought or your solution , um, and the teacher or the professor thinks, oh, that's, that's interesting. Right? A little bit of a positive feedback, I guess, can go a long way.

George Davison:

Well, oh my goodness. Um, I'd say that my teachers as well, the ones that inspired me the most were the, they were engaging and I love my chemistry teacher and a few others that , uh, positively encouraged me to do certain things and it made big impacts. Um, and maybe that's another way of looking at it too, is when people, when others believe in you, you know, they, you don't, I didn't want to let them down and I don't want to let myself down, but I don't know. I just fell in love with chemistry after that moment. Um, maybe that , cause this is hard for me to tackle the , that what I'd like to chat about next. But what about the kids out there that don't have parents that are encouraging? You know, the parents who say, no, you won't be successful or maybe I don't have a parent. Um, would you have any suggestions to young folks that might be listening to this podcast, but they really don't have any positive forces in their life around them.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I would suggest , um , reaching out to your teachers and saying, you know, I like chemistry, but I don't know what else I should be doing, or is there something I could do after school? Or can I have, you know, can you develop or point me to a project that I could perhaps do teachers are really good resource. Um, and if you're, if you're in college or, you know, having an internship or in a job, I would say reach out to , uh, a leader in your Oregon respective organization. And the example I always give folks is there was a point where I was , um, working at Bettis and we were about to have this joint project with NASA. And I had just assumed that my boss would know that I wanted to be on that NASA project and something in me said, let me just go tell him that I want to be considered for this project. So I did, I went and told him, make sure you not make sure, but , uh , you know, I want to put my name in the hat to be on this project. And he said, oh, I'm glad you came and talked to me because I never would have thought that you'd be interested. And so it's really about raising your hand saying that you want to pursue something and then using those leadership , uh, the resources that you have in your leadership, if it's a teacher or a principal or a guidance, counselor, guidance counselors are really good resources. They're , uh , uh, a bevy of information, but they may not know what your interests are. So go, and I would suggest making an appointment with your guidance counselor and saying, I'm interested in, you know , chemistry or , um, I think I might like physics, but I don't know what else I should be doing. Right.

George Davison:

And how they really can. Um, thanks for that perspective. Um, cause I think it'll help some of the , uh, the kids out there that don't have as much guidance at home and whatnot. Um, because you know, you can, the success, you can be successful and you can find your path in life. And um , those teachers are there to try and help you do to achieve that objective. So reach out and , uh , and keep trying and you'll get there. So what do you think the next big innovation is going to be in nuclear? Can you share any of those thoughts?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I think using advanced manufacturing techniques. So let's within that umbrella is additive manufacturing or 3d printing , um, to develop new components and perhaps new fuel, more than nuclear industry will be revolutionary. You can design a component to fit whatever shape you need and perform whatever function you need versus being at the moment confined by what's called subtractive , uh , manufacturing and , uh, confined to specific materials and specific pieces of equipment. So I think really leveraging advanced manufacturing techniques is going to be the next big thing. And what we need in our industry to overcome is this mentality of not invented here. Right. What we didn't invent it. So we aren't going to be using it. No , let's, let's bring in the other brainiacs and let let's use what they've already invented. Yes .

George Davison:

All right. So a lot of the schools out there have these 3d printers. That would be a good idea. I started playing around with that. If you aren't already , um , they usually have some laser cutters and things of that nature as well , uh, and then explore the world of different materials that you can put through these types of machines and see what that creative mind can come up with. Absolutely. We're going to need all of you out there in the future here since so let's get busy. All right . So let's , uh, let's go one step direct in a totally different direction. And we're going to imagine that we have , uh, some education leaders, let's say that shape the courses and the things that the students are going to be taking , um, based on your background and history, if we could talk to those people, what kind of recommendations would you, would you make to them that might be beneficial from your perspective?

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

I would say to that, to that community , uh , make sure that , uh, you leverage all of the resources that are out there. There's so much online content now , um, even specific to nuclear energy. Um, for example, the American nuclear society has a program called navigating nuclear that's for K through 12 curricula. Um, and so it's , the content is out there. It's a matter of, yes, you have to even educators have to do the homework and , and find what's appropriate to fit into their lesson plans, but to look for new information, new content , uh, kind of refreshing lesson plans, if, if need be, if that's the appropriate way to frame that. Um, and then there's a lot of, for , for those that , um, might be in the , in the post, I would say post-secondary aspect of things , um, online courses as well, that that students can be encouraged to take that may not be at their university or even, you know, the associates , uh, co community college or associates degree kind of programs. Um, it's it's , to me just absolutely remarkable how much information is out there that we can all, even me and you participate in it and , and learn new things about,

George Davison:

Well, hopefully they're listening and read a thank you so much for your time today and , and helping our audience to see a little into your world. And , uh, so thank you for coming.

Rita Baranwal, EPRI:

Thanks for having me.

Conclusion:

For more information about the innovations and ideas changing tomorrow's world, tune in to Tomorrow's World Today, now streaming on Science and Discovery, or visit tomorrowsworldtoday.com.

Speaker 4:

[inaudible] .