On his journey through the MEng program and its impact on his current work as a nuclear engineer.Alex Shrier graduated from the Berkeley MEng program in 2016 where he studied Nuclear Engineering. Here, he shares about his biggest takeaways from his time in the MEng program and how it has helped him navigate and innovate within the nuclear industry.
Can you tell us about yourself and what brought you to the Berkeley MEng program?After graduating from the University of Utah with a BS in Chemistry, I joined an innovative material science fuel cell laboratory which focused on electrochemical processes to develop new ways to use chemical energy. I was always interested in energy production and its ability to help create a better world. I worked there for two years, gaining valuable experience, and authoring some major publications. As my interest in energy production continued to grow and with a greater understanding of the current unsustainable methods for energy production and the harmful effects they cause on the climate, my desire to make real change grew as well. I wanted to apply new fuel cell tech to change the way we produce, store, and use energy. Given that our energy usage has always increased, the problem of how and where we get our energy will be an ever-present and growing problem in our society, in terms of both sustainability and environmental harm. The traditional methods for breaking chemical bonds via coal, gas, oil or other hydrocarbons are stuck in the past. To advance society’s interests, we need nuclear power. With that in mind, I focused on the most efficient way to enter the discipline and begin making positive change. That search led me to Berkeley and the MEng program, and I never looked back.
“I focused on the most efficient way to enter the discipline and begin making positive change.”
What was your biggest takeaway from the MEng program?Perhaps the greatest skill the MEng program taught me was the ability to understand and work with socio-economic and socio-political environments to create innovative engineering. As the nuclear field is quite sensitive to political and economic factors, assessing business cases and technical road maps for projects and companies is critical to position yourself for success.
What have you been doing since graduating in 2016?Since graduating, I’ve immersed myself in all aspects of the nuclear industry- everything from startups developing fusion-based radio-isotope production to space nuclear propulsion for NASA, I’ve been able to apply the skills I learned in many forms and functions. I’m particularly proud of my work with BWXT’s Mo-99 medical isotope program. In 2009–10 a single reactor failure coupled with an Icelandic volcanic eruption resulted in an international supply crisis, where roughly the entire American supply of Mo-99 was affected. In the intervening years, supply crises have persisted which impacts the supply of critical medical isotopes to this day. The ongoing shortage resulting from the supply crises has limited medical diagnostic imaging procedures throughout America for millions of patients that need information to support the treatment of life-threatening medical conditions. Developing a novel Mo-99 production technology that’s resistant to supply chain breakdown versus current manufacturing means, will be highly disruptive to the market as a whole. Ultimately, the goal of BWXT’s isotope program is to produce a product that is both brilliantly disruptive as well as critically important to societal needs. As the isotope supply chain is intrinsically connected between government and commercial entities, the program incorporated a vertical integration scheme to streamline production. As an Nuclear Engineering student, one of the main tenets of the MEng program was in the conceptualization and integration of commercial, regulatory, and engineering requirements to ensure a product’s success. This knowledge allowed me to integrate the complete system design descriptions of a novel radiochemistry and radiopharmaceutical process with manufacturing to meet regulatory and quality control standards. I was uniquely prepared to address these demands, in large part due to MEng’s emphasis on adopting and applying innovative tech to new situations and fields.
Are there any particular special projects that you are working on now?A really interesting part of my current work is focused on material development of reactor fuel systems. These fuel systems will be utilized in terrestrial micro-reactors for the Department of Energy (DOE) and space nuclear thermal propulsion (SNTP) in conjunction with NASA. Where both programs are aimed at expediting the revival of the country’s nuclear knowledge and expertise. The micro-reactor is under the DOE’s cost-share Advanced Reactor Development Program (ARDP), where the goal is to design and develop safe and economically viable reactor technologies that can be licensed and deployed in an extremely fast manner. The SNTP NASA program is aimed at facilitating future systems that are designed to propel a spacecraft from Earth’s orbit to Mars and back again. Both projects are extremely interesting and extremely challenging, where in my case, a big engineering hurdle is associated with designing and understanding how fuel and structural materials behave within a reactor. Materials are usually the limiting factor when designing nuclear systems that operate in extreme temperatures, pressures, and irradiation regimes. These environments produce one of, if not, the most challenging materials-based problems known to man. Properties can degrade or conversely be enhanced depending on the irradiation type and how the irradiation-induced changes affect the material itself. Many approaches in the nuclear and material sciences’ focus on coupled modeling techniques to predict how materials change and interact over time, temperature, pressure, and in my case, fluence. The ability to select and predict how material systems will behave is a universal issue that all engineers will face and something I find so fascinating and so expansive that I’ve made a career out of it.
Do you have any hobbies or passions outside of nuclear engineering?In undergrad, I knew a very smart and extremely talented chemist. To say that he was on the fast track to getting a PhD would be an understatement. One day I asked him what made chemistry (and practically all sciences) so easy for him. He simply answered, “I read philosophy from the old masters.” In the conversation that followed he explained that ‘masters’ referred to the masters of science (Newton, Plank, Bohr, etc.) all of which yielded an intrinsic truth— finding an answer is only half the problem; at some point there needs to be a question and a method to get an answer. Fast forward a couple years and I meet yet another student of philosophy. Having a good 40 years under his belt, perhaps student is the wrong word, but he refuses to call himself a master. He pointed out yet another simple truth to me — these science masters had philosophical masters of their own. If I wanted to delve deeper into the sciences, I needed to understand the core of the question. That led me to Jacques Derrida and deconstruction. Derridean deconstruction is an extremely powerful analytical philosophical approach which, as the name states, deconstructs any statement, argument, or question down to its core components. One can apply the technique to any tangible problem — marketing, business, science as well as intangible ideas, desires, or goals. It’s a strategy that I’ve applied to myself and career time and time again. Anything that offers you a better understanding of the world around you is a benefit; it makes you stronger, helps you wade through the stress and uncertainty, and provides a clearer picture of your situations. It’s a passion that keeps me grounded. Outside of philosophy, you’ll find me traveling with my wife, heading to wine tastings, playing the odd game of tennis, or going on a run. It’s important to me to have ample life outside of work. Too many people focus so hard on their careers or studies that they neglect their leisure time. I make sure I find a balance.
Any advice for future Berkeley MEng grads?For the nuclear engineers — the nuclear industry is different. Between regulations, politics, and economics, there are major issues that other sectors don’t really deal with, and I think that’s reflected in the nuclear product design space. Whether you are looking into energy production with a new Gen IV, SMR, or Micro reactor or creating a new radiopharmaceutical, understanding the nuclear landscape is critical to success, and Berkeley will help you navigate that landscape. Look into different sectors- radiopharmaceutical, governmental (DOE, DOD), green energy production, desalination plants, nuclear propulsion. There’s more to nuclear than decommissioning power plants! There is a bright future within the nuclear energy industry, it just needs passionate people to pursue and inspire. Remember to take advantage of the faculty and professors, network and build relationships — the Fung Institute is a wealth of knowledge and connections, you just need to put yourself out there. For all the MEng students — you will have skills that no other engineers will have, so pay attention to the business side of the degree. Having better business knowledge and greater communication skills will give you an edge over other engineering graduates. The skills offered at Berkeley will translate into high-impact positions within any industry or sector. And network, even if you’re an introvert! You need to make connections, so develop relationships with your peers, professors, and industry insiders.
“Perhaps the greatest skill the MEng program taught me was the ability to understand and work with socio-economic and socio-political environments to create innovative engineering.”Connect with Alex Shrier. Edited by Alison Huh.
Humans of Fung: Alex Shrier, MEng ’16 (NE) was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.