Nuclear Energy Insight February 2008
—As the nuclear renaissance takes shape, the emergence of the next generation of engineers becomes essential. Preparing those new engineers to meet the energy challenges ahead is a corps of dedicated educators like Jamina Vujic, chair of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California-Berkeley.
Vujic sees increased interest in nuclear engineering, even in California, and believes that interest can surface well before students enter the university’s gates. Berkeley, for instance, invites high school teachers to its campus “to come learn about nuclear engineering and take back information to their students.” Although the university does not tally the Berkeley students that come from those high schools, freshman applications increased 40 percent between 2006 and 2007, following similar increases in previous years.
Moreover, women have applied in greater numbers. When she arrived in the United States in 1985 from her native Yugoslavia, Vujic saw a markedly different attitude toward young women pursuing a career in the sciences and engineering.
“Girls are discouraged from entering the sciences” in the United States, she said. “It was very common in Eastern Europe for girls to pursue science and engineering degrees.” Today, the number of women in the graduate program makes up about 30 percent of the total enrollment, a development that pleases Vujic.
A graduate of the University of Belgrade, Vujic earned her doctorate in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. After a stint at Argonne National Laboratory, she accepted an invitation to teach at Berkeley in 1992 and was named chair in 2005.
Besides working to attract top students to the Berkeley program, Vujic endeavors to increase the department’s reach. She recently oversaw the expansion of a cross-cultural initiative between Berkeley and the University of Tokyo. A Global Center of Excellence grant from the Japanese government allows nuclear engineering departments from Tokyo and Berkeley to exchange students and faculty.
This January, 15 graduate students and three faculty members from Japan joined their counterparts at Berkeley for a three-day workshop called “Nuclear Technology and Society: Needs for Next Generation.”
One discussion topic was how to encourage better communications between the nuclear technology community and the public in both countries. “Private companies are not trusted in Japan,” Vujic said, because they sometimes fail to discuss issues fully it with the public. While a feature of a reticent Japanese corporate culture, the lack of full disclosure can fuel suspicion of nuclear energy. Japanese students believe that adapting American ideas about corporate communication and branding to Japanese companies can moderate this problem.
Moreover, the Japanese government recently funded the pilot of a video conferencing system that links nuclear engineering departments at Berkeley, Tokyo and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Given the pilot program’s success, expansion to other nuclear engineering departments in the United States and elsewhere now will follow.
Closer to home, renewed interest in nuclear engineering as a career has rippled outward from Berkeley’s success. Although Berkeley is the only nuclear engineering program now in the California system, Vujic said that the University of California-Los Angeles now is hiring new faculty with the goal of re-creating its program. —Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.