Artistry and Nuclear Know-How

Music, photography, and mentorship help shape the life of a young nuclear scholar.

One need only stroll through the halls of the Nuclear Engineering Building to see how today’s engineering students are shaking off the stereotypical images of the pocket-protected engineers of yesteryear. Take nuclear engineering senior Abbey Donahue for example. A top-notch student well on her way to earning one of the most challenging degrees on campus, Donahue displays an artistic side revealed in her love of photography and music.

Both of Donahue’s parents were Boilermakers. So while the pull to Purdue and the School of Nuclear Engineering may have been strong, she had no desire to leave the arts behind. Donahue plays bass in Purdue’s orchestra, an instrument she has played since she was 11. But she’s also very involved in activities related to her studies. Recently, Donahue was named the new president of Purdue’s chapter of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). It comes at a time when she is transitioning between her education and career, all the while handling a schedule chock-full of commitments.

She also participates on the professional practice student council, a way of giving back to the next generation of students who are where she was four years ago. “We set up co-op days where companies come to the Union,” she says. “We set up interview spots, call-out meetings, and question and answer sessions. It’s great to be in the reverse role—to have gone through it as a freshman myself and now to be the person checking them into the co-op days, showing up as a mentor and answering all their questions.” 

Next fall Donahue will take on a new role as a resident assistant in Earhart Hall, where she hopes to land a learning community. “My freshman year,” she says, “I was in a Women in Engineering learning community.”

Support systems like the learning community have helped Donahue excel in the classroom. And while another stereotype of engineers has to do with a male-dominated field, Donahue is aware of the changing times. “It’s good to see things leveling out,” she says. “I think a lot of engineering fields are experiencing that, especially nuclear.”

Donahue says that only two women graduated with NE degrees this past spring. “Now there are five or six girls in any given course,” she says, “more than twice the number in my class. It’s increasing.”

All of Donahue’s coursework and involvement with Purdue’s many student programs have been balanced with a co-op opportunity every other semester in Richmond and North Anna, Virginia. This summer she’s finishing up her last co-op session in the reactor engineering group at the North Anna Power Station. She was also recently awarded the ANS Operations and Power Division Utility Working Conference Internship and will be attending the professional conference in August. “For the internship, I’ll be helping with logistics beforehand, participating in technical sessions during the conference, and presenting a poster,” she says.

This hands-on experience should serve Donahue well in an industry that is also in transition. One of the biggest challenges facing nuclear power has been its image. “It’s about over-riding peoples’ misconceptions. [Nuclear energy] is very, very clean, and very, very safe.” Donahue says.

As far as her plans for the future, Donahue exudes the excitement of a young woman with a world of opportunities. “I went to the ANS student conference in February. Several speakers from Areva talked about the Young American Engineering Program. If you are hired, you go to their headquarters in France. I’ve signed up for French next year, and I’m hoping to get an edge in that application process,” she says. And while this young engineer could be well positioned in the workplace, the French, no doubt, along with her artistic sensibilities, could help her do it all with that certain je ne sais quoi.

- Jessica Kohl