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Open-ended problems with no answer keys

Freshmen Karafillis and Auguste thrive on NSE lab team
Pavlina Karafillis and Rasheed Auguste.
Pavlina Karafillis and Rasheed Auguste.
Photo: Justin Knight

What do MIT freshmen Pavlina Karafillis and Rasheed Auguste like about their work in the Short Lab?

“There’s no answer key — you have to figure things out on your own,”  Karafillis says. Adds Auguste, “it’s like one big open-ended problem; nobody tells you exactly how to attack it.”

That spirit has enabled both Karafillis and Auguste to thrive in active roles at the Short Lab (the research group of nuclear science and engineering assistant professor Mike Short), which conducts groundbreaking research into materials performance in aggressive, corrosive, and radiation environments. Through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), both are helping to develop better understanding and control of a problem that has long plagued fuel rods in fission reactors — the formation of deposits known as CRUD (for Chalk River Unidentified Deposits, after the Canadian power plant where they were first documented).  The deposits interfere with cooling, and can reduce a power plant’s economic efficiency by requiring early replacement of fuel rods.

Auguste is helping to build the Lab’s CRUD Loop, a new experimental facility that will, for the first time, make it possible for researchers to study the growth and behavior of CRUD at pressures and temperatures comparable to those found in operating reactors. Meanwhile, Karafillis is participating in experiments that explore the surface interactions between fuel rod surfaces and the initial CRUD deposits, to gain better understanding of the growth process, and how it might be reduced or even modified in advantageous ways.

“One of my favorite things is talking to people in the lab, hearing them describe a problem they’re having, and then working with them to fix it,” notes Karafillis. “You learn random little things you’d never get in a textbook, bits of information that are immensely valuable.” She’s also discovered the pleasure of on-the-fly engineering — “a couple of weeks ago, someone was complaining about a piece not fitting into the front panel of a control box; I grabbed a Dremel tool, and had the hole opened up in 10 minutes. It was great!”

(Read full article.)

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