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Virginia Lilly
March 5, 2024

Undergraduate Q&A: Virginia Lilly

Written By: Adam Malecek


Virginia Lilly, a junior majoring in nuclear engineering, shares insights about her experience in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why did you choose UW-Madison?

Coming from Westchester, New York, big schools in the Midwest like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin were always present on the list of colleges students applied for. I had heard all great things from my friends’ older siblings who attended UW-Madison and, in the end, I was between UW-Madison and Purdue. After a visit to Madison in late April of my senior year I was sold!

What drew you to the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics?

I considered joining the Navy when I was in high school and became interested in aircraft carriers because they can operate for long periods without refueling, thanks to nuclear power. I then applied to most of the colleges across the country with nuclear engineering programs and UW-Madison seemed like the best balance between a great education and student life. 

What have been the highlights of your nuclear engineering education so far?

Since the NEEP department is quite small, I know all the other students in my major and the faculty make an effort to know us, too. The first week of my freshman year, Paul Wilson, the chair of the NEEP department, reached out to the freshmen in the nuclear engineering major to set up a time to meet him and for us to meet each other. It meant a lot to me that at a school with nearly 40,000 undergraduate students, the chair of my department would take time out of his schedule to meet us. 

What’s been your favorite NEEP course?

NE 305: Introduction to Nuclear Engineering. It’s a great class that lays the foundation for future courses. We covered quantum mechanics, radioactive decay, fission and radiation detection. The instructor Laura Bartol is an excellent teacher and organized all of the content in easily digestible lectures. 

What extracurricular activities or student orgs have you participated in at UW-Madison?   

I’m currently the vice president of the Wisconsin Engineering Student Council, which collaborates with Engineering Student Development Staff to plan events and support engineering related clubs on campus. Since WESC is closely linked with the College of Engineering, we can host large events to benefit all engineering students. In my position I have learned how to set reasonable goals for a team that consists of busy engineering students, take input and implement changes to our past practices, and to advocate for the concerns of my peers to staff. 

Are there any other experiences that have enriched your education?

Last summer I interned at General Dynamics Electric Boat in New London, Connecticut, which is one of two shipyards in the United States that makes the Navy’s nuclear submarines. I got the chance to tour the USS Idaho while it was under construction. Among other cool features it was interesting to learn about how the cooks onboard plan and cook the meals for the entire crew while at sea for months at a time. 

What are your career plans?

I’m interested in the economic side of engineering projects, especially since the main roadblock in most nuclear projects is cost. I’m currently researching methods to estimate advanced reactor cost, which I could see myself pursuing a career in.