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Brienna Johnson
March 22, 2022

For undergrad, internship adds international perspective on nuclear innovation


As an intern at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, UW-Madison nuclear engineering undergraduate Brienna Johnson is relishing the experience of living abroad and working on efforts that could help improve nuclear energy worldwide.

The IAEA is the world’s foremost intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Established in 1957 as an autonomous international organization within the United Nations system, the IAEA currently has 173 member states.

During her year-long internship, Johnson is working in IAEA’s nuclear power engineering section, where she is a member of a team focused on nuclear innovation and plant life management, including looking at ways to extend the lifetime of nuclear energy plants.

“Interning at the IAEA has been a really wonderful experience,” she says. “In particular, it has been great meeting and building connections with the other interns and many experts from around the world and learning about all the different things people are working on in the nuclear field. It has really expanded my view of various career paths and opportunities that are available for nuclear engineers.”

At the IAEA, Johnson helps plan and organize meetings and events, also. And she has had the opportunity to attend some conferences, including a technical meeting about artificial intelligence.

“I was able to sit in on presentations and learn about how different AI technologies could potentially be implemented in nuclear power plants, which was a great experience,” she says.

In her free time, Johnson has been taking advantage of the many cultural and recreational attractions Austria has to offer. She has explored Vienna’s museums and culture and taken weekend trips to places like Obertauern ski resort.

At UW-Madison, Johnson is co-president of the American Nuclear Society student chapter. She is also a student operator for the UW Nuclear Reactor, an experience that has been a highlight of her education. She enjoys the hands-on experience of working with the reactor and says it has helped her better understand lessons from her nuclear engineering courses.

“I think working at the reactor is really cool, and I love all the hands-on activities I get to do, such as bringing the reactor up to power, radiating samples and helping with others’ experiments,” she says. “It’s a great way to apply some of what I’m learning in my courses.”

Johnson says being a member of the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) learning community at UW-Madison has been a highly valuable experience, providing a welcoming environment and support that have helped her thrive in a major where women are underrepresented. She says being a mentor in WISE has been very rewarding, and she looks forward to mentoring students again when she returns to campus after her internship.

Reflecting on her experience as a nuclear engineering major so far, Johnson says she appreciates that the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics is a smaller department with a tight-knit community feel.

“When I was a new student, faculty like Paul Wilson would come up to me at ANS meetings and ask how I was doing and how my classes were going,” she says. “From early on, faculty knew my name and showed they really cared about me and my education.”