Kaylee Cunningham recognizes that her training as a PhD student in nuclear science and engineering could be for naught if myths continue to plague the industry. The activist is committed to helping — one TikTok at a time.
Poornima Apte | Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
First-year MIT nuclear science and engineering (NSE) doctoral student Kaylee Cunningham is not the first person to notice that nuclear energy has a public relations problem. But her commitment to dispel myths about the alternative power source has earned her the moniker “Ms. Nuclear Energy” on TikTok and a devoted fan base on the social media platform.
Cunningham’s activism kicked into place shortly after a week-long trip to Iceland to study geothermal energy. During a discussion about how the country was going to achieve its net zero energy goals, a representative from the University of Reykjavik balked at Cunnigham’s suggestion of including a nuclear option in the alternative energy mix. “The response I got was that we’re a peace-loving nation, we don’t do that,” Cunningham remembers. “I was appalled by the reaction, I mean we’re talking energy not weapons here, right?” she asks. Incredulous, Cunningham made a TikTok that targeted misinformation. Overnight she garnered 10,000 followers and “Ms. Nuclear Energy” was off to the races. Ms. Nuclear Energy is now Cunningham’s TikTok handle.
A theater and science nerd
TikTok is a fitting platform for a theater nerd like Cunningham. Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, Cunningham’s childhood was punctuated by moves to places where her roofer father’s work took the family. She moved to North Carolina shortly after fifth grade and fell in love with theater. “I was doing theater classes, the spring musical, it was my entire world,” Cunningham remembers. When she moved again, this time to Florida halfway through her first year of high school, she found the spring musical had already been cast. But she could help behind the scenes. Through that work, Cunningham gained her first real exposure to hands-on tech. She was hooked.
Soon Cunningham was part of a team that represented her high school at the student Astronaut Challenge, an aerospace competition run by Florida State University. Statewide winners got to fly a space shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center and participate in additional engineering challenges. Cunningham’s team was involved in creating a proposal to help NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, designed to help the agency gather a large boulder from a near-earth asteroid. The task was Cunningham’s induction into an understanding of radiation and “anything nuclear.” Her high school engineering teacher, Nirmala Arunachalam, encouraged Cunningham’s interest in the subject.
The Astronaut Challenge might just have been the end of Cunningham’s path in nuclear engineering had it not been for her mother. In high school, Cunningham had also enrolled in computer science classes and her love of the subject earned her a scholarship at Norwich University in Vermont where she had pursued a camp in cybersecurity. Cunningham had already laid down the college deposit for Norwich.
But Cunningham’s mother persuaded her daughter to pay another visit to the University of Florida, where she had expressed interest in pursuing nuclear engineering. To her pleasant surprise, the department chair, Professor James Baciak, pulled out all the stops, bringing mother and daughter on a tour of the on-campus nuclear reactor and promising Cunningham a paid research position. Cunningham was sold and Backiak has been a mentor throughout her research career.
Merging nuclear engineering and computer science
Undergraduate research internships, including one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she could combine her two loves, nuclear engineering and computer science, convinced Cunningham she wanted to pursue a similar path in graduate school.
Cunningham’s undergraduate application to MIT had been rejected but that didn’t deter her from applying to NSE for graduate school. Having spent her early years in an elementary school barely 20 minutes from campus, she had grown up hearing that “the smartest people in the world go to MIT.” Cunningham figured that if she got into MIT, it would be “like going back home to Massachusetts” and that she could fit right in.
Under the advisement of Professor Michael Short, Cunningham is looking to pursue her passions in both computer science and nuclear engineering in her doctoral studies.
The activism continues
Simultaneously, Cunningham is determined to keep her activism going.
Her ability to digest “complex topics into something understandable to people who have no connection to academia” has helped Cunningham on TikTok. “It’s been something I’ve been doing all my life with my parents and siblings and extended family,” she says.
Punctuating her video snippets with humor — a Simpsons reference is par for the course — helps Cunningham break through to her audience who love her goofy and tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject matter without compromising accuracy. “Sometimes I do stupid dances and make a total fool of myself, but I’ve really found my niche by being willing to engage and entertain people and educate them at the same time.”
Such education needs to be an important part of an industry that’s received its share of misunderstandings, Cunningham says. “Technical people trying to communicate in a way that the general people don’t understand is such a concerning thing,” she adds. Case in point: the response in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, which prevented massive contamination leaks. It was a perfect example of how well our safety regulations actually work, Cunningham says, “but you’d never guess from the PR fallout from it all.”
As Ms. Nuclear Energy, Cunningham receives her share of skepticism. One viewer questioned the safety of nuclear reactors if “tons of pollution” was spewing out from them. Cunningham produced a TikTok that addressed this misconception. Pointing to the “pollution” in a photo, Cunningham clarifies that it’s just water vapor. The TikTok has garnered over a million views. “It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is,” Cunningham says, “ in this age of having all the information we could ever want at our fingertips, it’s hard to sift through and decide what’s real and accurate and what isn’t.”
Another reason for her advocacy: doing her part to encourage young people toward a nuclear science or engineering career. “If we’re going to start putting up tons of small modular reactors around the country, we need people to build them, people to run them, and we need regulatory bodies to inspect and keep them safe,” Cunningham points out. “ And we don’t have enough people entering the workforce in comparison to those that are retiring from the workforce,” she adds. “I’m able to engage those younger audiences and put nuclear engineering on their radar,” Cunningham says. The advocacy has been paying off: Cunningham regularly receives — and responds to — inquiries from high school junior girls looking for advice on pursuing nuclear engineering.
All the activism is in service toward a clear end goal. “At the end of the day, the fight is to save the planet,” Cunningham says, “I honestly believe that nuclear power is the best chance we’ve got to fight climate change and keep our planet alive.”