Sara Hauptman ’19: “I still get that excited feeling in my gut about this technology”

Sara Hauptman ’19, a recipient of the Theos J. Thompson Memorial Fellowship, is a first-year PhD student in nuclear science and engineering with a research focus on fission systems. “My project is working on the design for the next generation of nuclear reactor at MIT,” she explains. “We’ve had one since 1958, and the second version was designed in the seventies. So it’s time to start thinking about what comes next.”

Q: Moving here from Utah must have been a big adjustment. Do you have a favorite place on campus?

The culture shock of coming to the East Coast was intense, but almost at the 10-year mark, I love it out here. I’ve spent a lot of time running bridge loops when the stress was intense. On Memorial Drive right along the river, going past the sailing pavilion, and over the bridge back down the Esplanade, I would go on runs and roller skate, or just walk along there. That was the best way to unwind when you need to take a break and then get back to whatever you’re doing!

Q: Is there a new interest or hobby that you’ve developed at MIT?

I’ve picked up two main hobbies since moving out here: kickboxing and motorcycling. Most days if the weather is nice, I commute into campus by motorcycle. It makes sitting in traffic less irritating, and there’s actually a little hidden section of motorcycle parking by the Z Center [Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center].

If I’m not on the bike, I start my day kickboxing. You can’t be worried about classes or school when you’re doing that. You’re just so focused on being in the moment—I’ll come to campus with my mind ready to go to class.

Q: Is there a conversation you can remember that changed the trajectory of your time at MIT?

The most pivotal one for me was almost a negative conversation, but I’m very grateful that it happened. My freshman year I entered MIT thinking I was going to do chemical engineering, but I hated the intro class. I didn’t like the material; I didn’t have any interest in the careers. At that point I had already taken a job to do operator training at the MIT Reactor. I needed to earn money during school, and I thought running a reactor was pretty cool.

So I came to my freshman advisor and said, I don’t know if I want to stick with this or go into nuclear. He encouraged me to stick with chemical and didn’t seem to think I’d have good career opportunities in nuclear engineering, but it just didn’t sit right with me. I went home and immediately changed my major and have never once regretted it. I absolutely love the reactor so it was a very decisive conversation.

Q: What did your family say when you shifted gears and announced this new major and interest?

They had a harder time swallowing when I first said, ‘Oh, I’m working at the nuclear reactor.’ My mom was a little nervous because she didn’t know anything about it, but I’ve brought them out here and taken them on tours and now they’ve come full circle. My mom is finishing up her legal studies degree, and in an environmental law class, she presented about a commercial nuclear power plant. She interviewed me for her midterm project, and I was so proud of her when she told me about how well it went.

Q: You were awarded the Theos J. Thompson Memorial Fellowship to support your graduate studies. What impact has that had on your life and work?

The knowledge that I wasn’t going to have to stress about funding and could focus on classes was huge—that was such a giant worry that was taken off my back. As for Theos Thompson, he’s a bit of a celebrity here because he was the founding father for the first reactor, so we have pictures of him on the wall. He’s our George Washington!

When I first got the funding award email saying, “you’re on the Theos J. Thompson Fellowship,” I sent a screenshot to my coworkers at the lab. TJT is supporting me! It was reassuring from a logistics point of view, but it also very much made me feel like I was a part of the department.

[The fund that supports Hauptman’s fellowship was established in 1970 in memory of Professor Theos J. Thompson, who led the design of the MIT Research Reactor in 1958 and developed an outstanding program of research and education based on this facility. Sadly, Professor Thompson died in a plane crash at the age of 52 while on official business for the Atomic Energy Commission, to which he was appointed by President Richard Nixon.]

Q: What inspires you in this work every day?
Lots of people go into nuclear because they want to solve climate change and believe that this is the energy of the future, and I believe that too. But that is almost a side benefit. I think reactors are such cool machines, and I have not lost that since my first time getting into our reactor and looking down into the core tank. It just wowed me. And I’m still in that spot; I still get up there and look down at the core every time we’re doing an outage, and I still get that excited feeling in my gut about this technology.

I’ve been in a unique position here at the lab starting as undergrad and then an employee and then a grad student, and it has been really good for me in terms of professional and academic development. I’ve learned a lot.

The majority of the operators here are MIT students or ex-Navy operators. Being a student and being female, you learn how to navigate that type of environment, which is going to be the real world when I graduate. It reinforced a lot of that backbone that you need to stand up for yourself. It’s rewarding to be able to pass that along to the freshmen students in training and let them know this is a very different environment than your class at MIT, and that’s okay.

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