Excelling in Nuclear

By James Michael Brodie

The field of nuclear engineering in the U.S. had 19,100 jobs in 2010 and was projected to see an “average” growth of 10 percent in that number by 2020, this according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. For those with the skills and good fortune to land one of those jobs, the financial landscape is rosy: the median pay for nuclear engineers three years ago was a hefty $99,920 per year.

These figures come as no surprise to the students enrolled in South Carolina State University’s nuclear engineering program (NEP) — the only such program in the state and the only one at an historically black college or university. South Carolina State’s NEP, which is accredited, began in 2002 with five students. At present, it has more than 55 students and has awarded 27 Bachelor of Science degrees in nuclear engineering. Roughly a dozen of the current students are women.

Three of its more outstanding female students are all NSBE members from the same high school: junior Darian S. James, sophomore Valerie E. Nwadeyi and junior Angel C. Spigner. Spigner and James met in elementary school. They met Nwadeyi while attending Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in the physical science honors class. There, they took many of the same courses and graduated near the top of the class.

“I can remember the times when we used to work together in our IB Chemistry 2 class in the 11th grade to get assignments completed on time,” Spigner recalls. “And we would go to school on Sunday afternoons to study and get extra help from our instructor to ensure that we would exceed all expectations on the IB-styled chemistry exams.”

Phyllis A. Pelzer, P.E. is the “Project Lead the Way” Pre-Engineering teacher at another Orangeburg high school, The Technology Center, which offered alternative science courses for students at other schools in the district. She met the trio when they attended the center. James was in Pelzer’s civil engineering and architecture class. Spigner and Nwadeyi were recruited by their friends in engineering.

“I was impressed at how intelligent they all were,” Pelzer recalls of the students. “All three of them were leaders amongst their peers. They were involved with student organizations and community service projects while they were in school.

Pelzer founded the Orangeburg 5 Technology Center NSBE Jr. chapter at her school, in 2009.

“Once we established the NSBE chapter, it didn’t take long for the word to spread and for (Darian, Valerie and Angel) to join, as well,” says Pelzer.

After high school, the trio chose nuclear engineering, and SCSU.

“Our drive to excel academically brought us together,” says Nwadeyi. “We all wanted to go to school for a STEM major. In the end, we all chose South Carolina State University. We were all in the summer program, SCAMP, there, and from there we’ve worked as a team to help each other do well.”

At the end of her freshman year, Spigner was elected NSBE SCSU chapter president, and James was elected programs chair. Spigner was reelected president for 2013–14, while James was elected Pre-College Initiative chair.

“These young women came in as freshmen, and it was evident that they were all highly intelligent and much disciplined,” says April Hutton-Moorer, program coordinator of SCSU’s Nuclear Engineering Program and director of its Summer Nuclear Science Institute.

The trio has earned success in a field traditionally seen as male-dominated, and see themselves as role models for other young women. Along the way, they have learned what works.

“Study now and play later,” advises James. “You will have plenty of time to enjoy life after you get your degree. Academics is what gets you hired, but it is confidence, poise, people skills, a positive attitude and strong work ethic that (keep) you from getting fired.”

James Michael Brodie is a writer based in Baltimore, Md., and a former editor of NSBE Magazine.