July 19, 2023

Undergrad wins top prize for simulation that teaches nuclear science basics

Luisa Vargas Suarez takes top spot at Canadian Nuclear Society student conference for 2nd year in a row
Luisa Vargas Suarez
Luisa Vargas Suarez. Zach Sumners

Luisa Vargas Suarez is passionate about nuclear energy. She’s also passionate about educating the public on how this kind of energy actually works. 

Vargas Suarez, an undergraduate student in natural sciences, sees a bright future for nuclear energy. Yet she knows the public needs to understand the nuts and bolts of how nuclear energy works before we adopt it as a mainstream method of energy production.

Vargas Suarez’s work in this area is getting attention. For the second year in a row, she is the Canadian Nuclear Society undergraduate student conference winner. The award is given to the participant with the highest combined score for their five-page paper and research poster presentation.

At the conference, Vargas Suarez presented an interactive simulation that teaches about the chart of nuclides in an accessible and engaging way.

“The chart of nuclides is exactly like the periodic table, except it contains all the isotopes of the elements,” explains Vargas Suarez. “When I was first introduced to the chart, it was such a big learning curve for me. My simulation allows anyone with a high school chemistry background to learn about nuclides, and how we get energy out of the nucleus.”

Luisa Vargas Suarez

Luisa Vargas Suarez.

Lauren Ashley Calaro

The simulation was built with the support and guidance of her supervisor, Dr. Jason Donev, PhD, and in collaboration with the PhET Interactive Simulations project through the University of Colorado. It has been translated into 60 different languages. So far, the simulation has been used over 215,000 times.

“What I’m really excited about is that anyone around the world can learn about nuclear science,” says Vargas Suarez.

The undergraduate student sees massive potential in nuclear power, and it’s where she wants to focus her future studies and career. Nuclear is efficient because it doesn’t rely on external factors like the wind or the sun. It’s also a relatively clean form of energy production. Yet, with the history of nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, she understands the public’s hesitancy.

“What we need to remember is that nuclear power has been safe for a long time. They have strong protocols, strong procedures and people are very well trained. They take extra precautionary measures.”

At the same time, Vargas Suarez understands it’s not enough to just give people facts. We need to understand the deep-rooted fears.

“If you’re going on a plane and the pilot says, 'Don’t worry, we won’t crash,' of course you’re going to be scared of crashing,” she says. “It’s about addressing the fear behind that. Are you afraid of heights? With nuclear, it’s about talking about what happened with these accidents and how we’re doing things completely differently now.”

Varguez Suarez knows there is a lot of information available about nuclear power plants. The gap in information? How nuclear energy actually works. 

“Before we get into things like plants and radiation, we need to dig into the basics. How do we even get energy from an atom? That’s where I’m hoping my simulation is having a positive effect.”

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