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SURI Cadets Inaugural Participants in VCU-VMI Program

Institute Report, August 2011

One of the several interdisciplinary projects in this year’s SURI program took a cadet to Virginia Commonwealth University as part of a new cooperative program.

Physics major Jacob Tharp’12 joined a project of Dr. Ross Anderson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at VCU, to develop a nuclear reactor simulator. The simulator, which mimics the control room at the North Anna nuclear power station, has been a VCU senior design project for two years, coming together as individual students completed their portions of the work.

“This summer I’ve been looking at the whole thing, trying to fix issues,” said Tharp, “looking at equations.”

Tharp’s project was one of three in a new program of VMI’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the VMI-VCU Summer Undergraduate Research Program, under which VMI and Virginia Commonwealth University jointly fund summer research projects at VCU for up to five cadets.

“I see this program as really broadening the undergraduate research opportunities for our cadets,” said Col. Jon-Michael Hardin, head of VMI’s mechanical engineering department.

The two other cadets who completed SURI projects at VCU are Michael Everett ’12, who worked with Maj. Ryan Taylor at VMI and Dr. Worth Longest, VCU Qimonda Associate Professor of mechanical engineering, on “Development of Dry Powder Inhalers for Enhanced Lung Delivery,” and Gabriel Dongieux ’12, whose project with Col. Tim Hodges at VMI and Dr. Karla Mossi, VCU associate professor of mechanical engineering, resulted in a patent application for a piezoelectric viscometer for measuring blood viscosity.

Hardin got the ball rolling for the two mechanical engineering majors when they and 14 others visited VCU last fall. The cadets met with VCU graduate students and heard them talk about their research projects.

“I wanted them to see beyond graduation, … to see the larger world and what was out there for them,” said Hardin, pointing to the second part of this initiative, which is guaranteed placing for a certain number of qualified VMI graduates in any graduate programs offered by VCU’s School of Engineering.

Though the summer program offers new opportunities to cadets, it also allows cadets to share their skills with VCU students. Tharp found he had a distinct advantage because, unlike some of the other students working on the simulator, he had already spent a semester at VMI working with the LabView graphical development environment in one of his physics classes.

“It shows that VMI is very cognizant that we need to make sure we’re using software that is industry-standard or the most current,” said Hardin. “These are some high-expense items. It really reflects well on VMI that our kids go out knowing how to use this current software.”

In his SURI project, Tharp has worked to resolve problems in the simulator and to identify areas that might be improved through future student projects. He feels some satisfaction in that he has spent this summer troubleshooting a system that allows future nuclear reactor operators to practice responding to problems without incident.

“Everything I do is helping out,” he said.

“It’s giving him a lot of exposure to the nuclear power business, to how a reactor behaves,” said Tharp’s VMI SURI adviser, Capt. Bob McMasters, professor of mechanical engineering. To meet requirements of the new program, Tharp sent weekly progress reports to McMasters.

Tharp has been accepted into the U.S. Navy nuclear power program, slotted for submarines, and will attend Officer Candidate School after graduation in the spring and then head to Nuclear Propulsion School in Charleston, S.C. In the interim, he hopes to further pursue this topic in an Institute Honors thesis.

This fall, Hardin plans to have Tharp, Dongieux, and Everett present their work to 2nd Class cadets who will also visit VCU and have the opportunity to participate in the program next summer.