March 8 is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge. Organizers said the theme invites everyone to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.
Locally, Leia Milster and Nikki Lawless of Entergy Waterford 3 Nuclear Station are doing just that – challenging the stereotypes often associated with working in science and math fields and proving that women can succeed just as much as men in the areas.
“I have had the opportunity to work with all kinds of different people on various projects and I have learned everyone approaches problems and solutions differently,” Milster said. “If you are interested in something, regardless of whether it has historically been a predominately male or female field, you should go for it. Don’t think that just because that’s the way it’s always been it’s the way it has be.”
“Math and science are for girls too,” Lawless said. “Math, science and technology degrees are fun. You get to use science, math and technology to solve problems and you continue to learn new technical items every day.”
Milster, a St. Charles Parish resident, graduated in 2006 from the University of Missouri- Rolla with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering and minors in mathematics, chemistry and materials science. She began her career as a reactor engineer working for Entergy at Waterford 3 in 2006 – working first in the regulatory assurance department before transferring back to reactor engineering as the reactor engineering supervisor.
Milster now oversees a team of engineers who are responsible for monitoring the reactor behavior over the course of the cycle, supporting the plant’s operations department during plant power changes and tracking its nuclear fuel.
“There are so many elements about my job that I love,” she said. “The first is knowing that I am part of providing a valuable service to my community – electricity – safely and reliably from nuclear power. Second is getting to see the ‘blue glow’ when we move nuclear fuel out of the reactor during refueling outages.”
She explained that the “blue glow” is called Cherenkov radiation and is caused by a charged particle such as an electron moving faster than the speed of light through water.
“As a nuclear engineer you learn about it, but seeing it in person is an experience that pictures in a textbook could ever do justice,” Milster said. “I’m a nerd through and through and proud of it.”
Lawless graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a minor in math from Nicholls State University. While in college, along with one of her professors, she published a research article.
“Our research consisted of using byproducts of sugar cane to strengthen building materials,” she said. “In 1995 I started working at Entergy Waterford 3 nuclear station as a chemistry technician intern in college and after college started working there full time. I was a chemistry technician for a few years, then began working in the chemistry training department where I trained the entire team of chemistry technicians at Waterford 3.”
After her time there, Lawless became the human performance coordinator for the station, where she was responsible for reinforcing and implementing error reduction techniques.
“I then became a maintenance training superintendent and was in in charge of all of maintenance training,” she said. “My work in that role led us to a successful accreditation. I then became the chemistry manager and oversaw the entire chemistry team.”
After receiving her senior reactor operator certification, Lawless began overseeing the site’s outage work.
“As the outage manager, my current job, I provide oversight of executing maintenance for the station and refueling the reactor while we are shut down,” she said, adding her favorite parts of her job are the people that she works with and coming up with solutions to challenges. “The nuclear industry is constantly changing to improve. Some challenges are larger and harder than others, but I enjoy working with our teams to find solutions so we can maintain a safe and reliable plant which produces safe and reliable electricity for our customers.”
Lawless has attended a senior nuclear plant management course for leadership development, and said through the years she’s learned to be assertive in her expertise.
“Diversity is good for the team because we all bring different perspectives to problems and solutions,” she said.