By Rebecca E. Jones
The Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering has named Supathorn Phongikaroon, Ph.D., director of nuclear engineering. A nationally recognized expert on nuclear waste minimization, Phongikaroon is an associate professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.
“He is a highly respected researcher and educator who will lead the expansion of our nationally ranked nuclear engineering programs," said Gary Tepper, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department. “We’re very pleased that he accepted this position.”
Prior to Phongikaroon’s appointment, the position was held by Rosa “Sama” Bilbao y León, Ph.D., now head of the Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics at the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, France.
Phongikaroon steps into the role as the VCU College of Engineering prepares to host the American Nuclear Society annual student conference next April. The college was selected over national competitors in its bid to host the high-profile event, which will bring thousands of engineering undergraduates to Richmond. It aligns perfectly with one of Phongikaroon’s overarching goals.
“I want to bring more students into VCU for nuclear engineering. My vision is for them to see that VCU is unique — in the state and in the country,” he said.
One of VCU Engineering’s centerpieces, he said, is its hybrid doctorate in mechanical and nuclear engineering, the only such program in the U.S. “I’ve been given an opportunity to bridge nuclear and mechanical themes even more closely and create new pathways for learning,” he said.
Before coming to VCU in 2014, Phongikaroon held research positions with the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
“In my work as a scientist in national labs, I worked on just one or two projects at most at any given time,” he said. “At the university, you can have four or five projects going, and I liked that. I also like seeing students more than I used to.” Phongikaroon now advises six doctoral students and three undergraduate students.
He aims to strengthen the pipeline for graduate study and growing industry demand by bringing students into the field earlier.
“Traditionally, many students have specialized in nuclear only after getting degrees in physics or chemistry,” he said. They can “get a truer sense of nuclear engineering as a whole” if they are trained earlier. “Then they can see all the applications of nuclear, not just in defense, but in clean energy, medicine, nuclear safeguards and nuclear waste,” he said. “I want them to know that ‘nuclear’ isn’t just one thing.”
Virginia’s nuclear engineering talent pool is in good hands with Phongikaroon, according to industry leaders.
“We are excited to continue our relationship with VCU in nuclear engineering under the leadership of Dr. Phongikaroon,” said David MacAdam, a director in nuclear engineering at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. NNS has an innovative partnership with VCU to offer the company’s engineers a commute-free path toward a master's degree in the College of Engineering’s hybrid mechanical and nuclear engineering program.
One of VCU Engineering’s longest industry partnerships is with Dominion Energy, which has worked with the college for 11 years to present nuclear science workshops for high school educators and to recruit interns, co-ops and employees. John Harrell, manager of nuclear safety engineering with Dominion Energy Services, sees Phongikaroon as the ideal person to lead the partnership’s next phase.
“People at Dominion know Dr. Phongikaroon well. We’re glad to see him come in as director and happy with the continuity this appointment brings,” he said, adding that Dominion likes to hire Ram engineers because they are “well grounded in theory, but also trained in practical engineering.”
Nicholas Wilson, Dominion Energy’s corporate engineering university partnership coordinator, said Phongikaroon knows that, in the end, person-to-person contact is key to maintaining — and expanding — industry relationships with the college.
“He’s very energetic and likes to partner. It’s clear that he has a close personal relationship with those he works with. I can see that in the number of times he’s invited me over for homemade Thai food at his house,” Wilson said of Phongikaroon, who grew up in a restaurant family and has even authored a cookbook on Thai cooking for American kitchens.
“Relationship building like that really helps partnerships go the extra mile. He’s a natural for this role,” he said.