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Aakanksha SAXENA

I am a nuclear engineer researcher. I have been working in this field for 11 years now and it has been a very interesting and challenging experience. My ambition is to contribute to resolving the energy crisis and maybe one day give life to my father’s suggestion of having a compact nuclear battery providing electricity to the remotest village in India.

I started my journey in this field as a post-graduate student in the M.Tech Nuclear Engineering Program in 2008 at Delhi University. This course was the first of a kind which also gave me an opportunity to come to France on scholarship for 1 year to do Masters 2 Nuclear Engineering (M2 Genie Atomique) at INSTN Saclay. I was completely amazed by the practical learning experience and application-based open book exams. I got the opportunity to learn from the experts in CEA, Areva, IRSN, and EDF. I finished M2 and went back to Delhi to do my last year of M.Tech and followed my heart’s desire to come back to France in order to pursue my Ph.D. in CEA Cadarache in 2011. Honestly, it wasn’t easy to leave my comfort zone with no experience of living outside my home, outside my hometown Delhi and coming straight away to France to see a completely different side of the world with a completely different language. It wasn’t easy for me and it wasn’t easy for my family as well. My family supported me a lot in this journey. I don’t think I would have come this far if my grandfather hadn’t said yes in a blink of an eye to the news of my selection for a Ph.D. in France and if my family was not just a skype video call away. Yes, there was no WhatsApp at that time, Facebook had just started back then and even having a smartphone was not very common. I got my first smartphone in France in 2011 as a gift from my grandfather. It was very special when I could just video call my grandfather from the bus stand in the morning. He at age of 84y got a laptop and learned how to use it for talking to me. I remember asking him how come he said yes so quickly and if he is not going to miss me. His words were of course I will miss you but I cannot let you miss this wonderful opportunity.

In my thesis project, I worked on project ASTRID (sodium-cooled fast reactor) in CEA Cadarache on Thermal-hydraulics of the reactor core. I was the only female in the lab and a non-French speaker. My labmates really supported me to learn French. They were kind and patient with my broken French. Thanks to those lovely 3 years I not only got my Doctorate degree but also a B1 level in the French language and changed from Mademoiselle (Miss) status to Madam (Mrs) status. I met my husband here in Aix en Provence and we decided to get married 8 months later. And since then France has been my home in my heart.

The uniqueness of the ITER project, and the idea of making the sun of earth brought me closer to my ambition and made ITER my dream project. After finishing my thesis, I could join the ITER project in 2015 as an external contractor and in 2019, I joined ITER as staff in the role of Diagnostic Integration Engineer. I am a responsible officer for Hard Core components which are safety components required in extreme scenarios to prevent cliff-edge effects and the In-Vessel Viewing System (IVVS) which is a sophisticated and agile inspection system to perform a series of checks inside the machine. IVVS is first of a kind system that combines robotics with metrology, a high-tech vision to operate under a vacuum with a high radiation field and magnetic field as well as under atmospheric pressure. In these years, I rose to the challenge of widely varying responsibilities as a physicist, analyst, integration officer, neutron scientist, nuclear safety expert, Fire protection engineer, and so on. I enjoy my work and I learn new things every day. I love things that are unique. I love being close to reality and able to visualize the usefulness of my work. It motivates me to get up every morning to face new challenges. A motivation that is much required to be able to leave your 1-year child (and a 5 year) in the daycare as you head for work. I love my kids and I love my job. There are days when one needs more attention than others but a loving and supporting environment at home and at work helps to make it work. I am honestly blessed with wonderful family and colleagues and that for me is a key to success.