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Youth in Nuclear: Engaging the Next Generation of Leaders

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Young and established professionals met to discuss ways to engage and encourage young people to get involved in the nuclear field. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

Encouraging young people to pursue careers in nuclear science and technology can help countries maximize the benefits of atomic energy for development; however, many countries, particularly developing countries, often face challenges with youth engagement. How to tap into the potential of youth was the topic of a panel discussion at a side event held on the margins of the IAEA’s 63rd General Conference.

“There is only one way to prepare for the challenges of the future, it is engaging youth,” said Cornel Feruta, IAEA Acting Director General, during his opening remarks. “We at the IAEA have been trying to do more to associate youth to our efforts. This a long-term investment, and we need to expose the young generation to the benefits of science and technology. At the IAEA, there will always be a hand that will help the young generation to fulfill its responsibility and its expectations.”

The event, ‘Youth in Nuclear: Engaging the Next Generation of Leaders’, brought together young and established professionals to explore the potential contributions of young people to achieve the socio-economic benefits of nuclear science and technology, youth engagement, and the opportunities and challenges young people face in embracing careers and employment related to the nuclear field. 

The event placed particular emphasis on youth in Africa; many African countries are scaling up the use of nuclear science toward development, and some are considering the introduction of nuclear power programmes. With over 60% of the population in Africa under 25, the continent has the world’s largest youth population relative to its size.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance and need for faster socio-economic development of our continent and the need to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2063,” said Nada Kruger, Resident Representative of Namibia to the IAEA and the chair of the Vienna-based African Group. “Youth are our future. We need to encourage them and create conducive opportunities for them to take the lead in the development of applications of nuclear science and technology.”

Unlocking the potential of young people

During the panel discussion, participants examined how to develop young people’s skills and knowledge to reap the benefits of nuclear science. They discussed the important role of policymakers, established professionals and organizations in raising interest in the nuclear field and providing opportunities to build knowledge, skills and networks.

“Nuclear technology is a viable way to drive the economy, drive socio-economic development, and ensure that young people are employed and employable. When you have a nuclear industry, you also provide the highest quality of education. This is what we’re trying to do with engaging with youth and influencing countries around the continent,” said Gaopalelwe Santswere, President of the African Young Generation in Nuclear (AYGN), a youth-led, non-profit and non-partisan organization that brings together national networks of young professionals in nuclear and other related fields.

“There are a lot of activities that are nuclear related, but there are a lot of missed opportunities because we are not communicating and exposing the young to nuclear science and technology. The African Young Generation in Nuclear provides a structure for that communication,” Santswere said.

Communication and narrative were key themes of the panel discussion. Nathalie Munyampenda, Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), spoke about the importance of changing how youth and decision makers understand, engage, and coordinate discussions around science to shape policies and influence development.

“As young people, we are the next generation of leaders, and we need to be aware that it’s not just enough to develop good scientists, but we need to also understand that a professor won’t change Africa. We need jobs. We need industries. We need to ask and answer questions in language people understand,” Munyampenda said.

Panelists discussed how to change communication and expose young people to nuclear science and technology. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

Encouraging young girls and women to pursue science and technology was one of the added challenges to youth engagement, participants agreed. Though more women are entering these technical sectors, including the nuclear field, more effort to involve and support women is needed.

In the Philippines, for example, the country is taking active steps to educate and engage young people, including young girls, explained Roxane Villanueva, Education Program Supervisor for Science and Technology in the Philippines.

“While traditionally we view nuclear science and technology, just like most science-related fields, as a man’s field, in the Philippines that is no longer really the case,” she said. She highlighted the impact of adopting policies for STEM-related scholarships, immersion programmes for high school students at research institutes, and partnerships for undergraduate education at foreign institutes.

Voices of youth in nuclear

Two panelists shared their perspectives as young people in the nuclear field. They spoke about their personal experiences and how to overcome challenges. They also gave advice on pursuing careers in nuclear science and technology.

“When I attended the IAEA’s School of Knowledge Management, that was the turning point of my career as a nuclear scientist: I learned about nuclear  technology and the industry, and how we generate, disseminate, and store knowledge, including through mentorships with experts in the field,” said Raphael Chesori, a PhD student who told his story of going from living in a village tending cows and gardens to studying nuclear science. “My advice is that youth should not be afraid to pursue what they can conceptualize in their minds in pursuit of their dreams. And to create platforms to induce knowledge sharing to embrace nuclear science and technology.”

To help young people to engage and initiate change, said Chirayu Batra, a young nuclear engineer at the IAEA and President of Vienna-based United Nations Nuclear Young Generation (UNNYG), outreach and educational programmes supported by the IAEA and groups like the UNNYG are essential.

“There isn’t a topic young people can’t address. We just need the right opportunity. For that, there is a requirement to create awareness and engage youth,” Batra said.

Closing the event, Mikel Edwerd, a section head in the IAEA’s Division of Africa, encouraged continuing to build on the momentum generated at today’s event and underscored the IAEA’s ongoing commitment to supporting countries in Africa and worldwide in engaging the next generation of leaders in nuclear science and technology.

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