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Love of chemistry, research combine to make NEXT Lab a perfect fit for ACU grad


Alli Mae Berry, research chemist for NEXT Lab
Alli Berry, research chemist for NEXT Lab

Photo by Scott Delony

Alli Mae (Bulkley ’20) Berry joined the team in ACU’s NEXT Lab as a research scientist just a month after graduating and five days before getting married. Despite the blur of life changes in such a short period of time, Berry jumped right into her work by learning the ins and outs of NEXT Lab’s new inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer or ICP-MS as it’s known in the industry.

“We’re all trying to learn how to use it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

NEXT is an acronym for Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory, a research program at ACU that is experimenting with using molten salts, rather than water, as a coolant for nuclear reactors. Inside the lab, students and faculty conduct experiments that will lead to global solutions to the world’s need for energy that is safer, cleaner and less expensive, water that is pure and abundant, and medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer.

A particularly exciting part of the work going on in the lab is that it is leading to the building of a research reactor on or near the ACU campus. The reactor won’t be used for commercial purposes, like generating electricity, but will serve as another lab for students.

The students and faculty in NEXT Lab are testing salt samples to determine the composition and to detect medically important isotopes. At the same time some students and faculty are focusing on the chemistry side, other students are working on the molten salt loop design. Berry’s job as a research chemist is to support the analytical chemistry group and serve as lead technician for the new ICP-MS. In simple terms, the ICP-MS atomizes samples, creating an aerosol to be analyzed  in order to answer two basic questions: What is in it and how much?

As much as Berry loves chemistry and scientific study, it’s the emphasis on solving world problems that drives her in her new job.

“That’s what makes all the research worth it,” she said.

As the NEXT project  continues to grow, there will be more need for new staff members like Berry, said Dr. Rusty Towell (’90), director of the lab. Berry had worked with NEXT Lab as she completed her chemistry degree, Towell said, so her work ethic, ability to work with a team, and knowledge as a chemist were clear.

“To be able to bring her onto our team in a full-time role was a simple decision,” Towell said, “and we’ve been excited to have her.”

Berry traces her love of chemistry to her Cedar Park High School chemistry teacher, who made learning chemistry fun and easy to understand. Berry took AP chemistry classes and knew she wanted to be a chemistry major in college.

She traces her faith back ever further. For as long as she can remember, Berry has been a believer. Her faith led her to take part in a mission trip to Haiti in 2015 sponsored by Mission of Hope. There, she witnessed people drinking water that to most Americans would be undrinkable. And that is what is exciting to her about working at NEXT Lab, with its emphasis on solving global problems like providing clean drinking water to people who don’t have it.

Berry is happy to have a rewarding job to go to every day, with her project to work on instead of planning for what’s coming next in her life. She doesn’t know what the future will hold and doesn’t even want to think about it.

“Right now,” she said, “I just want to work for NEXT as long as I can.”

Learn more about NEXT Lab

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