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A Delicate Dance

From the stage to the lab, engineering student finds balance between competing passions

Kelley Verner grew up in the ballet. She also cared about her natural surroundings.

She’d taken ballet lessons since the age of 4. From a long line of Vandals, it wasn’t a surprise that she attended the University of Idaho. It wasn’t until after her first year of college, however, that she realized she wanted to pursue a different path — engineering.

“If I would have told myself when I was 17 that I would get three engineering degrees, I would have laughed,” she said. “I never thought I’d be an engineer.”

Verner spent the summer after her freshman year as an intern at Buffalo Bill State Park in Wyoming, where the experience working with kids and being in the natural environment prompted her to switch her major to biological and agricultural engineering.

“After I did dance for a year in college, I realized it’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “I realized I wanted to do the more scientific side of conserving the environment.”

Verner grew up in Idaho Falls to a family that cared for the outdoors. Her dad was a forester and her mom came from an agricultural upbringing, and both saw the importance of preserving a natural environment.

“They basically see our relationship with the environment as being stewards,” she said. “People are here to take care of what we do have and responsible energy production is one of the primary ways humans are impacting the environment.”

Kelley Verner
Idaho Falls nuclear engineering student Kelly Verner is on track to finish her doctorate in nuclear engineering in the fall of 2020.

Verner started her academic career at U of I in Moscow but returned home to Idaho Falls for her master’s and doctorate degrees.

On top of earning a bachelor’s in biological and agricultural engineering from U of I’s College of Engineering in 2015, Verner, now 27, received a master’s degree in biological engineering in 2017 and is on track to finish her doctorate in nuclear engineering in the fall of 2020.

For Verner, returning to Idaho Falls after finishing her undergraduate degree has given her many opportunities for a career in nuclear engineering.

“We need all of the help that we can get to slow climate change and improve quality of people’s lives with access to energy,” Verner said. “In some instances nuclear is the best energy option, while in other circumstances renewables are the better choice. We need both.”

Although Verner’s life is consumed with school and research, she still devotes some time to dancing. She recently performed with The Dance Collaborative, a Pocatello dance company that provides continued choreography and performance experience for trained dancers. The Dance Collaborative performs mostly contemporary and jazz dance.

If I would have told myself when I was 17 that I would get three engineering degrees, I would have laughed. I never thought I’d be an engineer.
Kelley Verner
Idaho Falls doctoral nuclear engineering student Kelly Verner poses while in the lab.

“I like Idaho Falls, I liked growing up here and all of my family is from here, but the other great thing is the Idaho National Laboratory is here,” Verner said. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity to be working on my doctorate, but I am also working with researchers at a national lab, so that’s pretty unique.”

Verner also worked for the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico from May to August 2019 as an intern, modeling different reactor designs.

Depending on where her education and career take her, she plans to stick with dancing as a pastime. And as Verner looks toward 2020, she also has many aspirations for her plans post-graduation.

“I would consider going to a national lab,” Verner said. “My ultimate goals to become faculty at a university.”

Article by Kylie Smith, University Communications and Marketing

Published in the August 2019 issue of Idaho Falls Magazine.

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