‘You Just Have to Keep Going’

 Emma Nobile ’17 works with Col. Merce Brooke IV ’94 on her project to develop an off-axis integrated cavity output spectrometer. – VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

Emma Nobile ’17 works with Col. Merce Brooke IV ’94 on her project to develop an off-axis integrated cavity output spectrometer. – VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., Dec. 14, 2016 -- Displaying VMI’s “never say die” attitude, Emma Nobile ’17 hung tough through five grueling interviews last month to become the first female cadet in recent memory to be selected for the Navy’s prestigious and highly selective nuclear reactors program. She was one of only six midshipmen nationwide to be selected.

“Not many people apply for Naval reactors,” said Nobile, an applied mathematics and physics double major. “It’s definitely a different part of the Navy than most people are interested in.”

The nuclear reactors program, which is command central for the nuclear Navy, is headquartered at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Being selected to work there is quite a coup – and Nobile will become only the second VMI graduate to work there since Evan Dill ’13. 

“They are the top of the top, the best of the best,” said Lt. Bryan Glock, the Navy ROTC’s nuclear propulsion officer, of those selected for Naval nuclear reactors. “We’re very proud of her for succeeding.”

Nobile had known since high school that she wanted to be in the Navy, but it wasn’t until she neared her 1st Class year at VMI that she knew she wanted nuclear reactors.

“It’s a way of continuing with the scientific studies I’ve done here while still being an officer and managing a team of people,” she explained. “It’s an interesting part of the Navy to be in. …. They have what they say is ‘cradle to grave’ control of the nuclear Navy.”

Those who aspire to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers are subjected to a day of interviews designed to be as mentally taxing as possible. They consist of a series of technical problems candidates must solve under pressure, calling upon their knowledge of math and physics. Nobile got through her first two just fine, but then tripped up in the third.

“I was having issues getting the theoretical stuff from the physics … over to the applied part,” Nobile explained. “Everything we do here, a lot of it is theoretical. Sometimes it’s hard to get that applied side.” 

Shortly after that interview had concluded, Nobile learned that she had failed it. There was no time to sulk, mourn, or even think very much, though, nor was there time for lunch, even though others were already eating. Nobile was granted a fourth interview – a courtesy extended to those who fail one of their first three interviews – and she just had to keep pushing forward.

“[The whole day] was pretty much like an endurance test to see if I could make it through without distress overcoming me,” Nobile noted. Thankfully, the fourth interviewer thought Nobile could do the job, so he recommended that she be hired. But her day wasn’t done, even though it was then close to 3 p.m. 

The last step for Nobile was a two-minute interview with four-star Adm. James F. Caldwell Jr., head of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

“He’s very blunt,” said Nobile of Caldwell. The admiral wasted no time in asking Nobile some pointed questions, such as what she was good at doing, what she needed to work on, and why he should hire her. In the end, after recommending that she be hired, the admiral also recommended that Nobile take an engineering class to help her bridge the gap between theoretical and applied knowledge. She’s now signed up to take heat and mass transfer in the mechanical engineering department in the spring.

Those who know Nobile well aren’t surprised that she triumphed over adversity. “She’s driven, motivated, focused,” said Col. Stacey Vargas, professor of physics.

“She’s a double major, which is not an easy path,” added Col. Tim Hodges, head of the physics department. “She’s taking a lot on.”

Nobile herself admitted that the late October day when she interviewed at the Navy Yard wouldn’t have had a happy ending if she hadn’t had so much experience dealing with pressure already.

“Having interviews throughout at VMI really helped me out,” she said. “You have to interview for rank and everything else. Every position you have here you have to go through some kind of interview.”

The Rat Line also played a role in Nobile’s readiness. “My Rat Line was more mental than physical,” she said. “You just have to keep going. … You have to keep trying and not give up. I wanted this job so bad that I just put my whole into everything I’d done that day.” 

Now that her first step into the future is assured, Nobile is focused on finishing her honors thesis work with Col. Merce Brooke IV ’94, professor of physics. She’s helping Brooke develop an off-axis integrated cavity output spectrometer, which can be used to detect the presence of gases. 

For Nobile, pursuing new research projects is critical to her growth as a scientist. She’d already done research on nanotechnology with Col. Greg Topasna and Col. Daniela Topasna, both professors of physics. This year, it was time to try something new.

“I wanted to try something different, something on the other side of physics,” said Nobile. “That one was about nanotechnology. This one uses more of the optics.”

When she’s not in physics labs, Nobile can be found giving post tours for visitors to the VMI Museum. She’s also the commanding officer for the Navy Company and plays the trumpet in the VMI Jazz Band and the Brass Ensemble. She’s a member of the Equestrian Club and the Powerlifting Team, and, on Sundays, she plays handbells at Lexington Presbyterian Church.

“I have hard time not staying busy,” Nobile said. “VMI has such regimented times … that it’s easier than it would be at a regular college. … And I still have time for a nap every day.”

-Mary Price



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