Meet Collin Duffley, UMass Lowell’s Nuclear Engineer On The Mound

Image credit: UMass Lowell righthander Collin Duffley (Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell)

Collin Duffley was in high school when he took an interest in nuclear engineering after hearing a couple lectures on the subject. As he went through his college search, he gravitated to Massachusetts-Lowell, located less than an hour from his New Hampshire home, where he would be able to study chemical and nuclear engineering.

In addition to being a fit academically, UMass Lowell was also a good fit for his baseball career. Duffley was a talented righthander, who could help the River Hawks as they moved up to Division I.

“I decided to jump on board,” Duffley said. “It has the facilities, the nuclear research is right here on campus. It’s an interesting topic. I decided to run with it.”

Duffley has more than run with it. He in 2019 earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a concentration in nuclear engineering. He then stayed at UMass Lowell for graduate school and this month graduated with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. He’s also been an important pitcher for the River Hawks staff. He in 2017 was an all-conference pitcher as a sophomore and this season, as a sixth-year senior, is 3-7, 5.46. This weekend he has a chance to help the River Hawks advance to next week’s America East Conference Tournament.

While some student-athletes eventually come to a point where they must choose between concentrating on academics or athletics, Duffley has continued to pursue both at a high level throughout his college career.

“You get a mix of both when you come in,” he said. “You don’t think they’re super related—you see the academic side; you see the athletics side. Then you see our chancellor (Jacquie Moloney) fully supporting athletics, fully throwing resources at athletics and academics. That’s something I’ve always appreciated.”

It’s the kind of thing that can’t be quantified, but it’s hard to imagine any Division I college baseball player this season has completed a more academically rigorous program than a master’s in nuclear engineering. Duffley has done that while taking the ball every week as a member of the River Hawks rotation.

“Everything he’s done to represent us as a program on and off the field has been great,” coach Ken Harring said. “What he’s been is one of the things why you coach.”

While rare, a baseball-nuclear engineering double is not totally unheard of. Tennessee has a nuclear engineering major and in recent seasons Andre Lipcius and Garrett Crochet both were in the program before they were drafted. Shawn Gallagher, the National Security Council’s director for nuclear threat reduction from 2010-12, was drafted out of high school by the Rangers in the fifth round in 1995 and was the 1998 Florida State League MVP before changing course and studying nuclear engineering at MIT.

For Harring, who has been at UMass Lowell for 17 seasons, Duffley is a first.

“He’s my one and only nuclear engineer that I’ve ever had,” Harring said. “I’ve had multiple mechanical engineers, multiple civil engineers, some chemical engineers, but he’s the one and only nuclear engineer.

“He’s brilliant.”

Duffley, like all 2020 seniors, last year had a decision to make. The NCAA extended an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports athletes to account for the early cancellation of the season due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, giving all seniors the opportunity to return to school.

Duffley at the time was close to completing his master’s, but he was able to craft an alternative plan. He did a co-op in the fall and then completed his degree requirements in the spring. The plan provided him useful work experience and an opportunity to play another season of baseball—a clear win-win.

“I walk away getting to compete, which is all I wanted to do, and I walk away with my master’s in two years,” he said. “I think that’s a no brainer in hindsight.”

For his master’s, Duffley studied autonomous and remote operations for nuclear reactors. Today’s nuclear reactors require a large on-site staff monitor and operate them around the clock. While that works well for large reactors, it wouldn’t be feasible for smaller reactors, especially in more isolated locations—the kind of nuclear reactors that are expected to become more popular in coming years.

Through a partnership between UMass Lowell and the Idaho National Lab, Duffley studied ways to remotely and safely operate reactors. The group built a model to test the remote systems and studied the ways to protect them from cyberattacks.

“It was a lot about analyzing hardware and sensors that control the plant and the systems,” he said.

While Duffley was doing work that could help inform the future of nuclear energy, he was also working on his game. In 2017, he was one of the best pitchers in the America East and a rising draft prospect. He announced himself in his first start of the year, which came against Notre Dame and Peter Solomon. Solomon went on to become a fourth-round pick later that year and this year made his major league debut. But on that day in March, Duffley outdueled him, throwing seven scoreless innings to earn the win.

Later that season, Duffley threw seven scoreless innings to beat Stony Brook. Harring remembers after that game longtime Stony Brook coach Matt Senk said that Duffley was one of the best pitchers he’d ever seen in the conference.

Duffley might have been on his way to being a high pick in the 2018 draft, but he suffered an elbow injury that March and required Tommy John surgery. Since the injury, he’s never been able to get back to the level he was at as a sophomore. His fastball, which once touched 94 mph, now reaches 90. He still can mix in a good breaking ball, but it isn’t quite as snappy as before.

Even with a tick less pure stuff, Duffley has learned how to be an effective pitcher, in part because of his work ethic and competitiveness.

“He sets the example with his work ethic every single day,” Harring said. “He doesn’t say much. He’s pretty introverted and he’s ultra-competitive to where if an inning doesn’t go his way, you know about it in the dugout.

“Guys know what he’s been through, they know the success he’s had in this league, they’re constantly picking his brain. To have that kind of knowledge is always a plus, especially for the young guys. He’s so well liked. He’s Duff.”

Managing the workload of a baseball player and engineering major hasn’t been easy for Duffley. As a freshman, he heard the academic load would really hit him during his junior year. But he felt it much sooner than that. When the River Hawks season began his freshman year and the team hit the road, starting in Starkville, Miss., he felt it immediately.

“As soon as we started traveling in the spring the first year, I thought, ‘This is going to be a little more dedicated,’ ” he said. “ ’I don’t want to be doing as much homework in the hotel room as I’m doing the night before a game.’ ”

In time, he learned to manage his academics and athletics. His class schedule never conflicted with practice too badly, but he also took advantage of being able to get extra throwing or weight lifting in at any hour of the day, working to hone his craft.

Duffley’s still been working hard this season. His performance hasn’t been as consistent as he’d like, but he’s mostly been a solid starter. The River Hawks (17-26, 16-18) will need Duffley at his best this weekend, as they go into the final series of the regular season battling for a spot in the America East Tournament.

While a postseason push remains possible, Duffley’s baseball career is coming to a close and his professional career as a nuclear engineer is nearing a beginning. He said he’s done a few interviews but isn’t sure exactly what path he wants to take, whether it’s in research, academics or elsewhere in the industry.

No matter where he ends up, Duffley will take with him the lessons he learned at UMass-Lowell both as a pitcher and a student.

“A test is like a gameday,” he said. “You’re not fully prepared for every single possible scenario. You estimate what you’ll need, whether it’s a skill on the field or a topic on an exam. You have to show up and you have to play. You have to do everything in your ability, sometimes be clutch, you have to perform well. It’s a different scenario than any practice or studying. It applies to any sort of performance like that.

“There are so many parallels between working at practice and putting in extra time academically. Both require effort and both require planning and thinking about this is what I want to get out of it, this is how I’ll do it. It’s not just showing up to practice and going with the flow.”

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