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Graduate Student Bryn Davies Finds Harmony in Music, Nuclear Engineering

Engineering graduate student Bryn Davies’ career is a song with two distinct melodies that blend in pleasant harmony.

A professional bass player, Davies (BS/NE ’19) devoted the first 20 years of her career to music. She toured the world, performed at the Grammy Awards and on “Saturday Night Live,” and played on acclaimed singer/songwriter Guy Clark’s Grammy-winning album, “My Favorite Picture of You.”

But after marrying fellow bassist Vince Ilagan (BS/Music ‘04) and having two children—Aurelio, now 11, and Naomi, now 5—Davies chose to settle down in Knoxville.

And Davies embarked on new career as a nuclear engineer.

Life on the Road

bryn davies sitting in front of a green wallpapered room with her cello

Born in California, Davies began playing piano at age 3 and cello at 8. She took up the bass in high school and earned a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

She studied for three years before forming a band with two fellow students and moving to Austin, Texas. Next, Davies began touring with a bluegrass/rock group that included Peter Rowan and the late Tony Rice.

In 2004, Davies moved to Nashville as an independent musician, accepting a variety of gigs that came her way. She played with Patty Griffin, Justin Townes Earle, and Abigail Washburn. She recorded on Clark’s last five albums.

Davies also recorded with songwriter/singer/guitarist Jack White, best known for his rock band, the White Stripes. She played on his 2012 Blunderbuss album that achieved gold record status and was nominated for a Grammy. She played with the band on its U.S.-European tour and during performances on “Saturday Night Live” in March 2012 and at the Grammy Awards in February 2013.

“The Grammy Awards were really fun,” Davies said. “Our dressing room was right next to Justin Timberlake’s.”

The tour was exhilarating, but exhausting for Davies who, by then, was pregnant with her son.

That’s when she decided to shift gears.

“I had done my bucket list of stuff.

“I loved being able to create, being on stage, being able to see the country. I loved the people I met. I loved being able to be more of a free spirit,” she said. “But it’s really hard not to have any kind of steady paycheck. And I was always trying to hustle, to make sure I had gigs coming up.”

Becoming an Engineer

Bryn Davies standing in a grassy field wearing a graduation cap, gown, and sashes

Thinking she might want to be a dietitian, Davies began taking classes at Pellissippi State Community College.

Excelling in math and science, she found her niche in UT’s highly rated nuclear engineering program. As an undergraduate, she enlisted the help of her musician friends to hold a concert and auction to raise money to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic.

Since graduating, Davies has worked as a nuclear criticality safety engineer at Y-12, helping to ensure plant operations comply with regulatory requirements. She will finish her master’s degree this spring; her research has involved thorium fuel cycles, radiation detection, and nuclear materials modeling.

Music remains a big part of her life.

She plays music festivals and records with an electric rock trio, and she plays in a bluegrass band with longtime friend Darrell Scott, a singer/songwriter/musician who wrote “It’s a Great Day to be Alive,” recorded by Travis Tritt, and “Long Time Gone,” recorded by The Chicks.

“In the spring, summer, and fall, I’m probably on the road one to two weekends of the month,” she said. “I’d like to think I could still go out there and make it as a musician. But I also like having the stability of my job at Y-12 and exercising that part of my brain.”


Amy Blakely (