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Tamara Patton, 28.

Tamara Patton, 28.

The prospect of nuclear war is so numbingly terrifying, many of us avoid thinking about it altogether. But when the gravity of the issue hit Tamara Lilinoe Patton as an undergraduate, she didn't put it out of her mind; rather, she placed it front and center.

Now, as a Ph.D. student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, 28-year-old Patton studies arms control and disarmament issues with a particular focus on the role that virtual reality can play in verification. She says her interest in the topic was spiked by an undergraduate class at the University of Washington taught by professor Christopher Jones and Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., a United States diplomat who has been involved in the negotiation of a number of nuclear arms control treaties.

Patton notes that her childhood in Oahu also shaped her views on international relations.

"Growing up in Hawaii's melting pot was like a long, kaleidoscopic lesson in the fact that we're all just people under the same sun," Patton says. "[That time] helped shape my views on international relations and conflict, including understanding the pointlessness of fearing or incriminating others based on our differences, and the value of approaching challenges with a mindset of inclusiveness and cultural empathy."

Much of the challenge around maintaining international nuclear arms agreements, Patton says, has to do with verification, or "how to ensure that, if a country cheats on its commitments, we'll be able to detect it." This is difficult because verification tools simultaneously reveal design properties of the weapons themselves, which nations want to keep secret.

One of the methods to address that challenge—which Patton and her advisor and mentor, professor Alexander Glaser, are researching and developing at Princeton—is to build virtual-reality simulations of the radiation sources that need to be inspected. Researchers can then come up with new verification solutions without the need to access actual nuclear weapons.

Nuclear disarmament is always an important topic, but the issue feels newly relevant in 2017 given rising nationalism and a possible re-alignment among superpowers. As Patton sees it, disarmament remains an issue on which "human civilization quite literally hangs in the balance." But she maintains her optimism in the face of a sometimes-hostile political landscape by focusing on positive developments.

"I'm encouraged by other trends … [including] the growth in industries like commercial satellites, [which are] making it less and less likely that countries will be able to hide an illegal weapons program," Patton says.

Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.