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High school interns opt for research over relaxation

Summer is a time that many teenagers prefer to spend relaxing and soaking up the sun at the beach, but 10 high school students at PPPL decided instead to spend their summer soaking up plasma physics knowledge and performing hands-on research. 

The high school interns started on July 1, taking a three-day introductory course in plasma physics, offered as part of the program for the first time. Following the course, the students scattered throughout the Laboratory with each assigned a mentor.

“The internship grants outstanding high school students an opportunity to work side by side with PPPL scientists and engineers,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of the Science Education department. “Here, they can observe firsthand the beauty and the challenges that motivate the research for creating a new source of energy.” 

Introductory course in plasma physics

The internship attracts high school juniors and seniors of varying academic backgrounds who are interested in taking part in a unique research experience. The 10 students were selected for the six-week internship out of a pool of 154 applicants, the highest number of applicants in the history of the program. Most are from New Jersey but three are from out-of-state: one from California, one from Ohio, and one from Boston.

The students were welcomed to PPPL with a brief introductory course in plasma physics taught by Arturo Dominguez, a postdoctoral fellow in the Science Education department. The course covered essential topics including the basics of plasmas, spectroscopy, and DC glow discharge.

Dominguez explained the fundamentals of plasma physics in a clear manner that was understandable and applicable to all the interns. “I wanted to give a relatively strong math foundation to what the concepts we usually encounter in plasma physics are, but in a way that actually enlightens rather than obscures topics,” he said.

“He’s a great teacher, really entertaining, and he kept everybody’s interest well,” said Murray Skolnick, a rising senior from the greater Boston area. “Plasma physics is certainly a daunting subject so it was good having someone come in and explain the fundamentals.”

Jason Liu, a rising freshman at UC-Berkeley from Pleasanton, Calif., agreed with Skolnick. “Arturo was a really fun teacher,” he said.

Rising senior Maya Moten from Somerset, N.J. saw firsthand how intimidating plasma physics could be. “The first lesson, I went home and said, ‘I’m in way over my head. This is not going to work,’” she said. Dominguez’s teaching, though, helped her overcome her worries. “The second and third lessons were a lot more fun. I learned a lot and had a good time.”

Dominguez enjoyed teaching the interns as much as they enjoyed learning from him. “Not only have I seen that they’re very bright, but they’re very interested in really grasping the ideas completely,” he said. “They focus in on the right questions and really tackle them until they’re satisfied with the answer.”

Different places, different backgrounds

Skolnick came to PPPL to pursue his fascination with plasma physics. “It’s stunning how stars work and how they hold the plasma together,” he said. He had been performing his own independent research in an informal internship at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) at MIT. Skolnick worked on the computational aspect of plasma physics research by developing simulations of gravitational confinement fusion, the method by which gravitational forces in stars compress matter to incredibly high densities and temperatures at their centers, thereby stimulating consistent fusion reactions.

Liu has been passionate about plasma physics since he attempted to build a fusion reactor for numerous science fairs during his junior year. He went on to work with a lab at Las Positas Community College, which led to a collaboration with the nearby DOE laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.  There he learned about PPPL’s high school program. “I was considering working at either Livermore or PPPL,” Liu said. “The project they offered me at PPPL was more hands-on experimental so I decided to come here.”

Moten came into the PPPL program completely new to plasma physics, but with an enthusiasm for science. “I’ve loved science since I was little,” she said. Moten pursues several science-related extracurricular activities, most notably by competing in the science division of the NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) where she competed in both the earth and space science and the physics categories. She is particularly interested in studying the astrophysics applications of plasma physics, such as the natural fusion reactions that occur on stars.

Summer projects

Skolnick is expanding upon his computational background by working with Doug Darrow in the Diagnostics Division on high-speed camera videos of a plasma probe. Skolnick learned a new programming language, Interactive Data Language (IDL), to sort through this massive amount of data to determine which files should be moved onto the PPPL computer network and wrote software to process individual frames of these files to produce graphs and grids from the image data.

“I’m getting a lot of programming experience,” Skolnick said. “I’m learning new languages so I’m getting a really good sense of how computers integrate themselves into this kind of work.”

Darrow said he was impressed by how much knowledge Skolnick possessed when he came into the program. “Murray was extremely capable and energetic and had a lot more background than I expected,” he said. “I would have thought he was a young graduate student from my interactions with him.”

The hands-on research is invaluable for young researchers, Darrow said. “The students get some sense of whether this research life really is for them,” he said. “I’m just appreciative of having the program that brings us these good students and how the students add to my research.”  

Liu spent his summer with Manfred Bitter, a principal research physicist in the Plasma Diagnostics Division, working on an experiment designed to improve the efficiency of microwave imaging on tokamaks.  Liu is excited about what he will accomplish this summer at PPPL. “If we get good results, Dr. Bitter said we could submit it in a journal,” he said. “But otherwise, I think it’s really fun to just be here and do experiments.”

Bitter said Liu wants to pursue plasma physics and is already off to a good start. He will likely present his research at the American Physical Society Conference in the fall and may be able to continue his research. “Jason is fantastic,” Bitter said. “He is so enthusiastic!” Moten’s mentor this summer was Sophia Gershman, a research collaborator in the Science Education department. She is investigating small bright sparks in gas bubbles inside liquids to better understand the way fluids respond to high voltages. “I’m learning a lot from Dr. Gershman,” she said.  

Gershman compared the internship program to language immersion programs in foreign countries only in this case students immerse themselves in physics and find out first-hand how to complete their own research. “They learn the language, they learn the instruments, they learn about safety and they learn the physics,” she said.

“They go from being totally lost for that first week to all of a sudden a few weeks later, they own the project,” Gershman added. “And it happens naturally.”

The students’ work culminated in a poster session on their research this summer on Aug. 14.


U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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