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PPPL intern creates software for snapshot of plasma in NSTX-U

When most of today’s college interns were still in kindergarten, Max Wallace was working for more than a decade as a programmer for various companies, founding a hackerspace in Charlotte, North Carolina, and writing code for start-ups in Silicon Valley.

He gave it all up to return to college with the ambitious goal of becoming a physicist and working to make fusion energy a viable source of generating electricity. A student at Laney College in Oakland, California, Wallace was an intern for two summers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) through the Community College Internship (CCI) program. He has used his talents to develop a tool that can give scientists a quick snapshot of individual plasma experiments or “shots” in PPPL’s $94 million National Spherical Tokamak Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U).

Wallace said his experience as an intern at PPPL has been invaluable. “Working on plasma and working on fusion in Princeton at this Lab is beyond anything I could have hoped for,” Wallace said. “The world’s experts are here and no matter how silly your question is or what your experience is, they will sit down and explain everything to you. I’m really enjoying that.”

Wallace’s advisor, physicist Ahmed Diallo, said Wallace has a professional attitude that came from his years of experience in the corporate world. “He brings a lot to the table,” Diallo said. “I like people who are go-getters and hard workers.”

A faster, easier tool

Working with Diallo, Wallace developed software that uses an established set of tools to analyze fusion experiments to get a snapshot of various plasma parameters essential to producing energy at any point in the experiment. The visualization tool, which they call “ThomsonViz,” uses Multipoint Thomson Scattering, an established method of measuring the temperature, density, and pressure in fusion devices.

The “ThomsonViz” tool can show scientists any of these factors at any point during an experiment or shot just by moving the cursor. It is a faster and easier tool for scientists than many similar programs, Wallace and Diallo said. “Any interested researcher or scientist can quickly review the shot, see if this is something they want to study further and get a fast understanding of the shot behavior,” Wallace explained. Diallo said his main role as a mentor will now be “to push to see if other people will use it.”

Wallace came to his interest in physics and in academia later in life than many people. He calls himself a “recovering dot-NET programmer” in his LinkedIn profile and says that while he is flattered in recruiters’ interest in his .NET skills, “I’m really content chasing fusion reactor design right now.” He adds that, “I also don’t really have grown-up business clothes anymore.”

Wallace hopes to present a poster on the “ThomsonViz” program at the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics conference in San Jose, California, along with one other Community College Intern student and 23 Student Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) students from PPPL. Both programs are sponsored and managed by the DOE’s Office of Science's Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists.

A programming career after high school

He became a programmer straight after high school. He tells the story of how he got his first job at a real estate company where he had been hired to scan massive numbers of documents. He programmed the scanner to automatically scan the documents and left work to go to the mall. When his boss saw what Wallace had done, he fired him. But the boss then hired him back a few days later to reproduce the code he used to scan all the company’s documents. The company became one of the first real estate companies to digitize its documents. 

Wallace worked for several different companies in the Charlotte area. In 2010, he founded a hackerspace, where people like himself could get together to learn about various technologies. The hackerspace won fame when it won a Guinness world record by painting a 10,000-square-foot QR code on a building rooftop.

Wallace and his wife Raquel, who is also a programmer, moved to San Francisco four years ago to work in software. Wallace worked for various companies, including a wine company that analyzes consumer drinking habits. His most recent programming job was at a start-up that offered consumer loans. Wallace optimized a code that automatically sent out rejection letters for loans. “When you optimize a code until it is capable of sending 5,000 rejection letters a second you’re not helping anybody,” Wallace said. “That’s not something society needs.”

Envisioning a career in fusion energy

He wound up quitting that job and rethinking his career. The turning point came when his mother-in-law asked him, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” When he pondered that question he thought, “The planet has some genuine problems and I’d like to work on them.” That is how he came to further investigate a technology he had always been interested in: fusion energy.

Wallace has become an evangelist for fusion energy. “The ultimate goal is to invent a fusion reactor and save the world,” he says.

But he must first get through college and graduate school. Diallo has warned him that becoming a physicist is a long process that can take at least five years once you get admitted to graduate school. “I told him it’s a commitment,” Diallo said.

Wallace does not seem intimidated by that prospect. He hopes to come back to PPPL one day as a graduate student and he encourages other undergraduates to apply for internships. “The message I would have for anybody who’s interested in working as an intern at PPPL is just go ahead and do it. Don’t worry if you’re not good enough. Don’t worry if you’re too old. There’s a very large scope of work to be done here.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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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