Claudia Bernhardt

“I like what the Lab stands for: the mission of clean energy. The Lab’s mission is the motivator.”

— Claudia Bernhardt

Title & Department: Mechanical Engineer, Engineering

Year started at PPPL: 2021

Originally published in May 2023


An early career engineer finds her “dream job” at PPPL

During her time at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Claudia Bernhardt has rotated through several engineering jobs, been promoted to staff mechanical engineer in the design group and has become one of the leaders of PPPL’s Women in Engineering (WiE) Employee Resource Group.

Bernhardt began working at PPPL in June 2021 in the Engineering Rotational Program, which allows early career engineers to spend six months in different engineering positions at PPPL under the mentorship of senior engineers. Through that position, she was able to work on PPPL’s primary fusion experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U). She worked on diagnostic systems for the international ITER experiment in France and worked on a superconducting magnet project with NSTX-U engineer Yuhu Zhai. She is now working with the design group to help design and build diagnostics for the JT-60SA Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, an international fusion experiment in Japan.

Bernhardt grew up in Staten Island, New York, the middle child of three sisters who were adopted separately from China. Her father is a retired lawyer, and her mother is a homemaker. Bernhardt and her sisters attended Dominican Academy in Manhattan, and Bernhardt earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering at Manhattan College. She worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an intern in college.

Always a strong math student, Bernhardt became interested in physics in high school. She gravitated to engineering in college, an occupation that she and both her sisters have chosen. Her older sister, Katrina, is a chemical engineer who is a senior scientist at Johnson & Johnson and is Bernhardt’s roommate in Somerville, New Jersey. Her younger sister, Francesca, is graduating this year with a degree in mechanical engineering and is going on to graduate school in engineering.

For Bernhardt, choosing an engineering career seemed the best way to make an impact in the world. “I wanted to do something to help other people, and engineering accomplishes that goal in a very special way,” Bernhardt said. “In my freshman year, one professor said, ‘Engineers make the world work.’ People don’t realize that.” She added that she chose mechanical engineering because it gives you a lot of different roads you can go down.

Bernhardt had never heard of PPPL, but when she saw a posting on LinkedIn while searching for jobs in graduate school, she was intrigued. “I read the posting, and I thought, ‘This sounds like a dream job… It’s at Princeton. It’s a research project.’ I didn’t know if I was going to apply because it just sounded too good. I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m that good.’ It was so exciting when I got the interview and the offer. Of everything I was applying for, this was the one I wanted the most.”

An avid volunteer since she was in high school, Bernhardt has brought this energy to PPPL. She was a moderator at the U.S. Department of Energy’s New Jersey Regional Science Bowl contest at PPPL in 2022 and 2023 and helped staff a WiE booth at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference in March 2023. Bernhardt helped to organize the WiE math and science awards given to five high school juniors at the conference. She also arranged a Women’s History Month speaker at the Laboratory and led a drive for a local women’s shelter in which participants earned the right to “pie” a supervisor in honor of Pi Day. Bernhardt and WiE co-chair Cate Biava recently provided expert advice to a local Girl Scout troop that was competing in a national competition to build the best kite.

Bernhardt, far left, with Women in Engineering (WiE) Math & Science Award winners.
Bernhardt, far left, with Women in Engineering (WiE) Math & Science Award winners and WiE co-chair Cate Biava, third from right; engineer Kate Morrison, second from right; and Michael Ford, associate lab director for engineering, far right. (Photo by Jeanne Jackson DeVoe/PPPL Office of Communications.)

Bernhardt said her work with the Women in Engineering group means a lot to her. “We want to ensure the women here are treated fairly and also work toward recruiting women to join PPPL because it is a great place to be,” she said.

Describe your job:

“I am the cognizant engineer for a diagnostic called the transmission grating imaging spectrometer for the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade at PPPL and another diagnostic, the X-ray imaging camera spectrometer for the JT-60SA.

“Each project is different, but essentially, I work with the physicists on their projects to make their dreams come true. I work with them to design a system and work with the computer-aided design team to make sure those details are sorted out through multiple versions. Then, I work with vendors or our shops to get it fabricated and see it through to assembly and installation. That would be the last step before it goes off to do what it’s made to do.”

Bernhardt with Michael Ford, associate lab director for engineering, at PPPL’s Pi Day event.
Bernhardt with Michael Ford, associate lab director for engineering, at PPPL’s Pi Day event. (Photo by B. Rose Huber/PPPL Office of Communications)

Three things about yourself:

  1. “I like to bake, and I often bring items to work, usually cookies and cakes. People really like the cookies that I make!”
  2. “I like going on walks. It’s my time to clear my head and be outside. I usually go on walks as soon as I get home from work, and it’s de-stress time –– just listening to music and de-stressing.”
  3. “My family and I are super close. Just spending time with the people I’m close to and I love is really important to me.”

What do you like about working here?

“I like working with the people at PPPL. I like what the Lab stands for: the mission of clean energy. The Lab’s mission is the motivator. We all have to work toward making the world a better place, and I feel like nowadays, it’s so hard to do. In the past, we’ve done a lot of stuff that we thought was progress, but we didn’t realize the overall impact on humanity. I like working at a place that’s trying to accomplish a clean energy alternative. PPPL is trying to make the world a better place for us and the generations to follow so the next generation has a better place than we live in.”

Bernhardt with Biava and Luis Devarez at the engineering picnic last September.
Bernhardt with Biava and Luis Devarez at the engineering picnic last September. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications.)