Joseph Winston

Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

March 18, 2024

“Here we are trying to do what the sun does — make fusion energy. I find that mind-boggling. It’s inspiring.”

– Joseph Winston


Title & Department: Field supervisor, National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade Reassembly, Engineering

Year started at the Lab: 1969

Joseph Winston has been at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) for more than 50 years and has worked on some of the Laboratory’s biggest experiments. These include the Model C Stellarator, the Princeton Large Torus –– an early tokamak at the Laboratory, the record-breaking Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) and the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX).

Winston is now the supervisor of 20 technicians assigned to reassemble the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), which is being rebuilt. NSTX-U is a spherical tokamak that is smaller and more compact than traditional doughnut-shaped devices and could provide a model for fusion energy pilot plants.

Joe Winston working on mechanical parts of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR)

Winston at work at the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). (Photo credit: PPPL Archives)

Winston was recently named the February 2024 I CAN STEM New Jersey Role Model by the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network. He also won the President’s Achievement Award, one of Princeton University’s highest honors for employees, in 2010.

Winston joined PPPL in March of 1969 when he was just 18 years old after being recruited from a vocational school in Newark, New Jersey, to do electronics. For almost two years, he worked on components for the Model C Stellarator, the largest of a series of stellarators. But Winston’s career at the Laboratory was interrupted by the Vietnam War.

In December of 1970, Winston joined the Air Force and served four years, including a year in Thailand repairing fighter jets. He was honorably discharged in 1974 and returned to PPPL. By then, no electronics jobs were available, so Winston became a machine technician. One of his first assignments was on the Princeton Large Torus, a tokamak that began operating in 1975.

The well-known physicist Melvin B. Gottlieb was the PPPL director when Winston first started. Winston recalls working with physicist Wolfgang Stodiek in the early days of his career. He went on to work with numerous physicists, including Jonathan Menard, deputy director for research and chief research officer, whom he worked with on the NSTX when Menard was a graduate student and early career physicist.

Winston and his wife, Melvera, live in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. They have three daughters, Arlisa, Chanta and Chelsea; two sons, Winston and Chris; and seven grandchildren, Terrance, Chris, Cholie, Aliya, Kalani, Mason and Winston.

Winston says he is asked at least once a day whether he plans to retire. He says he has for many years adopted the philosophy that “If you have something you like, do it until you can’t do it anymore.” But he likely will retire after the rebuilt NSTX-U is fully assembled.

Winston and other technicians examine the NSTX-U center stack in 2014

Winston and other technicians examine the NSTX-U center stack in 2014. (Photo credit: PPPL Archives) 

Describe your job:

“I try to keep 20 technicians busy on a daily basis. Our job is reassembly — that means any diagnostics or components of the machine that need to be added. We’re the people who get with the engineers, learn the procedures and do that assembly. If there are repairs that need to be done, we do repairs, and if testing is needed, we do testing.”

Three things about yourself:

  1. “My hobby is computer repairs. I put together old ones and give them new life.”
  2. “I love fishing from canals. A boat is not for me.”
  3. “I’m originally from North Carolina. I grew up in an agricultural society.”

What experiments have you worked on? 

“I was on the Princeton Large Torus (PLT) for six or seven years. I thought it was an interesting machine. That was my first experience working on a test reactor. I became one of the primary technicians for vacuum vessel work. The vacuum wasn’t that big, but if you have claustrophobic issues, that wasn’t a place you wanted to be. I had been in close spaces as an airman in the military when I had to crawl inside the wings to change the fuel probes, so it didn’t bother me.”

I was on the TFTR from start to finish. Coming from PLT, where everything was so small and the spaces were so tight, it was a joy and a relief to get on a machine where I could fit my whole body inside. It was a bigger machine, so there was more we could do.

I started on the assembly when I was on NSTX, so I could see it from the start. It was smaller than the PLT, but we thought, ‘We have all these years of experience; we know how to put this together without any major issues,’ and that’s what we did. We learned as we went along that there are some subtleties, but I’d been down this road before with two other machines. Rebuilding the NSTX-U has been challenging, but we understand what we need to do.”

What experiment did you work on personally that inspired you?

“It was a privilege working on TFTR because I was chosen to be a machine technician on it, and I ended up supervising a crew of technicians. Whenever there was something that wasn’t quite right, myself and the other technicians would have some idea of where to look because we saw the assembly, and we were there on a daily basis.”

What research is PPPL working on now that gives you hope for the future?

“We’re getting closer to fusion, and NSTX-U will be a very productive machine. What we’re doing makes sense, and it’s good work. All the technicians know that. Folks believe this is what we need to be doing.”

What does working at PPPL mean to you?

“The technicians at PPPL are my work family. It’s just my work ethic. When you work with a crew for a bunch of years, they become like a family. Here we are trying to do on the Earth what the sun does — make fusion energy. I find that mind-boggling. It’s inspiring.”

Joe Winston giving a tour of NSTX-U to NJ Governor Phil Murphy
Winston gives a tour of the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in 2023. (Photo by Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications)