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Delgado-Aparicio urges middle school students to pursue careers in science and join the quest for fusion energy

Physicist Luis Delgado-Aparicio told middle school students attending a conference of Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement (HISPA) at Princeton University to follow their dreams and to pursue careers in science even if the path is difficult.

In a keynote speech to about 100 students on June 5, Delgado-Aparicio said he was already working as an engineer when he decided to become a physicist, a decision that meant many more years of graduate school, first at Princeton University and then at Johns Hopkins University, where he got his PhD before joining PPPL. Many of his friends didn’t understand his decision. “My colleagues were telling me, “Do medicine, do law, do engineering. Why do something more complicated?”

“Doing science is not easy”

But Delgado-Aparicio was determined. “I am who I am and I need to pursue what I want. Doing science is not easy,” he said. “If you want to be a scientist, it will be a tricky business. But it pays a lot. You will be happy from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed.”

His talk headlined a conference titled, “Take action! Achieve your dreams!” The 180 students attending the  event listened to speakers and a panel discussion of Hispanic college students, and took part in workshops and hands-on science experiments. The organization aims to connect students with role models who will encourage them to succeed in school and go on to higher education.

In introductory remarks, Axel Carrión, a division operations manager at United Postal Service, noted that the high school graduation rate has climbed from 54 percent in 1984 to over 80 percent in 2014. But the graduation rate was only 13 percent for Hispanic students enrolled in two-year colleges and just 9 percent for students at four-year colleges. “What we’re really looking for is for that trend to reverse and it starts with everyone in this room,” Carrión said.

Romy Riddick, Princeton University assistant vice-president for Human Resources, noted that Princeton’s graduation had taken place a few days earlier. “I’m hoping that in 10 years we’ll see you walking across campus,” she told the students.

Ivonne Diaz-Claisse, the president of HISPA, spoke of her journey earning a PhD in mathematics as a Puerto Rican student who was less than fluent in English. The room in which Delgado-Aparicio’s gave his speech is called the Albert Einstein room, she said, because it recreates the look of a lecture room from the era when Albert Einstein taught seminars at Princeton in the 1930s. Einstein, and Mexican astronaut Jose Hernandez were two of her role models. She said she hoped students would find their own role models at the conference.  

Energy is vital for the future

Delgado-Aparicio’s speech focused on his own experiences and PPPL’s goal of studying the scientific basis for developing fusion as a source of energy for producing electricity. Having sufficient energy in the future is vital for everyone, he said. “You will not be able to follow your dreams if you do not have energy,” he said.

Delgado-Aparicio pointed out that energy consumption around the world has nearly doubled in the last 40 years. Other energy sources have limitations, he said. Some, like natural gas, have a limited supply, while others, like coal, produce greenhouse gases that harm the environment. But fusion energy would not pollute the air and would use hydrogen for fuel, which is in plentiful supply in the world’s oceans. “It is safe, it’s nearly inexhaustible, it’s extremely efficient, and it doesn’t matter where you are, you can build one of those reactors and hopefully it will be available 24-7,” he said.

The physicist recently won a $2.6 million Early Career Research Award sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The five-year grant will fund Delgado-Aparicio’s research aimed at eliminating a key barrier to developing fusion energy.

“Immense rewards” of a science career

Delgado-Aparicio said his career in science has already taken him from Peru to the United States and to England and France. He noted that there are fusion experiments all over the world, including Russia, Switzerland, Japan, India, and Korea. An international fusion experiment called ITER, which means “the way” in Latin, is currently being built in Cadarache, France, and could create a plasma by the year 2025. “If any of you do engineering or chemistry, you could work on this machine in the south of France,” he said. “The challenges are great but the rewards are immense.”

He urged students with an interest in science to join him and other scientists in the quest to make fusion energy a reality. “I want to encourage all of you who have even a little bit of a science mind to choose engineering, to choose chemistry or physics, to have the courage to pursue that,” Delgado-Aparicio said. “I would like to ask all of us to achieve our dreams and to develop a star on earth.”


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

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