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Cynthia Phillips, ground-breaking expert in plasma waves & Princeton graduate school lecturer, dies after long illness

Cynthia K. Phillips, a physicist at PPPL for 32 years and a former lecturer in Princeton’s graduate program in plasma physics, died on Sept. 1 after a long battle with cancer. Phillips devoted her life’s research to the study of radio frequency waves in plasmas and was a founder of a high-performance computing center to advance that research. She was 61.

“She was an extraordinarily talented individual who really cared about fusion research, cared about PPPL and did everything she could to move the Lab forward and keep the Lab in the forefront of fusion research,” said J. Randy Wilson, the former head of the ITER and Tokamak Department at PPPL, who retired in 2013 and who worked with Phillips since she began her career at PPPL in 1983.

Using high-performance computers

Phillips’ research centered on the behavior of radio frequency (RF) waves, which can be used to heat plasma to create fusion energy or control the plasma. Phillips and other researchers used high-performance computers to create computer models to predict the complex behavior of RF waves.

“Cynthia Phillips contributed greatly to the advancement of RF physics within the RF community at large,” said Joel Hosea, head of RF Science and Technology at PPPL. “She is a giant among RF physicists in the world community. She will be sorely missed.”

Phillips was a lecturer with the rank of professor who taught graduate courses in plasma physics for at least a dozen years. She was passionate about her research and continued working almost until the end of her life despite her illness.

She was named a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2005 and was an APS Division of Plasma Physics Distinguished Lecturer from 2001 to 2002. Among numerous other activities, she was a member of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee for the DOE from 1998 to 2004.

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Phillips grew up in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River. An aspiring scientist in high school, she wrote a letter to NASA in the early 1970s inquiring how to become an astronaut but was told that NASA only accepted male astronauts.

She received a bachelor’s degree of science from MIT in 1976.  Phillips’ husband Michael recounts the story of Phillips’ admission interview for MIT. Phillips’ mother told her she should not go to the interview without bringing something, so Phillips brought a home-baked pie. “She always did what she thought was right,” Michael Phillips said. “She was the genuine article.”

A sharp wit and tough questions

Phillips attended graduate school in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and there she met her husband, who is also a physicist.  “I thought she was a little brash at first,” Michael Phillips recalled. “She had a very sharp wit and always had the tough questions ready.” His wife-to-be would call him up to ask a question about a topic they were studying and then answer her own question before she hung up. He resolved to ask her out and the two were married the year Phillips graduated in 1982.

Phillips was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin before coming to PPPL, where she would remain the rest of her life.

She began her career at PPPL on the Princeton Large Torus. She went on to do “ground-breaking experiments and theory” on research into radio-frequency waves on the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), Hosea said. She continued to study RF waves on the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) and was appointed acting head of Physics Analysis in 2002. “She had the rare quality of being able to bring together experimentalists and theorists/modelers to tackle the basic issues of RF physics and to bring her fundamental understanding to solving them,” Hosea said.

A founder of high-performance computing center

Phillips devoted a great deal of energy over the past decade to establishing a high-performance computing center devoted to RF wave research. Paul Bonoli, a senior research scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, credits Phillips and Don Batchelor, a recently retired physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), with pioneering the effort to establish the Radio Frequency SciDAC, (Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing). The multi-institution center is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and used by researchers at PPPL, MIT, ORNL and several smaller laboratories.

“Cynthia and Don really had a vision that our area of research, RF particle interactions, could benefit from high-performance computing advances and it turns out to be true,” Bonoli said. “I really relied on her not only for her scientific advice but also for her clear understanding. She had a good strategic view of the fusion program and she always seemed to understand where things were heading. It’s very valuable and something I will miss tremendously.”

Most recently, Phillips focused on a phenomenon that can occur in certain types of RF heating, which she first discovered through a computer model she developed of the plasma in PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX). The model and subsequent models showed that the original RF wave can convert into a slower short wave that affects the process that heats the plasma and creates fusion. She is the first author of a paper on this subject due to be submitted this year to the journal Physics of Plasmas, along with coauthors Lee Berry and Fred Jaeger, of Oak Ridge.  

Bringing experience into the classroom

A natural teacher, Phillips brought her experience as a scientist into the classroom in her graduate course on plasma waves. She taught until illness forced her to stop a few years ago. “I saw that she would be an excellent addition to the program because she combined her research interests together with a real innate desire to teach and to mentor,” said Nat Fisch, director of the Program in Plasma Physics, who first recruited her. “She played a wonderful role within the teaching program and she was a role model for everyone, particularly for women in physics. The teaching program is just not the same without her.”

Phillips was often the only female physicist at the Laboratory and she made a special effort to mentor female graduate students. A member of the Women in Plasma Physics Division of the American Physical Society, “She was always willing to give some extra time to any of the inquiring females who might be interested in coming into our program,” said Barbara Sarfaty, the former administrator of the program and a friend of Phillips. “She was always interested in trying to boost women into physics, especially plasma physics.”

Sarfaty said Phillips’ students “adored her. I think they all looked up to her,” she said. “I think she was very honest with them and very forthcoming.”

Nicola Bertelli, a physicist at PPPL who worked with Phillips when he was a post-doctoral fellow, recalled first meeting her during interviews for the position. Like the other researchers, Phillips asked him numerous scientific questions but she also asked him what novel he was currently reading. “I think this memory describes Cynthia,” Bertelli said. “She was a very nice and very good person besides her clear scientific abilities and her career.”

Cynthia and Michael, a retired physicist at Northrop Grumann Corp., lived in Princeton. Friends and family members say Phillips was devoted to her son Benjamin and was close to her sister and two brothers. A talented cook who had won the Betty Crocker homemaker award in high school, she was known in her family for packing a picnic for even the shortest trips.

Michael Phillips said he most admired his wife’s ability to talk to anybody. “She could easily just go talk to the Department of Energy secretary and find something in common with him as well as anyone else,” he said.

A long battle with illness

Phillips had been ill for about a decade with carcinoids, a slow-growing type of neuroendocrine tumor that eventually spread to her liver and then her lungs. She fought hard against the disease – researching the latest treatments and even traveling to Europe to find treatments that were not yet approved in the United States. She lived to see Benjamin graduate from Princeton High School and then from Cornell University and get a job at Google in California.

She worked at PPPL until she wasn’t physically able to continue working, her husband said. “She loved PPPL. It was her life,” he said. “She enjoyed the people and her colleagues at PPPL and at other labs around the country and internationally too. It was a big part of her life and she would have missed it if she wasn’t involved in it.”

Services for Cynthia Phillips will be on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. at Saint Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, 215 Nassau St., Princeton, N.J.


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