A Collaborative National Center for Fusion & Plasma Research

Young scientists show off hands-on research projects at PPPL

For Dhruvit Patel, a rising senior majoring in mechanical engineering and physics at Rutgers University, the 10 weeks he spent at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) were a welcome opportunity to do hands-on research.

He spent the summer working on a nozzle that can be used to coat the inner wall of a tokamak – a plasma fusion device – with liquid metal. But before he even got started, he had to do a lot of research and preparation. 

“I learned the majority of things that really have to happen before you begin the experiment,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to think scientifically.” 

Patel was one of 21 students in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program to take part in an Aug. 16 poster session at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) PPPL. Also taking part in the poster session were Community College Internship (CCI) program students, engineering interns, and high school interns, bringing the total number of participants to 32.

Challenging projects

“I’m very proud of them,” said Deedee Ortiz, the Science Education program coordinator, who organizes the internship programs at PPPL. “It’s impressive. They work on very challenging projects.”

Physicist Egemen Kolemen worked with four SULI students over the summer. “The only way to learn anything is hands-on and they get that opportunity here,” Kolemen said. “They work hard and they learn that if you work hard and do your research, you can do anything.”

N.J. Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin and N.J. Sen. Linda Greenstein also attended the event, along with a representative from Assemblyman Erik Peterson’s office.  “We need science more than ever today,” Greenstein said. “I definitely have a lot of respect for these young people, whose work I know we’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the future.”

Madeline Griffin, a mechanical engineering major at Notre Dame University, and Kerry Jones, a junior majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Connecticut, worked with engineer Charles Gentile to design a portable tritium cleanup system. In addition to learning about tritium, the two young women said they also learned about the design process. “I learned that your first idea won’t be the actual idea,” Jones said. “I learned how much your idea will change by the time you get to an actual design,” Griffin added. 

Learning to ask questions

Hikmah Okoya, a high school intern who graduated from the Northstar Academy in Newark and is attending Bowdoin College this fall, said she also learned a lot about the scientific process in her work on a neutron bubble counter. “I’m someone who likes to rush to get a result but this project really does require time and understanding,” she said. “It taught me to ask questions when I need to.” 

For Dhruval Patel, a SULI student from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in nuclear radiological engineering, the program was an opportunity to see a variety of research fields. “I got to see all these other research areas, like liquid metal, that I hadn’t even considered,” Patel said.

Nathaniel Barbour, a SULI program participant and senior majoring in physics at Yale University, said he has been interested in plasma physics since high school. When he met PPPL physicist Arturo Dominguez, a Science Education senior program leader, at a conference for the National Society of Black Physicists, “it was like finding the mother ship,” Barbour said. 

Barbour said he learned a lot about machine learning on his project designing a machine learning program that uses data from lower currents in plasma to predict high currents that can cause disruptions in fusion experiments. 

The internship also helped him see a clearer career path, Barbour said. “I always wanted to work in fusion some day, I just didn’t know how to get there,” he said. “One of the things I’ve taken away from the program is there’s so many areas that have to be solved for fusion to become a reality.” 

The SULI and CCI programs are funded by the DOE Office of Science.  Many of the students will present their research at the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics Conference in Milwaukee this October.

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. 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.



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