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Forgoing beach, high school students spend summer studying physics

While most teenagers might have been spending the hot summer months at the beach, a dedicated crew of high school students devoted the past three months conducting physics and engineering research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). On August 8, 15 high school students from the New Jersey area and around the country who had participated in the 10-week high school internship program presented their findings in a poster session. Topics ranged from visualizing earthquakes to designing new probes for plasma devices, updating equations in computer code that models doughnut-shaped fusion machines known as tokamaks, and building a system to wind electrical wires made from superconducting metal compounds.

During the program, the students were paired with PPPL scientists and engineers who acted as mentors and guided the students through their research projects. The summer culminated in the poster session, during which the students presented their findings to their peers, as well as PPPL staff.

The internship program began decades ago at PPPL as a way to introduce students to plasma physics careers before they embarked on their college experiences. The goal was to inculcate a passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and to introduce developing fusion energy as a possible career path. “College freshmen often choose their major based on whether they did well in a particular subject in school, with little knowledge or experience of what it’s like to actually work in that field,” said Shannon Greco, an administrator of the internship program and PPPL Science Education Program Leader. “This internship gives these students a clear picture of what scientific research is like, exposure to the subfield of plasma physics, and confidence in their abilities as a researcher so they can get the most of their college experience.”

PPPL scientists volunteer to be mentors because of the enormous benefits of the program to the students. “The PPPL high school internship program is important because it provides exceptional students, at an early age, with valuable insight into technologies they may not be familiar with,” said Charles Gentile, head of tritium systems at PPPL and a regular mentor. “The program provides insights into research at a DOE national laboratory, and helps students from different backgrounds and geographical areas meet and exchange ideas.”

One student, Sanjna Ravichandar, from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in West Windsor, New Jersey, helped design a probe that could measure fluctuations at the edge of plasma within facilities like tokamaks. “Before this internship, I didn’t know a lot about plasma,” Ravichandar said. “Now I would consider plasma physics as a career. This internship opened up a whole new field for me,” she added. “I didn’t know this field existed, and now I’m not sure how many other fields there might be that I don’t know about.”

Steven Udotong, a student at Cinnaminson High School, located near Philadelphia, spent his time designing a superconducting magnetic coil system to be used on future tokamaks that have liquid metal walls. “Before this internship, I didn’t know a lot about thermodynamics or the computer codes needed to model the construction of electromagnets,” Udotong said. He plans to study electrical engineering in the future and claims that “this experience has given me a head start.” He is already a minor celebrity on the New Jersey fusion scene, having been featured in the news last year for his efforts to build a homemade fusion device known as a fusor.

Wendy Yu, a student at High Technology High School in New Jersey’s Monmouth County, spent her summer developing a new interactive online dashboard program that would allow multiple researchers in different locations working on a fusion machine to analyze the same data. “This was an amazing opportunity to learn about plasma physics,” Wendy said. “It really showed me what it’s like to be a working scientist.”

As the students head to school this fall, Greco is confident that they will be better positioned to take research opportunities early in their college career. “Now they have a place in the scientific community and they have identities as researchers,” she said. “I want them to carry this knowledge with them as they embark on STEM careers; it will help them. And I hope they let me know how it works out!”

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

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