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Undergraduate students extoll benefits of national laboratory research internships in fusion and plasma science

They gathered in the lobby of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in dresses and suits, standing in front of posters showing computer-aided-design (CAD) drawings, mathematical equations, and line graphs, preparing to explain a summer of plasma physics research. On August 15, a cohort of undergraduate students who had participated in the Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) and Community College Internship (CCI) programs presented the results of the plasma physics work they had completed since their internships began on June 11, in projects touching on computer science, mechanical engineering, and artificial intelligence.

“Every year, the group of students that we have is more dynamic then the previous year; the bar is constantly moving higher with each new group of students and this year was no exception,” said DeeDee Ortiz, the science education program manager at PPPL and administrator of the two internships. “They are brilliant and funny and kind, but most importantly, extremely hard working. They have taken their research skills to all new levels and will be better researchers and engineers because of this experience.”

For Jack Schroeder, a rising senior majoring in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the internship offered a view into a wider science world than what he was used to. “I had a very positive experience this summer,” Schroeder said. “It was really cool just being at PPPL and seeing people do cutting-edge research in a wide variety of fields.” His project involved investigating the heating of plasmas, a topic that pertains to a long-standing astronomical conundrum: why is the atmosphere of the sun, known as the corona, millions of degrees hotter than its surface? “I was fortunate because the project mixed together both physics and astronomy, two of my interests,” Schroeder noted.  

Jalal Butt, a rising senior majoring in physics at Central Connecticut State University, found the experience transformative. “This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” he testified. Collaborating with PPPL scientists Egemen Kolemen and Ahmed Diallo, Butt studied how deep learning computer programs, a form of artificial intelligence, could predict the behavior of plasma within ring-shaped plasma facilities known as tokamaks designed to help understand fusion. “Now I know I want to go into fusion research,” he stated. “This is what I want to do with my life.” 

Kolemen noted that this is not the first time he has witnessed the SULI and CCI programs eliciting good scientific work from the students and launching them in a new research direction. “In the past, I’ve seen undergrads do work at the level of our PPPL graduate students,” he said. “And I’ve seen many undergrads who came in thinking that plasma was boring be blown away by the internship experience and decide to pursue plasma physics as a career path.”

Jill Peery, a rising senior physics major at Willamette University, did theoretical research involving simulations exploring how the collisions of particles intersects with the plasma’s magnetic field strength. “I really loved that I was able to find concrete results for my own research, which no one has done before, rather than redo experiments that have been done before,” she said.

And Alma Pineda, a rising junior at the University of California-Berkeley majoring in applied mathematics who completed research simulating tiny structures known as boron nitride nanotubes, found that the experience solidified her interests. “I loved working with this programming code, even though it was hard,” she said. “That’s what I came here for — to see if I like research and computational physics.”

While the narrow purpose of the internships is to help undergraduates refine their interests and introduce them to the larger world of STEM research (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the PPPL programs have a larger significance in that they help prepare budding scientists for a future that could revolutionize how electricity is produced around the world. “Programs like the SULI internship are essential to the future of science, and in our case, fusion,” Ortiz said. “These are the scientists and engineers who will solve the issues we are facing with fusion today.”

The SULI and CCI internships are sponsored by the Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists at the DOE’s Office of Science.

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.

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

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