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Early-career engineers learn about the wide variety of tasks in PPPL program

Nick Santoro is a military veteran who graduated from college in 2018 and was working as an engineer, but was looking for a job that would allow him to use more of the skills he learned in college. 

Bill Harris recently received his master’s degree in engineering after graduating from a five-year program and was looking for a job that would allow him to do hands-on work designing and building components. 

The two are the first “rotational engineers” at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). They are in a new program that will allow them to do six month-rotations through four jobs in four different engineering areas over two years, while learning skills and receiving mentoring. New engineers will be added to the program each year.

The rotational engineering program was designed by Valeria Riccardo, head of PPPL engineering, who based it on a similar program at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the United Kingdom. It is one of several training programs Riccardo developed over the past year, including PPPL’s technician apprentice program and restarting  PPPL’s engineering internships. 

“The idea of the rotational engineering program is to develop engineers to gain a wide range of engineering skills, so they can then understand where they fit best. I hope giving them a broad insight into how we work will help retain them,” Riccardo said.

“This is another great tool to help recruit the next generation of engineers,” said Andrea Moten, associate director of Human Resources, who helped organize the program. “The  exposure to several engineering divisions gives them a well-rounded experience at PPPL. At the end, hopefully they will be a match for the organization and make a decision to stay.”  

An engineering curriculum 

The rotational engineers began work in June and will change jobs at the end of December. In addition to their jobs, they will complete a curriculum designed by the engineers’ mentor, Michael Viola, and other engineers. The curriculum teaches them everything from how to purchase materials to how to use metrology to do precise measurements.

A licensed professional engineer, Viola will mentor them and ultimately help them obtain professional licenses themselves if they decide to pursue that option. He will remain their mentor throughout the program. “They are getting a lot of excellent experience through the rotational engineer program and they have learned various topics relevant to practical engineering,” Viola said.  “Both have already performed engineering tasks critical to the NSTX-U (National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade) in a professional and timely manner. This is a terrific win-win program and I hope that it continues and grows.” 

Engineer Jonathan Klabacha, Santoro’s supervisor in one of his four assignments, says he views the program as a way to recruit and retain well-rounded highly-skilled engineers. “I think it provided the applicants with more of an exciting option and it allows for more unique candidates to select from,” he said 

Not the traditional entry-level engineer 

Santoro is not the traditional entry-level engineer. He grew up in Milltown, New Jersey, and was an auto mechanic when he graduated from high school. He joined the military as an Air Force reservist where he worked in electrical power production with the 514th Civil Engineering Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County, New Jersey. “I’ve definitely always had an inclination for moving parts,” Santoro said. “Throughout my life, I’ve had to rely on myself to do a lot of things and that’s always been a theme in my life.” 

A first-generation college student, Santoro received an associate degree from Brookdale Community College and went on to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He worked his way through college, receiving a degree in mechanical engineering in 2018. “It’s been tough,” Santoro said. “I feel I had less resources than others.” 

A resident of Somerset, New Jersey, Santoro is taking graduate engineering courses at Rutgers University while working at PPPL. A former B-league men’s ice hockey player, he hopes to get back to the sport when he is less busy.

Santoro said he came to PPPL because he wanted to put the engineering skills he’d learned in college to good use. He worked for a year as an engineer for a mechanical contracting company but he wanted something more. 

“I knew PPPL had a reputation for having quality people here with a science background and just reading about what we do here, I felt like this would be a place where I would definitely be more challenge and my job would be more applicable to the things I’d learned,” he explained.

At PPPL, Santoro has worked in a group designing new plasma-facing components, graphite tiles that line the inside of the National Spherical Tokamak Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) tokamak, or fusion energy device. One of his projects has been to predict how a spongy material called Grafoil that holds the graphite tiles in place will react to the high temperatures of fusion experiments. That has required Santoro to do a great deal of research and calculations to come up with an answer.

Klabacha said Santoro has made strong contributions to his team. “He’s been a very strongly-driven, focused individual,” Klabacha said. “He’s taking time to do research in scholarly journals and he’s taking time to check all the work he’s doing, which is absolutely phenomenal.” 

Bill Harris likes ability to do hands-on engineering

Bill Harris grew up in Chesterfield, New Jersey. He graduated in May from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering through the scholar’s program for honors students. He worked in engineering-related positions for several companies through the school’s co-op program. In his most recent position with LiquidPiston in Bloomfield, Connecticut, Harris designed and tested rotary engines.

Harris concentrated on thermal, fluids, and energy in his master’s program. He said he was attracted by PPPL’s mission of developing fusion energy as an affordable, plentiful and safe means of generating electricity. He liked the fact that PPPL is small enough to allow engineers to do hands-on work designing, building and testing components. “I saw the job description and the idea of the Lab and what it was offering in terms of the vast scope of different opportunities really interested me,” Harris said. “I thought this would be really cool.” 

Harris and his fiancée live in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is an avid skier who enjoys playing the bass guitar and banjo and also rides Enduro off-road motorcycles. He enjoys working on motorcycle and car engines in his spare time. 

Harris is working with engineer Steve Raftopoulos on a fall protection system for technicians working on NSTX-U. That task has required in-depth research into Occupational Safety and Health Administration and American National Standards Institute regulations. He has done numerous calculations and has worked closely with PPPL’s Environmental Safety and Health group to make sure the design met PPPL’s safety requirements. He has consulted with technicians in PPPL’s technical shops to make sure it could be easily built, said Raftopoulos.  Harris presented his plans to engineers at a successful final design review in early October. 

Harris’s next assignment will be working on a diagnostic device called the low field side reflectometer that will analyze and control the plasma in the international fusion experiment ITER, being built in France. Santoro’s next stop will be working on diagnostics for the NSTX-U, the devices used to measure and analyze the super-hot plasma in fusion experiments.

Raftopoulos said PPPL had a similar rotation in the 1980s when he first started at PPPL. “It gives them a chance to see the various aspects of engineering at the Lab and it gives the Lab a chance to evaluate them,” Raftopoulos said. "I'd like to see this program as the standard for all early-career engineering hires."

Harris said he has learned a lot from Viola and Raftopoulos and other senior engineers. “They have so much institutional knowledge that’s really critical,” he said. “You need to talk to them so that you understand what we’ve already done.”

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 single largest 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, visitenergy.gov/science.

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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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