A Collaborative National Center for Fusion & Plasma Research

From Nashville to New Hampshire, PPPL’s student interns do research, attend classes and socialize from their home computers

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s internship programs have gone virtual with 47 interns from all over the U.S. working on projects remotely and hundreds tuning in to a virtual introductory course in plasma physics and fusion energy. 

Arturo Dominguez, Science Education senior program leader who organizes the program along with Deedee Ortiz, program manager, told students at an introductory meeting that while working from home isn’t ideal, the ability to hold classes through remote meetings meant he could get a wide variety of speakers from all over the and allow hundreds of people to attend. “Ultimately what we want to do is to make lemonade out of this lemon of a situation,” Dominguez said. “We want to make it so that everybody has a great internship and makes the most out of it.”

Most of PPPL’s interns are enrolled in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI), but there are also interns in DOE’s Community College Internship (CCI) program, as well as PPPL’s Engineering Internship program. SULI and CCI are  sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS).

“You are part of something new,” Andrew Zwicker, head of Communications and Public Outreach, told the students. “We’ve been doing this internship for 30-plus years and never have we done it this way before. Our hope is that we can put together a summer of research that is interesting and meaningful.”

Dominguez and Ortiz held a “virtual barbecue” social hour for students on Sunday, June 7, at which he mapped the location of students, which stretched from coast to coast, and included Nashville, Tennessee, and Columbia, Missouri.

The two organizers had to adjust the program due to PPPL’s curtailment of on-site operations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dominguez said he also had to adjust some of the research projects students will work on. He asked researchers to replace hands-on experiments with research projects involving data analysis, computation, and modeling, which do not require on-site access.

The interns are among more than 600 people from all over the world who attended two-week “Introduction to Fusion Energy and Plasma Physics Course.” They joined students from research programs in private industry, other DOE national labs, and universities.

Dominguez said he was inspired by the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics Community Planning Process to revamp the course to highlight research areas related to plasma physics and fusion energy more widely, such as materials science, mechanical engineering concerns, astrophysics, coding, and commercialization of fusion energy. The  course included a two-part “Introduction to Fusion,” by Steve Cowley, PPPL director. It also included a talk on “The Commercialization of Fusion Energy” by Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and astrophysical high energy density physics by Carolyn Kuranz, of the University of Michigan.  Videos of the talks and their slides are available on the course website

Learning invaluable research skills

The internships are invaluable to the students despite the challenges of working remotely, Dominguez said, because they teach students the skills they need for graduate school and the workplace. Students become accustomed in their classroom to working on problems or experiments that have a predetermined solution, Dominguez said. But there are no guarantees of a solution in actual research. “They have to tackle the problems with an open end and they develop a lot of skill sets, including coding and mathematical tools,” Dominguez said. “Recruiters and graduate schools really value this.”

In fact, each of the students will be expected to prepare a presentation for a virtual poster session this summer. Many will also submit abstracts of their research to the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics Conference Nov. 9 to 13, which will be held remotely this year as well.

Students were offered the chance to defer their internships for a future term instead of this summer, but only a few opted for that. And while students won’t be on site this summer, they will still meet regularly with their PPPL mentors, and have weekly workshops with researchers and graduate students. They stay in touch with each other through a virtual chat room and Ortiz offers daily office hours so they can iron out any questions. “Getting students to bond socially is a challenge, she said. “It’s tough,” Ortiz said. “But I’m determined to make it work – so whatever it takes I’m going to do it.”

The introductory meeting was a “virtual barbecue,” where they introduced themselves, briefly discussed their research projects, and talked about what they’ve been doing since they have been quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students reported that they were painting, rediscovering the piano, learning the guitar, hiking, gardening, playing ping pong, discovering new television shows and reading.  Jessica Eskew, of Atlanta, a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said she dyed her hair purple, and is working on a science education project called “Skype a Scientist.” Matt Nigh, of Plainfield, Wisconsin, a fifth-year student at the University of Wisconsin, built his own computer.

Here are some examples of students and their work:

Marcus Holley, Trenton, New Jersey: Creating computer codes to control plasma

Marcus Holley, of Trenton, a rising senior majoring in computer engineering at the College of New Jersey, lives a short distance from the Laboratory but he is doing his engineering internship from home. Holley will be working with Greg Tchilinguirian, Plant Instrumentation and Control Group leader, coding control systems. 

Holley said he learned about PPPL when staff came to speak to the National Society of Black Engineers group at his college, on which he is a member of the executive board. “I thought it was cool. It’s something I’d never heard of. Nobody ever talks about fusion energy as an energy source of the future,” he said. But that wasn’t the first time he learned about PPPL. He had come to PPPL twice to take part in the New Jersey Regional Science Bowl as a member of the Hedgepeth Williams Middle School team.

Holley lost his on-campus job when he and other students around the country had to finish his semester at home, so he got a job at a local grocery store. He is continuing to work night shifts after finishing work for PPPL. He said he is very excited to have the internship. “I am ecstatic. I could not be any happier,” he said. “Even though it is remote, that doesn’t upset me because I feel like I can still learn a lot.”

Kristin Koepnick, Nashville, Tennessee: Modeling magnetic field lines on stellarators

Kristin Koepnick, a SULI student who is a rising senior at Bates College in Maine, is working from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. A double major in physics and mathematics with a dance minor, she said she was attracted by the reputation of PPPL’s Theory Department and by PPPL’s mission of developing fusion energy as a clean, affordable, and plentiful source of generating electric energy. “I am really interested in the intersection between abstract mathematics and physics,” she explained, “and I’m also a very passionate environmentalist.”

Koepnick is working with physicist Chris Smiet on a project to create models of the magnetic field lines of stellarators. The only required tools are a pen and paper and a computer, she said, so working at home is not difficult. She said she enjoys applying mathematics to real concepts. “I come from a fairly pure mathematics standpoint, so I have been taught the abstract group theories and topology and algebra and those abstract fields,” she said, “It’s really interesting to have those combined in a very interesting and beautiful way. It’s definitely different from writing proofs!” She added that she was looking forward to the two-week workshop since her college does not teach plasma physics.

Milan Wolff, Williamsburg, Virginia: Using machine learning to control plasmas

SULI student Milan Wolff is working from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, just a stone’s throw from the College of William and Mary where he graduated in May with a degree in data science and a minor in physics after just three years of college. He said it was strange graduating remotely and it is a bit lonely being home by himself. “Everything during this pandemic has been a little weird,” he said. 

On the other hand, Wolff said he likes that he can work from home. He has wanted to work for PPPL since he attended an Undergraduate Workshop in Plasma Physics for underrepresented minorities two years ago. “I really enjoyed my experience at the workshop and so it seemed like the next step,” Wolff said. “I’m interested in getting that more hands-on experience, even though it’s remote.”

Wolff is working with physicist Egemen Kolemen on a project to use machine learning to create models on how to better control plasmas.

Nigel DaSilva, Oakland, New Jersey: Modeling turbulence in tokamaks

Nigel DaSilva, a rising senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who is a SULI student, is working from his home in Oakland, New Jersey. “I applied here because RPI doesn’t have any plasma classes or anything like that,” DaSilva said. “The only class that mentions plasma physics was our astrophysics class.”

DaSilva is working with physicist Walter Guttenfelder on a project to model turbulence in tokamaks. He said he is disappointed not to be able to work on the PPPL campus but is looking forward to doing research that may help him decide what branch of physics to focus on. “I’m hoping that I’m going to get some really cool intuition on something that I haven’t seen,” he said. “It feels like it’s more purposeful research than what I’ve been doing. I actually find it interesting too.”

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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