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Virtual internships for physics students present challenges, build community

Summer is usually the time when student interns flock to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) to learn about fusion and plasma physics at a national laboratory. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s students participated virtually from their homes around the country.

The students were participating in the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) and Community College Internship (CCI) programs, which encourage undergraduates and recent graduates to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers by providing research experience at DOE laboratories. Selected students participate as interns appointed at one of 17 participating DOE laboratories and facilities and perform research under the guidance of DOE researchers and engineers. The programs are managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS).

“Given the challenging circumstances, I was incredibly proud of how our students and mentors adapted to remote-only research projects,” said Andrew Zwicker, the head of the PPPL Science Education department that organizes the SULI experience at the Lab. “In addition, the Science Education team put into place the online tools to facilitate interactions and create a genuine sense of community among all.”

Hosting SULI this year involved obstacles that the PPPL Science Education staff worked hard to overcome. “The main challenge was that we weren’t able to be on site with the students so they could have the full laboratory experience,” said Deedee Ortiz, PPPL Science Education Program Manager. “Getting to know PPPL staff and being together are a major part of the program. We tried to make sure the students had complete access to the Science Education staff at any time through office hours, group chats, and social events like art night.”

The students found their experiences rewarding despite only using video chat software to interact with mentors and other interns. “I expected some difficulties because the internship was remote, but it turned out to be really great,” said Elena Mitra, an undergraduate at CUNY-Hunter College majoring in physics. “We had group meetings often, and everyone was so responsive and helpful.”

For some students, the nature of their research meshed well with the virtual experience. “I didn’t need a lab or lab equipment to do my work,” said Kirstin Koepnick, an undergraduate at Bates College majoring in mathematics and physics who studied how knot theory could improve the design of fusion facilities. “I just needed a pen, some paper, and a computer.”

The internships inspired many of the students to pursue more research in the future. “Now I feel like research is something I can see myself doing,” said Amelia Chambliss, who just graduated from Reed College with a major in physics. “I see a creative aspect that I didn’t see before.” John Ball, a student at the University of Maryland-College Park majoring in physics, said that he had already been seriously considering graduate school for plasma and fusion sciences, “but this internship pushed me way over the top.” Other students, like Amelia Reilly from Lafayette College, were inspired by the SULI program to seek out research positions at their schools.

In addition to helping students clarify their future plans, the internships also strengthened their confidence in themselves and made them feel part of the larger physics community. “Graduate student Tony Qian’s reaching out to me played a huge role in my comfort in the internship and my confidence as a researcher,” said Chambliss.

“Because we were immediately invited to PPPL all-hands meetings, had a big kick-off meeting of our own, and had direct contact with the director, I and the other interns felt like we were considered important members of the community,” said Ball. “There was this wonderfully welcome attitude that made you want to take it very seriously.

The internship even helped students overcome some of their fears. “The most challenging part of this experience was overcoming my own blocks, like not asking for help when I should,” said Mitra. “I really tried to push myself when I got stuck on something.”

Becoming part of a community seemed to be one of the lasting effects of this summer’s unusual SULI experience. “It was really cool when they posted the SULI meeting on the PPPL website,” said Ball. “That was another moment that I was like, oh wow, I’m part of this.”

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, visit https://energy.gov/science

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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