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GEM Fellowship opens a new path to potential research careers

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s first two GEM fellows do not come to the Laboratory from graduate programs in plasma physics as one might expect. Promise Adebayo-Ige is working toward a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville while Caira Anderson is a doctoral student in computational and applied mathematics at Rice University.

Organizers of the program say that’s precisely why PPPL chose to join the National GEM Consortium, along with other institutions, companies and national laboratories, said Jon Menard, PPPL deputy director for research. The goal of the GEM Consortium is to support and encourage diverse students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program gives PPPL access to a more diverse set of early-career scientists from a broad array of institutions.

“This is a very effective way of learning who else is out in the broader community with the kinds of skills we need but with more diverse backgrounds, and for us to get experience with them and the institutions they come from could be very broadening for the Lab and important for our research in general,” Menard said.

The two GEM fellows will receive some support for their graduate studies from the GEM Consortium, which PPPL contributes to, and will spend the summer working on research projects with PPPL physicists.

The GEM Consortium is part of PPPL’s effort to diversify its staff and specifically its research and engineering staff, said Barbara Harrison, PPPL’s equity, diversity and inclusion business partner, who will serve as a mentor to the two fellows along with two physicists. “It made sense to do this pipeline development,” Harrison said. “This is the only way you’re going to grow. You can’t grow a department without a diversity of thought and talent.”

Low representation of Black and Hispanic adults and women in STEM

PPPL reflects nationwide statistics that show Black and Hispanic adults and women are less likely to earn a degree in STEM subjects than any other subject. Black people make up 11 percent of the workforce, but hold just 9 percent of STEM jobs, while Hispanics make up 17 percent of the workforce but just 8 percent of all STEM jobs, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of a 2017 to 2019 American Community Survey.

Black and Hispanic representation is particularly low in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences:

  • Mathematics: 9 percent Black, 8 percent Hispanic
  • Physical Sciences: 6 percent Black, 8 percent Hispanic
  • Computer sciences: 8 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic
  • Engineering: 5 percent Black, 9 percent Hispanic

Anderson, a graduate student in applied mathematics at Rice University, is familiar with the problem. She is one of two women of color in her department of about 30 students. Anderson said she served on the Science Center Committee for Diversity as an undergraduate mathematics and statistics major to try to address the problem. She enjoyed working as a teacher’s assistant in mathematics because she could support women and people of color. “So many people, especially if they are women or girls or people of different gender identities, do not have the emotional support to encourage them to do math,” she said.

Adebayo-Ige said he also is one of two Black students in his program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT-K). “That’s why programs like GEM and even high school and middle schools are programs are important — to introduce students to these topics,” Adebayo-Ige said.

A fusion enthusiast since high school

A fusion enthusiast from a young age, Adebayo-Ige already knew he wanted to work developing fusion as a high school student in Eastvale, California, after his older brother came home from college and told him about it, Adebayo said. He did a research paper on the topic and was hooked. His summer as a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) student at PPPL working in the Materials Science Laboratory just cemented his determination. It also helped point him toward the graduate program at UT-K, Adebayo-Ige said.

He said he was delighted when he saw PPPL pop up on the list of institutions offering internships. “I’m really excited to be working for PPPL,” Adebayo-Ig said. “I think the summer’s going to be really good in terms of learning and moving forward with my scientific career. It’s going to be fun.”

Adebayo Ige’s research topic is one he will likely continue exploring for his graduate thesis. This summer he will work with his mentor, PPPL physicist Rajesh Maingi, and Kaifu Gan, a UT-K researcher who is on site at PPPL on a diagnostic for PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, which is undergoing repairs. He will help create analytical tools that use computer code to generate and understand data from infrared cameras that will be installed on the NSTX-U. The cameras take infrared pictures of the heat in and around the divertor, which serves as an exhaust system on the spherical vessel called a tokamak that contains the super-hot plasma. The images will help scientists analyze the heat flux, the rate at which the heat hits the surface of the divertor.

“In addition to the analysis, Promise will also learn about the optics and how you design the system,” Maingi said. “This fellowship is smoothly connected to his Ph.D. in infrared thermography. The GEM fellowship is an important piece that lets him connect the work he’s been doing to work he’ll do afterward.” 

Inspired by life stories of female mathematicians

Anderson knew she was good at mathematics when she attended a STEM magnet high school in her hometown of Conyers, Georgia, outside Atlanta. But she was also strong in humanities and she didn’t decide to become a mathematician until college.

Anderson enjoyed a research internship in which she modeled population sizes in animal groups and decided she liked applied math. She was also inspired to hear stories of female mathematicians during the internship. “Just being able to hear their life stories and see how happy they were now, how being a mathematician could actually be possible as a viable and fulfilling career path,” she recalled. “I thought this is a possibility for me.”

When she read about PPPL’s primary mission to develop fusion energy as a viable source of generating electricity, she made PPPL her first choice of employer as a GEM fellow. "I was really intrigued by the whole nuclear fusion thing," she said.  

“Caira stood out because of her mathematical background and the fact that she was interested in focusing her interest and skills in math to challenges within fusion,” said Arturo Dominguez, Science Education program leader, who reviewed applications with physicist Brian Grierson, of the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics in San Diego.

Anderson will be working with Stuart Hudson, a physicist and interim head of the Theory Department, on modeling a new design concept for the twisting magnets on a fusion device called a stellarator. The magnetic field of each of the coils produces a force on the current of another coil that can push the coils apart, so engineers must build a support structure to hold the coils in place based on that electromagnetic force. Anderson will use mathematic analysis and advanced computational methods to study a new approach to reduce the inter-coil electromagnetic force, Hudson said. 

Hudson said Anderson is “a very talented, young, enthusiastic scientist that traditional outreach efforts overlooked. Fusion energy is a multi-generational effort, so we need to bring in top young scientists,” he added, “and this GEM program is expanding our outreach effort to identify talented scientists that heretofore have been overlooked.”

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.

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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