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Intern talks about his upcoming summer of research and fusion energy with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

An intern about to start a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and another University of Texas-Dallas student kicked off their summer with a friendly online chat with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm about their plans for the summer.

Will Teague, who is spending the summer working with a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and Andrei Racila, who will be assigned to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, discussed the research they will be doing this summer and their plans for the future with Secretary Granholm and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) in a YouTube video. (The video can be viewed here.)

“This program gives students really hands-on national experience at DOE laboratories that will set them up, we hope, for the careers of their dreams,” Granholm said of the SULI program.

The students are among 789 undergraduate students, including 42 at PPPL, who will be working directly with scientists and engineers at national laboratories around the country during the 10-week SULI internship. Another 90 students, two of whom will be at PPPL, will participate in the DOE’s Community College Internships. Both programs are funded by the Office for Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) in the DOE Office of Science.

“Working alongside the most brilliant scientists and engineers in the world”

Granholm said the DOE’s 17 national laboratories are “the crown jewels of United States research and development efforts” on energy and other technology. “These guys are going to be working alongside some of the most brilliant scientists and engineers in the world,” she said. “They’re going to be collaborating with them and learning from them and helping them advance these mission-critical research projects that will affect the future of our nation — no small task.”

Teague said he learned about fusion energy and plasma physics last year at an introductory course taught at PPPL that begins the SULI program and includes talks by physicists all over the country. He has been enthusiastic about developing fusion energy as a clean, affordable and plentiful way to generate electricity ever since. “I want to eventually get my Ph.D. in plasma physics and I would like to do research on sustainable energies for the future,” he told Granholm.

“My 86-year-old mother is watching,” Granholm replied to Teague. “So tell us a little bit about what plasma physics is and why she would care about it and tell it to us in a way that she would understand.”

The “energy of the future”

Teague obliged her. “Plasma physics is a wonderful thing,” he said. “The sun uses plasma and collides particles together to create energy and that’s through the fusion process and that’s how the sun makes energy … so what we’re trying to do is make fusion energy on Earth so we have fusion reactors to do that. That’s the energy of the future.”

Teague will be working with physicist Ken Hammond on research to enhance divertors, which serve as a kind of exhaust system for the super-hot plasma in stellarators, a type of fusion device that has twisting external magnets. “That will make the stellarator more sustainable and will make fusion possibly a reality in the future,” Teague said.

In fact, Hammond himself was a SULI intern at PPPL in 2011 working with physicist Charles Skinner on an electrostatic dust detector intended for tokamak fusion facilities. “I think SULI is a wonderful program for introducing students to plasma physics and fusion energy research,” Hammond said. “As a former SULI intern myself, I can attest that the internship was instrumental in launching my career. It is always inspiring to see the enthusiasm and ingenuity that these students bring to the program.”

“It’s so exciting because the DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is obviously at the cutting-edge of all of this,” Granholm said. She explained that fusion energy is different than fission energy in which atoms are split. In fusion energy, atoms fuse together to create a burst of energy. “The good thing about fusion is that it doesn’t create any waste like you see with the fission process,” Granholm said. “The United States government has really invested a good amount of funds into this. It may be a good amount into the future, but Will is going to be there right as it’s happening and making sure we have this clean energy because it is the Holy Grail of clean energy and he’s going to crack the code for us, so thank you Will very much.”

Andrei Racila, the other SULI intern, said he became interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields because his mother, who is from Romania, has a background in engineering. He said he wants to get his Ph.D. in computer science and teach students at all levels. Racila will spend the summer working with Brookhaven computer scientists on a distributed computer database that would more securely protect data.

“We’re at a moment where we have seen so many vulnerabilities in our IT systems, the issues of redundancy and resiliency and making sure that our data is safe is such a critical problem that needs to be solved,” Granholm told him. “It’s really important. That’s exciting that you’ll be there.”

Granholm said she hopes Racila will one day see one of the huge exascale computers to be installed in the DOE’s national laboratories. “These massive computers are doing things on a scale that no human being could possibly do,” she said. “It’s just amazing what they’re capable of doing.”

Rep. Allred, who hosted the program, said he felt “a little bit smarter” hearing about the young men’s research. He thanked the Department of Energy for “taking in a couple of our own here and giving them some exposure in these fields that they very clearly know and I think are going to do some incredible things.”

Examples to young people interested in STEM

Granholm said she hopes Teague and Racila will serve as examples to other young people who are interested in STEM. “For young people who are watching today, this could be you, too,” she said. “You also could be moving into careers that are solving the biggest problems on the planet. If you choose to move into science, technology, engineering and math degrees.”

“I am super excited for Will and Andrei,” she added, “and I hope you come knocking on DOE’s door again, because, in case I haven’t stressed it enough, we need you. I hope you consider returning to us and don’t forget these brilliant, world-class scientists and engineers that you’ll be working with at our national labs — they started out just like you … so the future is bright with you at the helm.”

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 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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