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Students at institutions across the U.S. learn about plasma and fusion research in new program managed by PPPL

Ever since Victor Flores was 5 and moved to the U.S. from Mexico, he has been crazy about science. First, he was passionate about astronomy and then he figured out that astronomy was really based on physics. Ever since then he’s been focused on physics and is majoring in the subject at the University of California-Irvine, where he’s a rising senior.

That’s why when Flores found a research program that would allow him to do plasma science and fusion research with a working scientist through a new program called the Plasma and Fusion Undergraduate Research Opportunities (PFURO), he jumped at the chance. Not only will the research opportunity will likely help him get into graduate school, it’s also pure joy for someone like him, he said.

“I’m really enjoying doing science; it’s one of my favorite things to do, just doing science and challenging the mind. It’s a great opportunity,” Flores said. “I’m really grateful to be able to do the program and work with nationally-ranked scientists. I’m excited to see how the work evolves.”

Flores is one of eight students participating in a PFURO pilot program sponsored by the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science and administered and managed by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and the U.S. Fusion Outreach Team.

“We’re very excited about this pilot year of PFURO,” said Arturo Dominguez, senior program leader in PPPL’s Science Education Office who is a co-leader of the program. Dominguez said PFURO is modeled on and is “a complement” to the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI), which each year brings hundreds of undergraduates to national laboratories for a summer of hands-on research. “It’s a way of supporting the universities and other institutions that don’t get the benefit of these fantastic SULI students,” he said.

One mission of the program is to “reach out to the different pillars of FES,” Dominguez said. In addition to the scientific challenge of developing fusion energy as a source of electric energy, the other research areas include fusion materials and technology, general plasma science, including astrophysical plasmas, and high energy density plasmas, which give rise to astrophysical phenomena such as exploding supernovas and has applications to inertial confinement fusion, accelerator physics and other research fields.

Tapping into innovation at universities

The idea came out of the U.S. Fusion Outreach Team, which Dominguez chairs along with Professor Steffi Diem, a plasma physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a co-leader of PFURO. Diem spent a summer doing research at her university as part of the National Undergraduate Fellowship (NUF), a DOE program that ended several years ago. She said she likes that PFURO offers a diverse group of students research opportunities at universities all over the country. "The PFURO program gives students an opportunity to explore the innovative fusion energy and plasma science research happening at universities that can potentially lead to groundbreaking discoveries or new directions for our field."

Dominguez and Diem along with 11 other reviewers from the Outreach Team had the difficult task of selecting eight students from some 240 applicants. “Not surprisingly, we got an incredible cohort,” Dominguez said. The students are working remotely on research projects at institutions that range from large programs at MIT and the University of Wisconsin to smaller schools like Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.

The students joined the SULI students and other summer interns at the remote two-week Introduction to Fusion Energy and Plasma Physics course that kicked off all the internships. PFURO students from as far away as Juneau, Alaska, met for a remote get-together in mid-June where they got to know each other and talked about the activities they’ve gotten into during the COVID-19 pandemic ranging from learning Japanese to learning how to crochet.

An unexpected benefit of working remotely

Flores is working from his parents’ home in Anaheim, California, more than 2,600 miles from Johns Hopkins University where his advisor, Maria Pia Valdivia Leiva, has her laboratory. One of the unexpected benefits coming from having to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic is that it provides research opportunities to students who might not be able to travel, Diem said. “Not everyone has the means to just up and move for the summer,” she said. “By providing these research opportunities that are remote, you’re opening your doors to a wider group of people that are able to do these research experiences.”

Flores is working with Valdivia Leiva and her team on research to develop an X-ray diagnostic device for fusion plasmas, a project funded by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Flores will design an experiment in which he will develop a computer model to simulate the diagnostic to analyze instabilities in the plasma. “I was pleasantly surprised that my proposal was accepted and even more surprised to get a student like Victor,” Valdivia Leiva said. “He’s really wonderful.”

Izzy Thomas recently graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles where he majored in mathematics and minored in physics. Thomas did his honor’s thesis on modeling black holes and PFURO offered him the chance to do astrophysical research. “I’ve always been interested in plasma because I like astrophysics,” Thomas said. “There’s a part of me that’s also drawn to renewable energy and plasma is an intersection of both.”

Socializing and learning about grad school online

Thomas said he enjoyed the two-week plasma and fusion workshop that started off the program. He also values the chance to get to know other students and graduate students on an online chat program set up by Deedee Ortiz, PPPL’s Science Education program manager. “This year has obviously been very isolating for everyone,” Thomas said. “It’s really great to have two graduate student mentors whom I can speak to about graduate school and the community and what it’s like to be a grad student.”

Thomas is working with Lorin Matthews, a physicist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, 1,400 miles away. Matthews is associate director of the Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER) where she and a team of about a dozen people are studying meteorites that could hold clues to the formation of planets. They are focusing on meteorites called chondrites that contain pellet-sized inclusions called chondrules. Thomas will use his mathematical skills to analyze images of the lab simulations to reconstruct a three-dimensional dust pile and calculate the porosity of the chondrule rims.

“Izzy brings some interesting background because he already has some expertise with image analysis from his previous research,” Matthews said. “He’s learning a lot about planet formation and porosity, how that’s related to geology and our branch of physics. He’s getting coding experience, as well as image analysis experience, and is learning new techniques. He’s getting to see how it comes together in the labs and numerical models and putting it all together. He also interacts with graduate students and research faculty and builds networks there.”

Hands-on experience

The experience has given Thomas his first real-life experience on an experiment even if he is participating remotely. “I’ve never worked on an experimental program before, so that’s been really interesting to see those methods, versus theory and observation,” he said. “It’s definitely helping me to get a sense of what I might like to do in graduate school.”

Valdivia Leiva said she hopes PFURO grows next year. “I would love to see this program expand,” she said. “I think it’s very valuable to the community but also it’s a way we can not only train the future workforce but also get our fields and our sciences out there.”

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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