PPPL’s summer interns experience real-world research

Written by
Anna Masciandaro
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Oct. 11, 2021

Undergraduate engineering and science internships and high school internships at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) offer hands-on experience to undergraduate engineering students and high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Engineering in the virtual world can be especially challenging. Shannon Swilley Greco, the senior program leader for the program, gave kudos to the four interns and their mentors who participated in the program over the summer. “The engineering interns all did remarkably well in spite of the challenges of the remote environment,” Greco said. She credited Diana Adel, Engineering Department administrator, and Deedee Ortiz, Science Education program manager, with helping resolve many issues.

The engineering students were among 62 interns who spent the summer working at PPPL through a variety of internship programs. The total includes 42 students who were part of the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program and two Community College Internships students. Both programs are funded by the DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. Another eight students worked online for various institutions around the country through the Plasma and Fusion Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, which is managed by PPPL and the U.S. Fusion Outreach Team and funded by the DOE's Office of Science.

PPPL’s high school summer program included eight students working on research projects throughout the Laboratory. Greco met with them each week to share “triumphs and fails” and checked in with them individually throughout the summer. “It was a really supportive environment that we created together,” she said.

All the students attended the fusion and plasma workshop June 14 to 25 that kicked off the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) before embarking on research projects that will be presented online at the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics Conference Nov. 8 to 12.

Lasya Balachandran, high school intern: Learning more about the plasma physics field and how it intersects with other fields

Lasya Balachandran, an incoming freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, said the high school internship at PPPL gave her an opportunity to learn more about the field of plasma physics.

“Going into the internship I didn’t know that much about plasma physics,” she said. “I was trying to learn more about the field and see how other fields, like computer science, can be applied to it.”

Balachandran developed an interest in math and science early on. She attended coding and robotics camps in middle school and went to High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, an engineering-focused high school, where she conducted research and participated in STEM clubs and competitions.

Balachandran worked from home in Marlboro, New Jersey, under the guidance of PPPL physicist George Wilkie, on simulating the reflection of plasma in doughnut-shaped tokamaks, a type of fusion energy device. In her research, Balachandran simulated using the liquid metal lithium to line the inner walls of the tokamak. She studied how the plasma interacted with the lithium material. She used different settings to determine the probability that particles of deuterium, another form of hydrogen, would reflect off the lithium and examined the average energy of the reflected particles.

Researchers are trying to determine the best material for use in a fusion reactor, Wilkie said. He noted that liquid lithium is one of the options that researchers are considering for plasma-facing components.

“Lasya’s work is relevant for the Lithium Tokamak Experiment-ß at PPPL and it’s also a part of the question of how we should design a fusion reactor generally,” Wilkie said. “We need better data for how lithium responds and Lasya made a good case for where her data came from and why we should use it. We need more scalable solutions, and this went a long way toward seeing how close we can get to the more intensive simulations.”

“The high school interns always amaze me,” Wilkie added. “I tend to think pretty highly of young students.”

In the future, Balachandran wants to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering and computer science with the goal of becoming a researcher and educator in those fields.

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Miles Kim: Gaining a broader understanding of the plasma physics field and making connections

Miles Kim, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Walla Walla University in Washington, wants to pursue a career in plasma physics and plans to apply to graduate school. He was thrilled when he was into PPPL’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships program (SULI). The program is funded by the DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists.

Kim spent the summer at his home in Collegedale, Tennessee, near Chattanooga, working on a research project with physicist Sam Cohen on the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC) device fusion-reactor concept whose defining feature is the use a novel method of radio frequency power to drive plasma current and heat the plasma.

Kim’s research focused on finding materials for the shell of the vacuum vessel that would protect a reactor’s sensitive components against radiation. It was a broad assignment and Kim said he struggled with it at first. “The first challenge was being flexible and being willing to shift gears,” Kim said. “I kept looking at the requirements for this thing and there’s just no common material that could do what we needed to do and that was discouraging but there was a solution: we can make novel materials of the common materials that we have.”

Kim was one of five undergraduate students mentored by Cohen. “Miles was just full of ideas and skills; he was inventive and a self-starter,” Cohen said. “My hope is that these students will make important contributions to the fusion research and also that they walk away thinking, ‘Gee I really learned something about research and science,’” Cohen said.

Kim said the two-week course that starts off the internships was useful because it gave him a better understanding of what fields he might be interested in. “I feel like I have a much broader understanding of the field as a result of the course,” he said. He also found it valuable speaking to graduate students like Alex LeViness, a former SULI student, who won a Fulbright Fellowship to do research at the Wendelstein 7-X Stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany. LeViness encouraged him to apply for the fellowship.

“Just as important as the research was the professional development and the connections you make through the program and just the people, the confidence it builds in you,” Kim said. “All those things are just as important. I really thought it was awesome.”

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Erron Williams, engineering intern: Learning self-discipline and applying knowledge from school to hands-on research

Erron Williams, a junior majoring in chemical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, learned about PPPL’s engineering internship through an online recruiting meeting after seeing an email blast. “I’ve always had an interest in nuclear fusion, so the idea of having an opportunity to work at a national lab as an undergraduate was something I didn’t know existed,” Williams said. He was one of four students in PPPL’s Engineering Undergraduate Internship Program, an internship similar to SULI but aimed specifically at future engineers.

Williams spent the summer working from his home in Houston on a computer code that could help predict the ideal configuration for a fusion device using high temperature superconducting magnets. The code was aimed at predicting the stress on individual coils through computer modeling for potential use in a spherical tokamak power plant.

Williams worked with Yuhu Zhai, a National Spherical Torus Experiment – Upgrade (NSTX-U) project engineer, and enjoyed the weekly meetings with the team and his frequent interactions with Zhai. “This type of environment is definitely new,” Williams said. “I’m learning how to self-discipline in a virtual world and being able to apply what you learned from school and learning how to learn the concept as you go.”

Williams said he appreciated the extra effort made by Greco, the senior program leader who heads the program, along with Ortiz, Science Education program manager, and Arturo Dominguez, a Science Education senior program leader. “I feel welcomed – that is important coming in as a minority engineer,” Williams said. “I’m really enjoying this experience.”

Zhai said he enjoys working with student interns because it improves his own understanding. “I have to push myself to look at the document myself and to understand fundamentally how I can better explain it to the student, how to help the student step-by-step to build up their skill and level of understanding,” Zhai said.

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