A bumper crop of undergraduate students attends annual plasma workshop kicking off summer internship programs

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
June 20, 2019

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) hosted its largest group of undergraduate students ever for the annual undergraduate plasma workshop June 10 to 14 with more than 60 physics and engineering students coming from as far away as South Dakota, Washington, and Puerto Rico for the intensive, one-week course in plasma physics. 

The students included four interns participating in a new  engineering internship at PPPL,

more than a dozen students from a plasma  internship program in Alabama, as well as numerous physics students taking part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program at PPPL and the General Atomics DIII-D National Fusion Facility, and interns from the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Princeton  University-University of Tokyo exchange program. 

“It was great having so many people from such a variety of programs, especially the students from the new engineering internship and the ones from the Alabama EPSCOR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research,” said Arturo Dominguez, a senior program leader in the Science Education Office who organized the program. “I think the students represent the breadth of plasma physics  research. Many of the students from Alabama, for example, are doing research involving low-temperature plasmas, which is a growing area of interest at PPPL as well. “ 

The students take a one-week workshop that introduces them to basic principles in plasma physics and fusion energy and includes hands-on experiments in the Science Education Laboratory and an extensive tour of science experiments at PPPL. 

The SULI and Community College Internships (CCI) programs are sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) in collaboration with PPPL and other DOE laboratories and facilities. 

The National Science Foundation funds EPSCOR and  supported those students for the one-week workshop. “The participation of this group shows a model of cooperation between the DOE and the NSF in the common goal of creating a healthy pipeline for the plasma physics community,” Dominguez said.

Chris Barber, of Bucknell University, is one of the engineering interns. His mentor is PPPL engineer Greg Tchilinguirian, who heads the group working on instrumentation and control for the National Spherical Torus Experiment - Upgrade (NSTX-U) “I’ve kind of just been absorbing as much information as I can,” Barber said. “It’s really amazing from that perspective. I knew nothing about fusion energy until coming here this week so it’s really been a ton of fun.” 

Natalie Cannon, a graduate of Santiago Canyon College who is attending California State University Long Beach this fall, returned to PPPL this summer as a CCI student. She said she was inspired by her internship with physicist Sam Cohen last summer to change her major to physics and she will work with Cohen again this summer.  “The internship culture at PPPL is unlike anywhere else I’ve seen, especially the one-week course,” Cannon said. “You get to learn what everyone else is doing and about all the different opportunities in plasma physics.” 

After the course, about 40 students remained at PPPL to complete their 10-week internships. The rest of the students will spend their summer doing research elsewhere.  Three American students have gone to Japan, and 15 SULI students went to General Atomics in San Diego. The 13 students from the Alabama Plasma Internship Program, which is part of EPSCOR, will return to Alabama to continue their plasma research at various universities. 

Deedee Ortiz, Science Education program manager, helped organize the workshop and the internship programs. Shannon Greco, a senior program leader in Science Education, organized the engineering internship along with Valeria Riccardo, head of Engineering. “They really are a great group,” Ortiz said of the students. “They’re brilliant. They ask really good questions.” 

The students said they enjoyed the one-week course. Many students said their favorite part was seeing the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) on the tour. Other students said they enjoyed the one-week workshop. “The best part is breaking your mind on the physics!” joked Le Viet Nguyen, of Michigan State University. His lab partner Wyatt Pauley, of California Polytechnic State University, said he enjoyed the hands-on experiments. “My favorite part is watching the way the plasma changes,” he said. “It’s beautiful!” 

Chigozie Chinakwe, from Tuskeegee University, was one of the Alabama students, who took a break from their research internship, to attend the workshop. “I love the experimental part the most,” she said of the workshop. “We’re dealing with low temperature plasmas in our research so I enjoy it.” 

In addition to leading one of the experimental sessions, Dominguez also delivered the introduction to plasma physics lecture. Other speakers included Steve Cowley, PPPL director; physicist Sam Cohen; Steffi Diem, a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the Fusion Energy Division; and Edward Thomas Jr., the Charles W. Barkley Endowed professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies at Auburn University. PPPL physicists Erik Gilson and Chris Smiet led groups of students on tours over two days. A complete list of faculty for the course is available at the SULI Course website here. The course was available to watch remotely and a video of the course will be available in a few weeks. 

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

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.