Exploring the history of a few of the women who helped make history at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
March 24, 2023

Women have contributed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s mission to harness the energy that powers the stars to create virtually unlimited and clean energy throughout PPPL’s 72-year history.

The pioneers include women who did calculations for early fusion experiments. PPPL, like other national laboratories, had many such “calculators” to do complex math equations until computers took their place in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

One of the original members of Project Matterhorn was Hedvig “Hedi” Selberg, a computer scientist at the Laboratory along with physicist Katherine Weimer (see below). Selberg worked at the Laboratory from 1957 to 1985 and contributed to an influential paper on instabilities in the fusion device called a tokamak.

There were few women researchers at PPPL in the 1970s, recalls physicist Joan Ogden, who retired from the University of California in 2018. A postdoctoral researcher from 1977 to 1979,  Ogden recalled what it was like to be one of the female physicists. “I certainly stood out as different,” she recalled. “It was a very interesting experience being one woman Ph.D. at Princeton among hundreds of men.”

After leaving PPPL, Ogden founded her own physics consulting company and was a research scientist at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science before becoming a tenured professor at the University of California, Davis, until her retirement in 2018. 

Here are the stories of four women who contributed to PPPL’s history:

Christiane (Tina) Ludescher-Furth: A computer scientist who worked on TFTR and the TRANSP code

Christiane (Tina) Ludescher-Furth was a computer scientist who worked on PPPL’s record-breaking experiment, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), and on the TRANSP code, a code developed by PPPL physicists that is used worldwide.

Ludescher-Furth came to PPPL in 1976 and retired in 2013 after 37 years at the Laboratory.

She grew up in Munich, Germany. After graduating from high school in 1968, she enrolled in a program in which she worked at the Max Planck Institute while attending the Technical University of Munich to study computer science. She remained at the institution for eight years, part of which she worked on the Joint European Torus  in the United Kingdom.

At PPPL, Ludescher-Furth was the computer engineer for the TRANSP code. When Doug McCune, the lead developer of the TRANSP code and the head of the group, Doug McCune, died tragically in 2011 and Jardin was appointed as temporary head, Ludescher-Furth was indispensable, Jardin said. “She was the one with all the knowledge about how the code worked and what had to be done,” he said. “She was just instrumental…everything was seamless.”

Ludescher-Furth said she enjoyed her many years at PPPL. “Looking back, I think life was pretty good there,” she said. “It was very interesting and we all got on very well with each other.”

Gioietta Kuo Petravic (Born 1933): A physicist, inventor and writer

Gioietta Kuo Petravic is a scientist, inventor, and writer who worked at PPPL for 12 years from 1977 to 1989.

Kuo was born in Sichuan, China, and grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas.

After attending boarding school in England, Kuo earned a master’s degree in physics from Cambridge and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Birmingham. She moved to Serbia where she and her husband, Marijan Petravic, collaborated on research at the Institut Ruder Boskovic. Kuo Petravic also did research with the French Atomic Energy Commission in Paris and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy of the United Kingdom Energy Authority.

In 1967,  Kuo Petravic received a job offer at PPPL. She worked at PPPL for 12 years. Jardin recalls that Kuo Petravic’s primary interest was in computer programming.  “She took great pride in speeding up our computer codes, she took it as a challenge,” he said.

Kuo Petravic left PPPL for Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc. where she collaborated with her husband on two inventions related to 3-dimensional computer tomography.

Kuo Petravic has published more than 70 scientific papers during her career. Since 1992, she has worked as a freelance writer on climate change, alternative energy, and other topics, for the Chinese press as well as the World Future Society (worldfuture.org) and other organizations. She published a memoir “China, My Other Country,” in 2010. She is a senior fellow of the American Center for International Policy Studies.

Cynthia Phillips (1954 – 2015): A physicist whose research focused on radio frequency waves

Cynthia Phillips was a physicist at PPPL for 32 years whose research focused on how radio frequency waves can be used to control and heat the ionized gas called a plasma to create fusion energy. She also established a high-performance computing center for RF wave research at PPPL.

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, she studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She earned a master’s degree in 1977 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1982 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specialized in radio frequency heating.

Phillips worked on the Princeton Large Torus at PPPL at the beginning of her career. She went on to do ground-breaking experiments on the theory on radio frequency waves on PPPL’s record-breaking Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), where she became the acting head of physics analysis in 2002.

For the last decade of her life, Phillips focused on establishing the high-performance computing center, along with Don Batchner, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).  The multi-institution center was used by researchers at PPPL, MIT, ORNL, and other laboratories.

Phillips was also a lecturer in Princeton’s graduate program in plasma physics who taught for a dozen years. As one of few female physicists, she made a special effort to mentor female students. She continued her research and teaching for as long as she could, even while battling cancer for the last several years of her life. She died at age 61 after working at PPPL for 32 years.

“Cynthia was really a first-rate physicist,” recalled her colleague, physicist Allan Reiman. “She was really influential in the plasma physics community, and it was really sad and tragic that she died so young…She was doing important work on RF waves, with applications both within the Lab and outside the Lab.”

She was a fellow of the American Physical Society and was an American Physical Society-Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP) Distinguished Lecturer from 2001 to 2002. Phillips died of cancer in 2015.

Katherine Weimer (1919 to 2000): A Project Matterhorn physicist who was the first female researcher at PPPL

Katherine Weimer was the first female researcher at PPPL. She joined the Laboratory in 1957 when it was still Project Matterhorn and worked at PPPL for 29 years.

Weimer’s primary research was on how to keep the ionized gas called a plasma stable in twisty plasma devices called stellarators and in doughnut-shaped devices called tokamaks. Her work contributed to the design of many fusion experiments at PPPL including the Adiabatic Toroidal compressor (ATC), the Model C Stellarator, and the Poloidal Divertor Experiment.

Originally from New Jersey, Weimer attended Purdue University where she received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1939. She went on to graduate school at Ohio State University where she earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1943, the first woman to do so.

Weimer’s fluency in French and Russian were a “valuable asset at PPPL,” according to her obituary. She used this talent, together with her exceptional organizational ability and memory, to facilitate many research efforts,” the obituary said. This role included helping to organize national and international conferences in fusion research and plasma theory. She also played an important role in establishing an outstanding scientific reference library at PPPL.

The APS-DPP established the Katherine E. Weimer Award in 2001 in her honor “to recognize and encourage outstanding achievement in plasma science research by a woman physicist in the early years of her career.”

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.