PPPL hosts its first-ever “Research SLAM,” a competition for the best scientific explainers

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Sept. 28, 2023

First came “The Voice,” then “Shark Tank,” and now the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) presents its own reality show contest with the “PPPL Research SLAM! 2023,” a competition to see which scientists can artfully convey complex research ideas for a general audience.

More than a dozen early-career researchers competed in front of a general audience as part of the Lab’s first-ever “Research SLAM” on Aug. 23. Contestants were given just three minutes to make their pitches, and the audience voted on whom they thought gave the best presentation. The first-place winner will now go to Washington, D.C., to compete against researchers from other DOE national laboratories in the Nov. 15 national Research SLAM.

The event — the first local SLAM at the Lab — was co-hosted by the Communications and Science Education Departments.

“This is a really great way to highlight the research we’re doing at the Lab,” said B. Rose Huber, head of communications. “Our early-career scientists are doing compelling work to help advance fusion development. It was wonderful seeing their enthusiasm and ability to translate these ideas for a public audience.”

Co-organizer Arturo Dominguez, head of science education, agreed. “The Research SLAM also allowed these early-career scientists and engineers to share the excitement for what they’re doing,” he said.

The contestants found new and catchy ways to explain their research. Mechanical engineer Siwei Chen, a strategic science initiatives postdoctoral fellow, for example, invoked the Marvel Comics character “Magneto” from the X-Men movies for a talk about superconducting magnets. Jason Parisi, a physicist on the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), compared different fusion devices to various clothing fashions.

Learn more about the top winners and watch their presentations below.
 

Third place: Álvaro Sánchez-Villar

“The music that helps produce a star on Earth”


Álvaro Sánchez-Villar, a computational scientist, compared the way plasmas respond to radio frequency waves to the way humans respond to music.

“Have you ever walked into a place and there was some music playing, and you started moving your feet, perhaps even dancing, or it simply cheered you up?” Sánchez-Villar asked the audience. “I don’t know about you, but it happens to me all the time, almost automatically. Well, it turns out that plasmas, the materials that make up stars like our Sun, are no different. They also resonate with very specific frequencies just like we do to certain music.”

Scientists studying fusion energy are trying to mimic the process that takes place in the stars and the sun by containing the plasma within a magnetic “jar,” known in the scientific community as a magnetic confinement fusion device. This process requires heating super-hot plasma in the “jar” and preventing it from extinguishing.

One way to do this is by using radio frequency waves, which interact with the plasma and “excite” the particles, Sánchez-Villar explained. While researchers have investigated these interactions for decades, scientists can now use supercomputers and artificial intelligence to model this process at a rate a million times faster than before. “Our goal is to finally control the state of the plasma inside this vessel and keep the star cooking fusion energy for us,” Sánchez-Villar concluded.

You can see a video of Sánchez-Villar’s presentation here:

 

Second place: Frances Kraus

“How the sound of ambulance sirens helps explain the tools to analyze certain plasmas”


Frances Kraus, an X-ray spectroscopist and staff research physicist, described her research focusing on hot, dense plasmas created by lasers. The difficulty in studying these plasmas, she explained, is that they are very small and very brief. The difficulty in studying these plasmas, she explained, is that they are very small and very brief — lasting only several trillionths of a second. This makes them hard to measure and analyze. One method that scientists use involves light waves and their Doppler shifts — the same sound ambulance sirens make as they speed by and fades away, Kraus said.

The siren emits sound waves that stretch and compress, so the siren behind you may sound like a high pitch. This is because the sound wave is compressed, but, as the ambulance moves away, the sound falls in pitch, and the sound waves expand and stretch. That all happens because the ambulance is traveling quickly, at 10% the speed of sound.

The same phenomenon can happen to light emitted by plasmas. Researchers have found that the plasma accelerates quickly and maintains a high speed. “This is as if this ambulance is sitting there, siren blaring at a red light, and suddenly the light turns green, it slams the gas, and accelerates right up to 70 miles per hour, then just cruises at that speed,” Kraus said. “We’re still trying to learn why the plasma does this when the laser hits it, but it’s really fascinating, and I’m just happy to share this data with you!”

You can see a video of Kraus’s presentation here:

 

First Place: Seong-Moo Yang

“The art of broken dishes explains how plasma instabilities can be useful”


Physicist Seong-Moo Yang discussed the Japanese art of broken dishes in his presentation on error fields in fusion reactions.

A broken dish is usually considered something “useless and dangerous,” Yang said, but the Japanese art of kintsugi takes these broken dishes and applies gold leaf to glue the pieces back together, creating a beautiful work of art.

One way scientists contain plasma in fusion energy is in a symmetrical, donut-shaped device called a “tokamak.” Interruptions of the fusion reaction called “error fields” can destabilize the plasma and end the fusion reaction, Yang explained. Like the art of broken dishes, scientists can take advantage of these error fields. Rather than attempting to get rid of them, they can maintain and tailor them, Yang said. “Just like the kintsugi method that makes broken dishes more beautiful, I am working on error fields to make plasma more stable.”           

Yang said he enjoyed the Research SLAM experience. “I tried to think about it from more of a general audience perspective,” Yang said. “Presenting in this way is a good opportunity to learn communication skills. It was super fun.”

You can see a video of Yang’s presentation here:

 

The following early-career researchers also took part in the competition:

 

  • Siwei Chen, Strategic Science Initiative post-doctoral student: “Trap Everything Like Magneto”
     
  • Doménica Corona Rivera, associate research physicist: "Keeping the tokamak hot and stable without melting"
     
  • Stanislav Musikhin, associate research physicist: "Plasma methane conversion to the rescue"
     
  • Jason Parisi, associate research physicist: "Keeping a fusion plasma warm and toasty"
     
  • Andrew (Tasman) Powis, computational research associate: "Kinetic Plasma Simulations for Industrial Applications"
     
  • Ivan Romadanov, associate research physicist: "Structured light for plasma diagnostic"
     
  • Manuel Scotto d'Abusco, associate research physicist: "3D plasmas and heat flux exhaust interplay"
     
  • Yin Wang, staff research physicist: "Laboratory confirmation of the driving force for star formation"
     

PPPL’s program was part of the National Lab Research SLAM, a collaborative effort of the 17 national laboratories. The aim is to highlight the Department of Energy’s (DOE) research programs and to help educate policymakers and their staff about the crucial role of the national labs in the nation’s innovation ecosystem. The inaugural National Lab Research SLAM is sponsored by the House of Representatives National Labs Caucus and the Senate National Labs Caucus.

 


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.