Workshops welcome undergraduates and faculty into plasma physics & fusion field

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Olivier Tattegrain
Aug. 31, 2023

Students from all over the U.S. and faculty from minority-serving institutions (MSIs) learned about plasma physics and fusion energy in two separate in-person workshops hosted by PPPL’s Science Education Department staff this summer. 

The Workshop in Plasma Physics for Undergraduates and the Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) Faculty Workshop, both of which are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists program, have similar goals: to bring plasma and fusion energy education to a more diverse field of students, said Arturo Dominguez, head of science education. 

“The undergraduate workshop is focused on encouraging more undergraduates to consider taking the steps needed for a career in this field by applying for internships and graduate programs,” Dominguez said, “while the MSI workshop gives  faculty the tools to incorporate plasma physics and fusion energy into their curriculums.” 

Workshop in Plasma Physics for Undergraduates  

For Leeyah Hyppolite, a rising senior at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, PPPL’s four-day Workshop in Plasma Physics for Undergraduates was a chance to perform hands-on experiments, learn about fusion energy — a clean, safe and virtually limitless energy source — and talk to graduate students about their careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Hyppolite, a mathematics major at the historically Black university in Princess Anne, Maryland, said she enjoyed herself. “I really liked it, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also received a lot of good advice, especially about graduate school.” Graduate students at PPPL, for example, told her and other undergraduates they should apply for opportunities like the GEM Fellowship Program, which provides research fellowships for minority graduate students. 

Hyppolite was one of 10 students from as far away as Puerto Rico who participated in the undergraduate workshop held July 25 to 28. The learning experience not only teaches undergraduates about plasma science and the potential of fusion energy but also gives them information about pursuing a career in STEM through internships and graduate school. 

“Our goal is to encourage diverse college students interested in STEM careers to learn about the amazing research taking place in plasma science and fusion energy,” said Dominguez, whose team hosted the program. “To do that, we need to expose them to the science. We need to give them opportunities to network with graduate students and learn about internship opportunities at PPPL and other national laboratories.” 

A highlight of this year’s workshop, Dominguez noted, was when the students met U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Jennifer Granholm during her visit to the Laboratory on July 26. “Everyone was excited about it,” he said. “The Secretary was able to see these students in action, getting excited about plasma and fusion and learning about what it means to be in this field.” 

The workshop covered a lot of ground in four days. Students learned about plasma and fusion, vector calculus, computational physics, and industrial applications of plasmas. They toured PPPL and saw PPPL’s major experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, and conducted hands-on experiments with electromagnets and plasmas.  

MSI Faculty Workshop

PPPL also hosted a workshop in plasma physics for the faculty of MSIs in person for the first time since 2019. This was the first year the Lab has included the program in the Pathways to Fusion Collaborative Center, a new “user facility” PPPL is leading, which will help other plasma and fusion programs embarking on initiatives to collaborate with institutions that serve historically marginalized populations.

The immersive three-day workshop, held Aug. 14 to 17, was designed to help spread and develop plasma physics education by inviting faculty from universities that serve underrepresented minorities to the Lab. Those in attendance can then bring what they learned back to their respective institutions and include plasma physics in their courses with help from a partial grant provided by the Lab. 

The workshop included a tour, a plasma physics discussion and lecture, and an in-depth study of the DC discharge experiment. Finally, participants were invited to a discussion on the inclusion of plasma physics in their classrooms and lunch with PPPL scientists and faculty.

“Participants are effectively folded into this community and can have access to the resources that we, as a center, can provide,” said Dominguez. 

“We can’t expect every department to have a plasma physics research pathway, so we wanted to find a way to design experiments for faculty to bring plasma physics and plasma science into their methods of teaching and expose undergraduates to the technology and major applications of plasma,” said Jose Lopez, a physics professor at Seton Hall University, one of three workshop co-organizers.

Those in attendance said they enjoyed the presentations and will use what they learned to inspire their students. “I wanted to develop some new collaborations so we can create a program for students, as well as learn more about plasma technology and plasma science in general. It’s about workforce development for our students,” said Kausik S. Das, a physics professor and director of the Center for Student Excellence at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Lopez said the workshop is teaching students about plasma science at an exciting time in the field. “Plasma has been out there in science fiction,” he said, “but reality is getting better and better.” 


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