PPPL's Eco Expo showcases community sustainability efforts

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
June 26, 2024

More than 200 people came to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) on June 15 for PPPL’s Eco Expo and enjoyed a day of fun, hands-on science experiments, exhibits, a bus tour of PPPL, food trucks and talks by local farmer and environmentalist Tomia MacQueen and PPPL’s Laboratory Director Steve Cowley. 

It was PPPL’s second community sustainability event, and there was plenty of sunshine for PPPL’s visitors and some 15 exhibitors from various environmental groups. Among the activities was an electric vehicle car light and sound display. 

“I loved seeing so many people having fun and learning about sustainability,” said Cowley, who attended the event and gave a talk on PPPL’s fusion energy mission. “It was a great opportunity for PPPL to connect with people in the community about a subject that is near and dear to my heart and is integral to our Lab’s mission of developing fusion energy as a safe, clean and virtually limitless energy source. I’m already looking forward to next year!” 

A person demonstrating to a group of people

Associate Research Physicist Álvaro Sánchez-Villar and Mechanical Engineer Sangeeta Vinoth show visitors a Van de Graaff generator, which demonstrates static electricity. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Gjergj Shota, a construction project manager in facilities and site services, volunteered at the event for the second year in a row and brought with him 12 of his family members, including his wife, mom, dad, sister, mother-in-law and several nephews. “I think this is becoming a new tradition,” he said. “This is a great opportunity not only for sustainability and renewable energy but to show PPPL to visitors and the local community!”

Organized by PPPL’s Green Team 

Four people standing at a table

PPPL volunteers welcomed guests. From left: Gjergj Shota, a construction project manager in facilities and site services; Ana Marie Datuin, a senior administrative assistant and Green Team member; Venkat Bommisetty, science infrastructure and operations coordinator; and Michelle Turnbach, an environmental scientist and Green Team member. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

The event was organized by PPPL’s Green Team and staffed by 45 volunteers, including PPPL staff and their friends and family. 

Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic relationships, said he was pleased at the event’s success. “I think the unbelievable work of the Green Team in organizing this and all the volunteers that stepped up really showcase the Laboratory as a partner to not just what we do but also as a partner to members of our community who are also working on sustainability,” he said.

Hands-on plasma experiments 

Makia McFarlane, an administrative assistant in graduate programs at PPPL, brought her niece Amoni Sunkins, age 9, to the event. Sunkins enjoyed PPPL’s hands-on plasma demonstrations and other activities. “It was very informative,” McFarlane said. “Amoni actually had a very fun time. She enjoyed the experiments, and the weather was great!” 

Two people standing and smiling

Makia McFarlane, an administrative assistant in graduate programs at PPPL, and her niece Amoni Sunkins, age 9. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

“Who can say no to science and sustainability?” said Donna Esrail of Princeton, New Jersey. “I learned about the compost program in Trenton; that was interesting. We saw the science experiments and learned about solar energy programs.”

Learning about sustainability 

A person speaking on a bus

Michael Zarnstorff, a senior research physicist, gives visitors a brief overview of PPPL on one of Princeton University’s electric buses. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

“We’re big science nerds,” said Kaili Mack, of Lawrence Township, New Jersey, who was there with her husband Steve and children Avery, 9, and Henry, 6. “We felt like it would be something fun to do [on the day before Father’s Day] for the nerdy dad in our lives. We learned about pollution and better ways to travel.” 

Many participants said they enjoyed the bus ride from a nearby parking lot to PPPL in which they were treated to a brief talk on Princeton University’s fleet of sustainable buses as well as an introduction by PPPL tour guides to PPPL’s history and experiments. 

Jenny-Ann Kershner and Elizabeth Hinckley of the Watershed Institute

Jenny-Ann Kershner and Elizabeth Hinckley of the Watershed Institute. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

Exhibitors share their passion

Among the guides was Silvia Trinczek, a third-year graduate student. Trinczek said she enjoyed the event. “I think the exhibitors were really keen to share their passion and what they’re doing, and the people who came were very glad for this opportunity,” she said. 

One of the exhibitors was Callie Hancock, New Jersey state coordinator and Princeton chapter leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She sported a funny hat with a picture of a globe, while fellow tabler John Schivell sported a hat with a blow-up globe on top of it. Hancock said she enjoyed talking to an audience that was very interested in sustainability. “This was an audience that was open and receptive, which we really appreciate, and it was a steady flow of people,” she said. 

A group of people standing at a table

Visitors speak to Callie Hancock and John Schivell of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

An introduction to fusion energy 

A person speaking at a podium

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, gave an introductory talk on fusion energy. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

In an introductory talk, Cowley recalled the air pollution that came from Canada in 2023 and turned the atmosphere orange. The widespread forest fires in Canada, California and elsewhere are “the canary in the coal mine,” Cowley said. “The planet is really telling us that it’s stressed in many ways that it shouldn’t be stressed,” he said. 

Cowley said fusion energy would provide a clean and green source of electric energy that would supplement solar and wind energy, which depend on the weather. “We need something that could fill the gaps. We call it firm energy; you can turn it on, and you can turn it off when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

A keynote talk on environmental justice and agriculture 

A person speaking at a podium

Keynote speaker Tomia MacQueen is an educator, organic farmer and owner of Wildflower Farm in Pennington, New Jersey. (Photo credit: Elle Starkman / PPPL Communications Department)

Keynote speaker Tomia MacQueen said environmental justice is not only about how pollution disproportionately affects people in low-income and urban areas but also about food insecurity when people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. People in these areas do not have equal access to natural food options, and their soil and water are more likely to be polluted, she said. That makes it much harder for them to grow their own food.

Sustainable practices at home 

Wildflower Farm is an organic farm that raises “culturally relevant” vegetables such as okra and collard greens. People can follow sustainable practices in their own backyards, MacQueen said. Some examples include:

  • Grow your own gardens and include native plants. 
  • Collect rainwater from gutters in rain barrels and use the water for irrigation.
  • Grow fresh food for a local food pantry and teach your children the importance of donating food.
  • Take backyard gardening classes to learn techniques like a square foot garden, an intensive gardening technique in which there are so many plants there is no room for weeds. 
  • Consider starting and supporting a community garden. 
  • Save and reuse seeds that are important to your family. 

In addition to her work as a farmer, MacQueen teaches young people about outdoor careers through the Outdoor Equity Alliance and teaches children about sustainable foods through a program with the Princeton Public Schools.

“There’s work being done on the ground,” MacQueen said. “Support your educators and support your students. Sustainability can happen on a community level, but they require support.” 

Margaret Kevin-King, building and grounds manager and a leader of the Green Team, said the event was fun for everyone. “Thanks to the Green Team for organizing another successful community sustainability event. I am grateful to everyone who played a role in this event.”

Staff, friends and family who volunteered, planned and staffed the Eco Expo included: 

Elizabeth Allen, Joseph Anderson, Carol Ann Austin, Venkat Bommisetty, Jake Burger*, Dionisio Cardona, Richard Cavanaugh, Jeffrey Chaplin, Jason Conklin, Jonathan Covert, Ana Marie Datuin, Steven Davidoff, Jeanne Jackson DeVoe, Syth DeVoe, Martin Donohue, Tyler Ely, Kristen Fischer, Ryan Fregosi*, Sean Galie, Neil Gerrish, Peter Grossgold, Harold Guillaumette, Deepa Gupta, Matt Haenni, Jeremy Hall, Doug Hornsby, Brett Hudnett, Leeyah Hyppolite, Abdel Majid Kassir, Margaret Kevin-King*, Brianna King, Brittany King, Greg Kipp, Jonathon LaCarrubba, Ben Lebowitz, Michelle Lebowitz, Boting Li, Michael Livingston, Dana Martin, Kurt Martin, Giselle McKenzie, Gwen McNamara*, Nina Morreale, Keith Morse, Jason Niatas, Deedee Ortiz, Marisol Ovalles, Matt Pereira*, Rich Piccinetti, Anthony Pizzo, Sharon Rajarao, Álvaro Sánchez-Villar, Todd Sandt*, Jace Sauer, Jacob Schwartz, Jim Schwartz, Brendan Seramba, Kajal Shah, Mike Sharer, Rob Sheneman*, Gjergj Shota, Anthony Siravo, Joseph Snipes, Clara E. Soto, Elle Starkman*, Michael Starkey*, Jessica Tilton*, Chaz Torres, Silvia Trinczek, Harry Tsamutalis Jr., Michelle Turnbach*, Matt Wexler, Sangeeta Vinoth, Michael Zarnstorff, and Andrew Zwicker.

*Green Team members 

Gwen McNamara contributed to this story. 

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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.