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Summer interns present research findings in poster session

If you happened to be in the lobby of PPPL's Lyman Spitzer Building on Aug. 12, you would have seen the next generation of top scientists preparing to launch their careers. Twenty-five undergraduates from colleges across the country spent this summer at the Laboratory as interns, working on projects ranging from figuring out how to remotely steer a set of mirrors that will be built into the upcoming ITER fusion machine to studying how nanoparticles grow inside plasmas.

This summer's cohort of interns was part of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program. Launched in 2004, the SULI program is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science's Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, which partners with DOE laboratories across the country to encourage undergraduate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

At the beginning of the 10-week program, the interns must complete a one-week course in plasma physics. Afterwards, each intern begins working on a research project with a PPPL staff member who acts as a mentor. Mentors are assigned to interns based on the interests listed on the interns' applications, said DeeDee Ortiz, Program Administrator in PPPL's Science Education Department. The poster session was the last of four requirements they had to fill. (The other three were writing both an abstract suitable for the general public and a research paper, and reviewing another intern's poster in a kind of peer-review process.)

Undergraduates, however, weren't the only students interning at PPPL this summer. A group of 10 high school students participated in their own internship program. And like the SULI students, the high schoolers were matched with Laboratory scientists and assigned to research projects. In addition to their research, the high school interns met with Princeton University engineering professors to learn more about pursuing STEM majors in college. At the end of the summer they then had to write a research paper, craft an abstract suitable for the general public, and create a poster. Further, high school interns, too, had to evaluate another intern's poster and oral presentation.

Conversations with the interns revealed deep satisfaction with the SULI program. William McCarthy, a rising senior from Cape Elizabeth, Maine majoring in physics at Massachusetts's Worcester Polytechnic Institute, now plans to study plasma physics in graduate school. "I loved every minute of my internship," he said. For some interns, their experience was the continuation of a long relationship with PPPL. "I had a great time," said Hadar Lazar, a rising senior at the University of Chicago majoring in physics, who has spent four consecutive summers working at PPPL. "I first came here the summer after I finished high school. PPPL has really taken me under its wing."

The high schoolers, too, found the internship very valuable. "We aren't able to experience research like this in high school," said Sweta Subramaniam, a rising senior at Hightstown High School. And their interactions with PPPL staff were just as memorable. "Our mentor, Charlie Gentile, put a lot of time and effort into creating a wonderful experience for us," said Lara Balick, who this spring graduated from Kinnelon High School and plans to attend Dartmouth College this fall.

In addition, two members of the New Jersey General Assembly – Elizabeth Muoio (District 15) and Donna Simon (District 16) – stopped by the poster session to talk with the participants.

While the internship program helps students hone their research skills, it also helps PPPL recruit the next generation of plasma physicists. "Completing a summer internship at PPPL increases the chances that a student will enter a Ph.D. program in general, and a plasma physics program in particular," said Andrew Zwicker, head of PPPL's Science Education Department. "This is a crucial component of building our future workforce."

Hopes and expectations for these outstanding students are high. "I truly believe that one day, one of these students will come back to PPPL with a whole new perspective on fusion energy," said Ortiz. "Then he or she will solve the fusion puzzle and save the world! That's why this program, and others like it, are so important."

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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