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From an acoustic levitator to a “Neutron Bloodhound” robot, hands-on research inspires summer interns

Promise Adebayo-Ige, a chemical engineering major at the University of Pennsylvania, has been fascinated by fusion energy since he was in high school. He came to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for a chance to do research in the field and spent his spare time training for his school’s soccer team and studying for graduate school entrance exams. (See story here.)

Barbara Garcia, a physics and mathematics major at Manhattanville College, learned to be resourceful when she was applying to colleges as a first-generation U.S. citizen and a first-generation college student. She put those skills to work as a summer intern working on a liquid centrifuge device invented by PPPL physicists who study angular momentum in astrophysical plasmas. Applications of the centrifuge include nuclear material separation and numerous potential other industrial uses, including wastewater treatment, separating oil from water, separation of materials to produce bio-fuels, and separating fluids in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

Harry Fetsch is a physics major at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, who spent his summer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) to help build a robot to detect nuclear materials in a nuclear verification program. This builds on the neutron detection and calibration experience and infrastructure developed for fusion research at PPPL.

They are just three examples of the 45 students who spent their summer doing hands-on research side-by-side with scientists and engineers at PPPL. They included students participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI), and Community College Internships (CCI). Both internships are nationwide programs funded by the DOE’s Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) office within the DOE’s Office of Science. PPPL also hosted several high school interns as well as future engineers taking part in a new engineering internship at PPPL that replaces as program that existed a few years ago. 

“The arrival of the interns the summer is a shot of excitement in the Laboratory,” said Steve Cowley, PPPL director. “They bring their resourcefulness and intelligence and like us, they’re excited by fusion. I enjoyed meeting every one of them.”

One of the advantages of PPPL’s SULI program is that PPPL is small enough that students usually get to work closely with their mentors, said Andrew Zwicker, head of the Office of Communications and Public Outreach, which manages the program. “It’s very hands-on,” Zwicker said. “It gives students a chance to really dive deep into their projects.” Zwicker noted that longitudinal studies of PPPL’s SULI students has found that the vast majority go on to attend graduate school and enter STEM fields. 

Diversity efforts bear fruit 

PPPL has several programs aimed at encouraging more diversity among young people entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Arturo Dominguez, a Science Education senior program leader, said those efforts bore fruit this summer. Several students from the 2018 Undergraduate Workshop in Plasma Physics for underrepresented minority and female college students applied for the SULI program and three were accepted, he said. “They did excellent work,” Dominguez said of the students. “It shows the continuity of bringing students into the pipeline early and keeping them in the pipeline. Hopefully some of them will continue and will be our colleagues in the future.”

One of those students was Gabriel Antonio Gonzalez Jusino, a senior majoring in physics at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras Campus. Gonzalez Jusino worked with physicist Sam Cohen on his Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC) experiment aimed at exploring the use of this type of configuration for future fusion energy devices. “I haven’t taken any nuclear physics,” he said. “It was a steep learning curve but I’ve learned a lot during my time here.” 

PPPL kicks off the internship program with a one-week plasma course that includes students from other research internships around the country. (see story here). The students then spend 10 weeks working on a research project with a mentor. They compile research on the topic and summarize their findings to present at a poster session at the end of the summer. PPPL encourages them to submit abstracts to the American Physical Society’s (APS) Division of Plasma Physics (DPP). If accepted, most will present their posters at the APS DPP’s conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Oct. 21 to 25.

The students presented their research at a poster session at PPPL on Aug. 14 and then said their goodbyes and returned home before heading back to college. Most were very enthusiastic about the program and grateful for the tight friendships they forged during the internship, said Deedee Ortiz, Science Education program manager. Most of the SULI interns stayed in dormitories at Princeton University and they became a tight group, she said. They took turns hosting get-togethers at various dormitories, taking each other shopping, and taking part in hiking trips or jaunts to the beach. “I think they enjoyed being in Princeton,” Ortiz said. “The majority would come back.”

A newly-revamped engineering internship

Engineering interns spent the summer doing research with PPPL engineers through a newly revamped engineering internship program. Taylor Shead, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Texas, Arlington, spent his summer working with engineer Andrei Khodak on computer models that predict the flow of the liquid metal lithium, which could be used to protect the inner walls of fusion devices. “I’m interested in fusion energy because it’s very exciting technology and I think it can help the world in an amazing way,” Shead said. 

PPPL is building relationships with teachers at Technology High School in Newark and New Brunswick High School to recruit more diverse students, said Shannon Greco, Science Education senior program leader. The high school students met each week to share triumphs and failures. “They helped each other out and troubleshooted each other’s projects,” Greco said. They also met with college interns and graduating seniors connected with upperclassmen from their chosen colleges. 

Remy Plattiers, who recently graduated from New Brunswick High School and begins his freshman year at the University of New Haven, Connecticut, this fall, said he enjoyed working on an acoustic levitator this summer and would welcome the opportunity to return. “I’m having a blast,” he said. “I only had a small group of people who had the same interests as me at my high school. To be surrounded by people who have an interest in STEM-related fields is just really interesting.” (See story here.)

Networking with scientists 

Joshua Luoma, an engineering physics major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, said getting to know scientists in the field at PPPL is a great opportunity. Luoma worked with researcher Ahmed Diallo on a method to inject lithium granules into a tokamak using lasers. “The network is fantastic,” he said. “It’s great being able to work with scientists who have collaborations across the United States and across the world.” 

“I try to give them guidance and try to teach the student what research is,” said Diallo, who was an intern at PPPL himself as an undergraduate student. That not only means teaching students how to research the literature on a given subject but also teaching them how to cope with roadblocks in their research. “They’re going to hit frustrations. You learn to do your homework, come back and you get it,” Diallo said. 

Justin Cohen, a nuclear engineering major at North Carolina State University, has been interested in fusion energy since he saw the first “Iron Man” movie in which fusion powers the superhero’s metal suit. “It’s been absolutely amazing, probably one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. He also worked with Cohen on the PFRC. Justin Cohen said the interns like working with Cohen because he brings them cookies every day and is very encouraging of their work. “The thing I love the most is the freedom to explore what you want to explore,” he said. 

For Esha Rao, who is majoring in astrophysics and physics at Rutgers University, the internship was an opportunity to explore research into fusion energy before she joins the U.S. Navy Nuclear Program after graduating next year. She said she jumped at the chance to work with physicist Rob Goldston on technology to improve a bubble detector designed to verify nuclear materials that could be used in nuclear weapons. “Just the idea of the research Dr. Goldston was doing here got me interested,” she said. “I think it’s really cool that they’re doing such amazing research at PPPL.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which  is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science.

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