The Lab in the living room: Summer interns delve into plasma and fusion research from their homes

Summer interns working for PPPL did hands-on research from their computers in their bedrooms or on their dining room tables all over the U.S. They worked closely with PPPL physicists and engineers on research aimed at understanding ionized gases called plasmas and helping to develop fusion energy as the energy of the future.

A total of 62 undergraduate interns spent the summer working at PPPL through various internship programs. The total includes 42 students who were part of the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program at PPPL and two students through the DOE’s Community College Internships (CCI) program. Both programs are funded by the DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists.

PPPL also had interns doing research through PPPL internship programs, including four students participating in PPPL’s Engineering Undergraduate Internship Program and five students in the high school internship program. Another eight students worked online for various institutions around the country through the Plasma and Fusion Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, which is managed by PPPL and the U.S. Fusion Outreach Team. 

“One positive aspect is you can be anywhere and do your work anywhere,” said Deedee Ortiz, PPPL’s Science Education program manager and one of the organizers of the programs. “The efforts we made have built that sense of belonging. This should be a lifelong connection — hopefully it will be for all of them.”

While the students did not get to visit the Laboratory, they attended a two-week online plasma and fusion workshop hosted by PPPL featuring top physicists from around the world. The students met with physicists and graduate student mentors online during their research program and kept in touch with each other online as well. In November, they will present their papers at the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP) Conference, which is currently planned as a hybrid online and in-person conference in Pittsburgh. For many, the program serves as a bridge to graduate school, providing the support and job experience that can make a difference in graduate school applications.

This is the first in a series of articles on PPPL’s summer internship programs featuring some of the summer interns.

Hands-on research through the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships

More than 750 SULI students participated in research this summer across DOE’s national labs, including PPPL. A few of the SULI students discussed their experiences doing research for PPPL.

Samantha O’Sullivan: Analyzing violent disruptions that can halt fusion reactions 

Samantha O’Sullivan has been interested in fusion energy since high school. So, when she had the opportunity to do hands-on research through the SULI program, she jumped at the opportunity. “I don’t know much about plasma physics, but I’ve always been interested in the fusion reactor side of it,” she said.

O’Sullivan has long been interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She attended a STEM middle school and took college-level math classes in high school. Now a physics major at Harvard College, she has already conducted research in condensed matter physics and has submitted the manuscript for first research paper. But Harvard College doesn’t offer plasma physics. “It just seemed really cool to me ever since high school,” she said. O’Sullivan and most of the SULI students will present their research at a poster session of the APS-DPP Conference Nov. 8 to 12 in Pittsburgh. The conference is being held in person and online and the students will likely present their papers online.

O’Sullivan worked under the guidance of PPPL graduate student Oak Nelson with a research group overseen by PPPL physicist Egemen Kolemen on a database that can analyze data from the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics. The students sought to determine whether there is a correlation between neutral beam injections, which are used to heat plasma to create a fusion reaction, and violent instabilities in the plasma called edge localized modes or ELMs. These instabilities can halt fusion reactions and damage the inner walls of doughnut-shaped fusion reactors called tokamaks.

“It’s really cool that it’s not just a model but it’s actual data that was created recently,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan’s project is part of a larger long-term project that uses data directly from the DIII-D database, Nelson said. “One of the big challenges of the project is learning how to navigate that database structure,” he said. “Samantha really stepped off the deep end into a really big collaborative effort.”

Nelson said he has enjoyed his first year as one of numerous PPPL graduate students acting as mentors. “I think the SULI program’s awesome,” he said. “From an educational perspective, SULI offers so many opportunities to so many people who just wouldn’t have the opportunity in their undergraduate field or who just want to try something new…It’s just a fantastic program and it’s run really well.”

Jenniffer Profitt: Getting a new perspective on the physics field

Jenniffer Profitt began this year’s SULI program with a sense of familiarity, since she spent a day at the Lab two years ago during the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. But the learning curve was steep. “I had only taken one semester of physics because I thought I was going to major in math,” said Profitt, a rising junior at Columbia University majoring in astrophysics. “I had a lot of the math background but didn’t know what it meant in a physical context.”

The program’s structure helped Profitt navigate some of the difficulties. “I liked how there was a two-week intro course at the beginning, so you’re not completely lost,” she said. “I think it was very well organized.”

Profitt worked during her internship with physicist Jason TenBarge in PPPL’s Theory Department on simulations of the stream of energetic particles known as the solar wind emitted by the sun. Her task was to create computer models of plasma instabilities within that stream to understand the flow of heat and the range of temperatures within it.

Before the past summer Profitt had planned to concentrate on cosmology — the development of the early universe — and lots of theory. The SULI internship made her think about doing more plasma physics in the future. “I asked my mentor, Dr. TenBarge, if there is an intersection between cosmology and plasma physics,” she said. “He indicated that there were a lot of options.”

The SULI program had a significant impact on Profitt’s future plans. “The internship made me excited enough about plasma physics that I will be applying to graduate programs in plasma physics, something that I hadn’t considered before this program,” Profitt said. “It also made me want to pursue a career at a national laboratory, another path that I didn’t really know about before.”

Sreya Vangara: Exploring the optimal design for permanent magnets in fusion devices of the future

Sreya Vangara, a mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science major with a concentration in archaeology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has taught science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses all over the world and has worked on engineering projects to provide clean water to the Navajo nation and to people in Madagascar. She has worked with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a private spinoff from MIT that is developing fusion energy, and welcomed the chance to do research at PPPL.

“I just think fusion is so important,” she said. “It’s going to revolutionize the world! I’m very glad to be able to be at Princeton to develop fusion reactors that are cheaper, more efficient to build and run, need fewer materials and are compact.”

Vangara worked with Steve Cowley, PPPL’s director, to use computer codes and computation to determine the best configuration of a fusion device that uses permanent magnets, more powerful versions of the simple magnets used to fasten children’s artwork on refrigerators. In a magnetic mirror, charged particles in a plasma would bounce back and forth along magnetic field lines between symmetric opposing magnetic structures. The optimal design for the device to maximize the magnetic field confining the plasma would be a round cavity at the center of the device that Vangara compares to a soccer ball. “Ideally, the long-term goal is to take this framework and use it to design a magnetic mirror device that we can actually construct in the lab,” Vangara said.

Vangara said she appreciates learning the physics of fusion energy. “I think it’s very exciting because I’m an engineering student and for the last several semesters most of what I’ve been doing is making things with my hands,” she said. “I think it’s important for me to take a step back and look at the physics and mathematics of it all. Being able to step back and analyze the system from the very foundation is something that I think is vital in fusion and I’m glad I am learning it.”

Despite not being on-site at PPPL or meeting fellow students in person, Vangara said the best part of the program was getting to know the students. “It’s so motivating to see that fusion has this great diversity of backgrounds,” she said. “The other SULI students make me want to learn more.”

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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 https://energy.gov/science