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Former SULI student wins Fulbright award for research on W7-X

Alexandra LeViness, a former Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) student who will join Princeton University’s graduate program in plasma physics in 2018, has won a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to do research at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany. 

“I’m really excited. I have to say it’s just really an amazing opportunity!” said LeViness, who began the SULI program last year with a week-long course on plasma physics at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). She completed the internship at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, which General Atomics operates for the DOE in San Diego.

The PPPL course on plasma physics set her on her path. “I said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I only applied to plasma physics programs for graduate school. I think that fusion power is our future if we’re going to have a future at all,” she said. “I just want to do something that would impact that.”

LeViness graduated from the University of Alabama in May with a degree in physics and mathematics and minors in German and Russian. She is deferring Princeton graduate study for a year and is looking forward to using her 12 years of German language study when she goes to Greifswald, Germany, to start research in September.

 “The Fulbright Fellowship is an enormous distinction,” said John Lohr, the physicist heading the electron cyclotron resonant heating experiment at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility (DIII-D) in San Diego, who served as LeViness’s supervisor there. “You can’t take credit for someone like that who’s been self-molded. I felt that we gave her a chance to do outstanding work and she responded to that by doing outstanding work. “ 

As a SULI intern, LeViness worked on giant microwave generators called gyrotrons at DIII-D, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National User Facility at General Atomics that is the largest magnetic fusion research experiment in the U.S. with a program mission to the largest magnetic fusion research experiment in the U.S.  She also helped test a new experimental vacuum window made of diamond for the waveguide lines on high-power multi-frequency gyrotron systems. She tested the window at low and high powers and studied the effect on the microwave beam beam as it passed through the window. 

LeViness said she enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the internship. “I really liked it a lot. It was my first time doing anything related to plasma physics,” she recalled. “I got to be right down with the engineers where the actual machine was.” 

The future physicist said she was already considering studying plasma physics when she started the SULI internship last summer at PPPL. After hearing about the potential impact of fusion energy during the first few hours of the week-long plasma physics course, she said she was hooked.

LeViness was one of 32 SULI students in 2016, 10 of whom went to DIII-D and 21 of whom stayed at PPPL for a summer of research.  The SULI program is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. 

Experience at several laboratories

LeViness had experience working at several laboratories as an undergraduate student.  She is continuing work this summer on research she began in college on a device to calibrate the LZ liquid xenon dark matter detector for an experiment called the LZ Collaboration at the University of Alabama. The experiment itself will be housed in an underground laboratory in South Dakota. 

She previously spent a summer working on a new active-gas target-detector for the Array for Nuclear Astrophysics and Structure with Exotic Nuclei (ANASEN) at Louisiana State University for a project run by Florida State University.  And she spent another summer working at Ohio State University on a 3D model of the interaction between motor neurons and surrounding brain cells, called microglial cells, for a project exploring the role of the cells in recovery from spinal cord injuries. 

David Gates, the head of stellarators at PPPL who has worked closely with W7-X, helped LeViness apply for the Fulbright fellowship. Gates put her in touch with Thomas Pedersen, one of four W7-X directors, and helped her develop a research project.  Gates also helped with the application and essays, and Pedersen wrote her a recommendation. 

Pedersen and Gates will supervise her work at W7-X. “She’s an incredibly disciplined human being,” Gates said of LeViness. “It didn’t take me a long time to decide that this idea interested me.”

Two projects at W7-X

LeViness will work on two projects on hardware called the scraper element on the W7-X, which is intended to protect the divertor and hardware on the experiment from the intense heat of the plasma.  LeViness will use a Langmuir probe to measure the heat and particle flux in that area to determine if the scraper element is working. She also plans to help with public outreach at the Max Planck Institute, particularly in programs encouraging girls to consider careers in science.

Meanwhile, LeViness has had a few months to relax after graduation. She went back home to Tulsa to watch her sister graduate from graduate school and visit friends and family. Then she returned to the University of Alabama to finish her research project with a dark matter group. She’ll also work on a computer code for a particle physics experiment called the Enriched Xenon Observatory.  She will have a few weeks downtime at the end of the summer before she goes off to Germany.

LeViness said she emailed everyone who helped her when she learned she won the Fulbright in March shortly after learning she was admitted to Princeton’s graduate program. “As far as plasma physics goes in the U.S., it’s pretty much the best program there is,” she said. “When I came to visit it just kind of felt like the right place for me to be. It just felt natural and comfortable and also exciting.” 

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 largest single 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, please visit science.energy.gov.

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

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