25 Years of Undergraduate Research at General Atomics

General Atomics (GA) just completed its 25th year of participation in undergraduate summer research according to a press release from General Atomics that was picked up by Engineering.com. The specific programs have changed over the years, with the present program being the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) that sees undergraduates spend ten summer weeks working on research projects within the DIII-D National Fusion Facility and the Inertial Fusion Technologies groups on-site at GA in San Diego, CA (SULI also supports research projects at other labs). I have participated in these programs since 2012 because I think they are important for helping students determine whether they want to pursue careers in scientific research. My two summer projects as an undergraduate led me to pursue such a career, and my summer at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory specifically sent me hurtling right into magnetic fusion research.

GA’s participation in SULI is managed by Dr. Robert Pinsker, who sums up the value of the program,

The majority of the students who have done summer internships here have gone onto careers in science and engineering, and many of those have continued to work in the field of energy research. As the students consider going onto graduate school, they do so with a better understanding of plasma physics and fusion. Even though most undergraduate curricula don’t include much in these areas, the topics are important, because almost all of the visible matter in the universe is in the plasma state, including the sun and the stars. The long-term goal of the more than 60-year-old international effort to develop controlled fusion on earth is to find a new safe, emission-free, virtually inexhaustible energy source to power the future global economy.


HOT TIMES FOR STUDENT INTERNS: College senior Ryan Chaban, right, with his mentor Dr. David Pace, spent his summer working on fusion technology at GA. (Photo by GA)

It’s great that the availability of this program is being spread through media attention and I hope that increases the number of students who consider it.

My most recent summer student was included in the release (see photo at right). While setting up for this photo I realized just how difficult it is to get a sensible photo at the tokamak. Any time you are close to the tokamak it will just look like a bunch of cables and equipment. This is partly because there are different floor levels built all around it to improve access. We began by walking around and taking photos in the areas where Ryan actually worked. All of those photos looked like a person tucked into a small lab room, not a large research facility with a nuclear reactor! We settled for a photo on the mid-level floor as shown. There is some interesting hardware in this photo that I highlight below.


The distinguishing feature of a tokamak is its toroidal field coils. You can barely see one of them here (in this photo of NSTX they are bright red, but in superconducting tokamaks such as KSTAR they are completely encased). The gamma ray imager exists connected to DIII-D just behind the spectrometer shielding and sign. The red carpet is a rare sight because it only gets put out when we are physically entering the tokamak to work on it from the inside. This photo was taken during an extended maintenance period to allow internal upgrades. There is a “large” opening just behind me and the red carpet softens the ground as we scoot on it to climb inside. The anti-torque bar keeps the machine from ripping itself apart during operations when 100,000+ amps of current flow through the toroidal field coils exerting a force on each other. Ports through which microwave waveguides are typically installed have had the equipment removed and the open ports covered with blanks. Finally, there is just a peak of the C-coil that is used to generate a magnetic field that counteracts stray fields generated during operations. Everything that Ryan Chaban worked on is located on the level below this floor.

Information on the program is all contained through the SULI website.

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