Dr. Anne White of MIT on Nuclear Fusion

On Monday October 3, the Physics Department invited Dr. Anne White of MIT to Bryn Mawr College to give a colloquium talk on nuclear fusion. Dr. White also spoke to physics students during the physics senior seminar, and presented her public presentation on her research later that day. She is the Cecil and Ida Green Associate Professor in Nuclear Engineering at MIT.IMG_5449Dr. White’s colloquium talk gave a good overview of the history of nuclear fusion, the current state of nuclear fusion research, and the bright future nuclear fusion has. She’s definitely changed my mind of misconceptions on nuclear power.

What is Nuclear Fusion?
A gas is heated to its plasma form, then subjected to a strong electromagnetic field. The energy is confined in a donut shaped ring until harnessed. Nuclear fusion is not the method used in nuclear power plants, but the idea is similar of taking radioactive material and heating it. Nuclear power plants just heat the materials to generate steam to work electricity generating turbines. Nuclear fusion heats the materials to a plasma, which is then converted to electrical power. Two designs for creating nuclear fusion are often discussed: tokamaks and stellarators. The majority of nuclear fusion research centers around the world use the tokamak design. Much of the research and hype on nuclear fusion tokamaks is centered around the ITER project, an international partnership to develop a highly efficient and very large tokamak. (Iter is Latin for “the way” because physicists didn’t want to scare people with the word thermonuclear reactor.) Tokamaks around the world (including the Alcator C-Mod tokamak at MIT) analyze best practices and results from their own smaller tokamaks to contribute to perfecting ITER’s design. Some problems researchers are working on addressing include finding a way to operate a tokamak in steady state and lengthening confinement time of excited plasma. There are multiple confinement states in a pulse length of plasma to produce energy, but the current drive problem to start and restart the excited plasma is still very expensive and energy intensive.

Dr. White’s talk with physics students during the physics senior seminar is a more informal conversation where students can ask her any question they have about career paths, advice, and research. These sessions are strictly private– only the invited colloquium speaker and students are allowed in the room. I think this confidentiality feature is beneficial for both the speaker and students because we can all be more honest and candid about our thoughts.

On her academic/career path…
During this private session, Dr. White revealed that she first liked math, but fell in love with physics because she liked to tinker with things. She had at one point considered being a doctor in high school because “that’s what all the smart kids did those days,” but she found she preferred the way of thinking physics demands. When applying to graduate school for experimental plasma physics, she looked all over for a good learning and social environment. Coming from a 50/50 co-ed undergraduate environment, she admits it was a big shock to enter a graduate school environment where she would be the only girl in some of her classes or conferences.

On sexism in STEM…
Plasma physics has a reputation for a large gender gap. According to Dr. White, she “developed a thick skin early on.” She recalls having to work in a lab where the boys had put up a picture of Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. She pushed on in the lab because she was looking to build up her lab research reputation. (Though in hindsight, she wishes she took more classes and TA’d for balance and class learning instead of teaching herself from lab work.) Countless times, she’s been told she wasn’t good enough. Dr. White finds flaws in the networking system that disadvantages women who may not have time to go to bars late at night to network and drink a lot. Networking is so important because success in any field is a combination of the quality of your work and how well people know you. Dr. White is proud to have found a workplace at MIT where the gender pay gap is 0.

On her near term goals…
Dr. White could not contain her excitement for the current state of nuclear physics. In about a week from now, the W7X stellarator in Germany will reveal a report on its efficiency and energy production levels. Most nuclear accelerators are built using the design of a tokamak, but if the W7X is successful, the design may shift toward stellarators again. At MIT, Dr. White conducts research on how to build better reactors, also known as ARC = affordable, reliable, compact. (Think Iron Man.) Her team experiments with different materials for building electromagnetic fields around the plasma ring of different sizes and set ups. They also consider the possibilities of 3D printing the modular elements for the ARC. Another goal Dr. White works toward is promoting nuclear energy as a viable source of alternative energy and a serious science field. She thinks there needs to be more done to address the public’s concerns toward nuclear energy. She agrees that radioactive material must be disposed properly, but she thinks people have an unrealistic fear of radiation exposure from nuclear power plants. She points out that people get exposed to radiation all the time from the sun, from taking transatlantic flights, and from coal power plants which don’t have as strict regulations as nuclear power plants. People should invest more in nuclear energy because when done correctly, it is very safe. jquxmgeoj6a1u3gijgbu

On graduate school advice…
For tips on looking for a good lab, Dr. White recommends talking to the students currently working in the labs, visiting the schools and research groups, and being very proactive. For people with not a lot of research experience, Dr. White says it doesn’t matter. If they have been accepted into the program and school, then they are more than academically ready to start research. What matters most is drive, potential, critical thinking, and a friendly personality that clicks with the team.

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