Ash Coleman, Khadija Jalloul and Victor de la Cruz Cordero
RIPP summer interns, from left, Ash Coleman, Khadija Jalloul and Victor de la Cruz Cordero.
Courtesy CSPAR

They were broadened and motivated in their future career choices by the experience, say three students who recently completed a nine-week summer Regional Introduction to Plasma Physics (RIPP) summer internship for undergraduates.

“I know I would love to work in the plasma physics field, something I really did not know much about before this internship,” says Ash Coleman, a fifth-year double major in physics and mathematics at Thomas More University from Georgetown, Ky.

“When I got to this internship, I had just recently slipped in through the cracks of plasma physics from the astrophysics side, after a developed interest in accretion disks,” says Coleman, whose current goal is to continue academically until she is awarded a doctorate in plasma physics – a change from astrophysics that came after her RIPP experience at Auburn University with Dr. Saikat Chakraborty Thakur.

“I had been slowly slipping away from pure astrophysics due to how computational the field is becoming, as I find myself enjoying having a hands-on aspect to my research that involves more than just running the telescopes,” she says. “The research I’ve been involved in at Auburn has provided me with the hands-on experience I desired, alongside a computational aspect that I find more interesting than that of my astrophysics research.”

Funded by Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP), RIPP aims to promote long-term relationships between investigators in Alabama and students in the Southeastern National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) eligible states and territories. Eligible states and territories are Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Managed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), FTPP is supported by a $20 million NSF EPSCoR grant with the goal of transitioning plasma research into agricultural, manufacturing, space science, space weather prediction and other applications, as well as developing the required highly skilled plasma workforce.

RIPP students were placed in a summer research project at an FTPP institution for nine weeks.

Victor de la Cruz Cordero found that his research work with Dr. Renato Camata at The University of Alabama in Birmingham applied directly to his goal to become a civil engineer.

“The research opportunity helped me because I worked towards measuring the vibrations and strengths of compounds, that can possibly be used in the future as building materials,” says de la Cruz Cordero, a senior from Kissimmee, Fla., who is majoring in mathematics and civil engineering at Talladega College.

For Khadija Jalloul, a senior in aerospace engineering at UAH who interned at UAH with Dr. Keyvan Ghanbari and is originally from Morocco, her research helped her better understand solar influences on space missions. The aerospace industry is her career goal, coupled with a future master’s degree in the field.

“During my internship, I had the opportunity to study solar wind turbulence within correlating interaction regions, which gave me invaluable insights into the significance of considering solar activities when planning space missions,” Jalloul says.

“Through this exposure, I realized the critical importance of understanding the interactions between spacecraft and their environment, particularly the effects of solar storms and radiation,” she says. “This experience broadened my perspective as an aerospace engineer, prompting me to recognize the holistic approach necessary for successful space missions.”

Coleman says she had a lot of very amazing experiences at Auburn. Her research involved filament observation in argon in varying magnetic fields and pressures; observation of the ablation of carbon fiber to plasma using a high-power pulse laser; observation of formation and melting of dust crystals through different pressures and magnetic fields; and testing of a diagnostic tool for plasma parameters that accounts for magnetic field.

In addition to their research project, interns experienced an intensive one-week Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) online training activity where they participated in lectures, laboratory experiments and short classes in plasma science.

“The content of the PPPL course is engaging, providing essential insights into the subject matter,” says Jalloul.

Participating in the PPPL courses last year benefitted her this time, says Coleman.

“Sometimes those courses can get a bit jargon heavy, which can be scary for someone like me, who did not have much knowledge when it came to plasma,” she says.

“It was very informative, however, and I very much enjoy seeing the variety of projects that take place in plasma and fusion energy,” Coleman says. “It also allowed me to realize that my interests lie much more heavily in plasma than in fusion.”

The week spent at PPPL was concurrent with the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, so that RIPP students were part of a larger, national plasma science student cohort. They learned about opportunities in plasma science and were exposed to the research environment of the national laboratory for plasma physics.

At the conclusion of their internships, each intern was required to make a 15-minute presentation.

“My most memorable experience was having to present my final presentation for 15 minutes,” says de la Cruz Cordero.

Coleman says the presentation was memorable because of the atmosphere of support she felt.

“There were six people in the room with me as I presented, which included my mentor and the lab manager,” she says. “And online, there were five other people, which included graduate students who had supported me during my internship, as well as my roommates from Auburn, and my mom.”

The sense of support overwhelmed her and made her realize she is on the correct life path, Coleman says.

Jalloul says the insights she received about the connectivity of science are memorable.

“I now appreciate the interconnectedness of various scientific disciplines and the need to integrate knowledge from diverse fields to create robust and safe space exploration endeavors,” she says.

All agree that the experience is worthwhile and they urge others to become RIPP interns.

“I would 100 percent recommend RIPP to future students looking to get research experience,” says de la Cruz Cordero.

Coleman says she would love to see more people from other states getting this experience.

“I am definitely going to advertise this experience in Kentucky so I can help get others involved in this field.”