Alex LeViness

Former SULI intern received Fulbright fellowship to study plasma physics in Germany

Internship program: SULI
Year: 2016
Undergraduate institution: The University of Alabama
Major: Physics
Host DOE laboratory: General Atomics / DIII-D, San Diego, CA
Mentor name: John Lohr

What was your research topic during your internship?
My research involved gyrotrons, a type of high-powered microwave used to heat plasma in fusion experiments. More specifically, I was testing a new window made from diamond and designed to allow different frequencies of microwave to pass through it without reflecting or overheating. I was very excited to work on research related to nuclear fusion, as I am interested in it as a clean source of energy for the future.

What was it like coming to a National Lab for your internship?
I had only done research at universities in the past, so it was interesting to come to do research at a National Laboratory, where the focus is on research rather than teaching. It showed me that there were ways to be a physicist that did not involve becoming a professor.

What do you currently do, and where do you hope your career takes you?
I am currently a third-year PhD student in the Princeton University Program in Plasma Physics. I am still working on research related to nuclear fusion. More specifically, my research focuses on confinement of fast ions in a type of fusion device called a stellarator. After I finish my PhD, I hope continue researching stellarators.

Think of a time you experienced success during your academic or professional career. What did this success look like?
The year following my SULI internship, I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to do plasma physics research in Germany. SULI played a big role in my application process: during the one-week crash course in plasma physics held by the SULI team at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), I met Dr. David Gates, who became a co-advisor on my Fulbright project and is now my graduate advisor. My SULI mentor also helped me prepare and edit my Fulbright application materials. I got the scholarship and was able to spend the year after finishing undergrad at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, working on the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator. This was an invaluable experience and allowed me to do research full-time for a year before even beginning my graduate degree. It also influenced my future career path, as I now plan to carry out my thesis research on the W7-X device.

Think of a time you experienced failure during your academic or professional career. How did you feel at the time? How did you deal with the failure and work past it?
My first research experience was in a field that did not truly interest me. The project was a bad fit for me and I had almost no direct contact with my mentor. I was unable to do well on my project and finished the summer feeling as though I was a failure as a researcher. The next time I applied for research internships, I received only one offer because I did not have a good letter of recommendation from my previous mentor. I accepted the position, which turned out to be in an area that fit my interests more closely. I also specified the type of project I would like to work on more closely, having learned from my previous experience the type of work I did and didn’t like. I was able to do a much better job on that project and it led to me being chosen for the SULI program the following year. I learned that I needed to find an environment that would give me a chance to thrive and, to do so, I needed to understand my interests.

What are your values? How do express your values through your academic or professional career?
I love physics, but I also want to do my part in addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change that faces the world today. I don’t want to do research purely for the sake of knowledge. Working in nuclear fusion research, both in SULI and now during my PhD program, allows me to pursue my interest in physics and while also contributing to a science that could change the world by providing a nearly limitless source of carbon-free energy.

Alex at the 61st Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Plasma Physics, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, October 2019.


Alex at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, standing in front of the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator (summer 2018).