Alex Tinguely

Former SULI intern continues to study plasma physics in the U.S. and abroad

Internship program: SULI
Year: 2013
Undergraduate institution: Iowa State University
Major: Physics
Host DOE laboratory: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Princeton, NJ
Mentor name: Arturo Dominguez

What was your research topic during your internship?
My SULI summer project was to construct a vacuum-compatible, electromagnetic "dust dropper" (like a fancy salt shaker) to drop fine silica grains into a glow discharge plasma. The resulting "dusty plasma" was similar to plasmas observed in outer space (in the interstellar medium) in which large particles (dust) become charged and interact with the background plasma.

What was it like coming to a National Lab for your internship?
Spending a summer on the Princeton University campus and at PPPL was a great experience for me. The friendships I made during my internship have continued to this day; some of us have even gone on to complete our PhDs in plasma physics together.

What do you currently do, and where do you hope your career takes you?
I am currently a postdoctoral associate funded by the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, but stationed full-time at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the UK. I hope to continue working toward fusion energy realization when my postdoc ends next year.

Think of a time you experienced success during your academic or professional career. What did this success look like?
I am particularly proud of the experience when I published my first paper as the first author. I had obtained some good experimental results on a topic slightly tangential to my main PhD thesis topic. Since it was not my primary focus, there was little external motivation to push the project forward toward publication, and this being my first paper, I had little-to-no experience. Therefore, I had to take charge and decide which analyses were sufficient for publication. This experience certainly helped me become a more independent researcher and not wait for others to make decisions for me.

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?
Each year, the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center holds a series of "pizza seminars" for PhD students to present their work. On the day of my talk, I realized that I had made a major error in my code. My seemingly stellar results were totally wrong. While, in hindsight, it probably would have been better to postpone the seminar, I instead spent every minute leading up to the presentation correcting my calculations and making new figures. Now my results were much less impressive, but they were correct. It was a humbling experience and perhaps lackluster presentation, but taught me the importance of being honest in my work.

Did you make any important personal connections during your internship?
While learning from and interacting with the world-renowned scientists at PPPL was an invaluable experience, I actually valued the friendships I made with the other summer interns even more. From first-week study sessions to after-lunch basketball to Friday night crepes to NYC weekend trips, we had a blast inside and outside the lab. These friendships last to this day, and some of my friends are now my work colleagues.

What are your values? How do express your values through your academic or professional career?
I value passion, teamwork, and diversity and inclusivity. Fusion energy is an ambitious goal and requires passionate people who are driven to make it a reality. In order to do this, we need to work as a team, and luckily the fusion community is global and collaboration is international. This team needs to be diverse, to find the best minds and see all viewpoints, but this can only be accomplished if the team is inclusive and open to all people and ideas.