Newswise — Mireya Juarez is one of the few female minority students in her college physics class at California State University, San Marcos, where she is a junior. So she was pleased to spend the weekend with physics students who are mostly women and minorities at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Workshop in Plasma Physics for Undergraduates.

“I’m really happy to see there are so many people like me,” Juarez said after attending the four-day workshop July 12 to 15.

The aim of the workshop, which is in its third year, is to give women and underrepresented minorities the background and skills that will help them get internships and to consider a career in plasma physics and fusion energy sciences. Arturo Dominguez, a physicist and senior program leader in Science Education, began the program in 2017 to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities (African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans) to consider careers in plasma physics. “This workshop is an important part of developing a diverse next-generation workforce,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of Communications and Public Outreach at PPPL.

“It’s no coincidence that we have such a diverse group of women, minorities, LGBTQ in this workshop” Dominguez told students. “We want to be an attractive community for you to join and the more of you who join, the more attractive it’s going to get.”

Troubling statistics

Dominguez is hoping to change troubling statistics that show a small percentage of physicists generally and plasma physicists in particular are women and underrepresented minorities. The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in physics in the U.S. 2017 was about 21 percent, just a 2 percent increase over the previous decade, according to the American Physical Society (APS).  The percentage of women earning doctorates was 18 percent and that percentage has remained unchanged. In plasma physics, the percentage of women members in APS’s Division of Plasma Physics has remained relatively flat at 7 to 8 percent since 2010, despite women making up 13 percent of APS membership.

The Undergraduate Workshop, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS), gives students an overview of plasma physics and fusion energy, teaches them some computational physics, which includes basic coding skills,  vector calculus, and offers hands-on laboratory experiments in electromagnetism and plasma physics. The students toured Princeton University and met with graduate students. They also had lunch with students in WDTS’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program who are doing research at PPPL this summer, including three who participated in the Plasma Workshop last year.  (WDTS is part of DOE’s Office of Science.)

One of several Science Education programs encouraging diversity

The program is one of several sponsored by PPPL’s Science Education department to encourage more diverse students to consider STEM careers. PPPL hosts a Young Women’s Conference for 750 7th- to 10th-graders each year. Later this summer, Dominguez will hold a plasma workshop for professors from minority-serving institutions with the aim of teaching physics professors inexpensive plasma experiments they can do in their classrooms.

Dominguez said he was pleased that many of the 20 students were from colleges where he has given lectures to recruit students over the past several years, including historically black colleges and several institutions that are part of the University of Puerto Rico. He said he got the idea for the program after talking to students at lectures who asked about internships at PPPL only to find that it was late in their college careers to take the necessary courses and get the research experience that would help them have competitive applications.

Dominguez told students that the workshop is one of his favorite activities of the year. “My favorite moments were to have that ‘Ooh ah,’ reaction as you learned different things in the workshop. I heard that a lot this year.”

Juarez said she wants to be a college professor but the workshop showed her the possibility of somehow incorporating plasma physics. “This really opened up my mind,” she said.

Madison Allen, a rising junior physics major at Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta, said she liked that the workshop was taught by Dominguez, who is Colombian. Allen said the workshop showed her different career possibilities. “I did want to go into aeronautic engineering but it’s changed to maybe staying with physics because there’s a lot you can do with it,” she said. “There’s always a need for running data and new ideas.”

Abigail Louise Ferris, from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said she realized “that maybe I can do physics.  I think that opened my eyes, to not just limit myself,” she said.

Learning to code

Pedro Rivera Cardona, a rising junior majoring in physics at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, said he enjoyed the challenge of learning to code and doing electromagnetic experiments. “My favorite things were the opportunity to explore campus with fellow undergraduates,” he said. “With all the stuff we’ve done, it reassures me that this is something I’d like to do in the future.”

Julio Santiago Aldeano, from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, said he enjoyed learning more about fusion energy. “Now I have a better understanding of what we in the scientific community are striving for,” Santiago Aldeano said. “It was really cool seeing what they’re trying to do with it to make fusion energy. Having an infinite amount of energy – that will change the world.”

A “pitch” to apply for internships

At the end of the workshop, Dominguez gave what he calls his “pitch” to students to apply for a SULI internship or other internships. Students interested in plasma physics should take courses in electromagnetism and coding, he told them. He advised all of them to seek research projects so that they have experience that will help them get internships and help with their graduate school applications.

“I loved having you here for the workshop,” Dominguez told the students at the end of the program. “You each have your own personality and I loved it.”

Dominguez said he was grateful to numerous people for their help with the workshop. Angie Capece, a physics professor at the College of New Jersey, led an electromagnetic laboratory experiment; graduate student Laura Zhang gave a lecture on electromagnetism and helped lead one of the electromagnetism experiments. Graduate students Alec Griffith, Yichen Fu, and Jacob Schwartz gave a computational tutorial, and Sierra Jubin, Kendra Bergstedt, and Eduardo Rodriguez helped with the plasma physics laboratory experiment. The Science Education team helped organize the logistics of the four-day workshop.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit