Newswise — Students attending the third annual graduate summer school at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) gathered virtually, due to travel restrictions, to get a broad overview of the field of plasma physics. 

The week-long program consisted of three mini-courses of four lectures each streamed live to all 40 participants and then archived for later reference. The courses —“Computational Methods in Plasma Physics,” Low-Temperature Plasmas,” and “Turbulence” — were taught by PPPL instructors and collaborators. At the end of the week, Aug. 10-14, the graduate students gave poster presentations via Zoom on their current areas of interest. 

“I think this year’s program went really well,” said Arturo Dominguez, PPPL’s science education senior program leader and founder of the graduate summer school. He noted that changing the program’s format from in-person to virtual had both disadvantages and benefits. “On one hand, we shortened the lectures to half a day, so there was definitely some loss in content,” Dominguez said. “And as with everything else, there’s a loss when everybody is not in the same place and able to have dinner together or interact after hours.” 

“But because the students didn’t have to travel, there was less effort required to attend, which meant that we could accept students from as far away as Peru and the United Kingdom,” Dominguez said. “We were able to do almost everything we have done in previous years.” 

The summer school was helpful to students from a range of academic experience. “Being from atmospheric science, it was really nice to meet people with a variety of backgrounds and see how our interests overlap,” said Alexandra Brosius, a Ph.D. candidate in atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. “I definitely learned a lot from my classmates and definitely gained some confidence that I can learn new things and interact with people in a meaningful way.” 

Participants at the very beginning of their graduate studies also found the summer school beneficial, especially if they did not have a plasma physics background. “I think I actually have an edge now for when I start my classes,” said Veronica Eudave, who is entering a plasma physics graduate program at the University of California-San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. “I won’t be so behind compared to other students majored in physics.” 

Since the students were accustomed to using Zoom, the summer school’s virtual aspect was not jarring. “By the time they got to us, they were pretty used to the whole online thing,” said Deedee Ortiz, science education program manager at PPPL and one of the graduate school’s organizers. “They were engaged and excited to be part of the program, even though it was virtual.” 

PPPL’s graduate summer school, founded in 2017, is intended to provide a broad overview of plasma physics, unlike other summer programs that focus on specific topics in the plasma physics field. The courses are meant for students either just beginning their graduate studies or in the first or second year. 

The program helps students meet people they would not typically encounter, either at their home institution or in their specialized fields of study. Organizers of the program also strive to make the accepted group diverse, accepting applicants from different genders, ethnicities, areas of expertise, and universities. 

The virtual experience showed that the program could provide valuable enrichment despite social distancing restrictions. “The silver lining is that we learned we don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to make an impact,” Dominguez said. “You just need organization and a willingness from people in the field to teach.” 

As with any program, there is room for improvement. “There’s only one very small thing that I would change,” Brosius said. “I would put in a tiny lunch break next time around. Otherwise, everything was absolutely phenomenal.” 

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