PPPL to Head Effort to Bring Underserved Communities into Plasma Science & Fusion Energy Field

PPPL and other institutions are actively focused on finding ways to recruit diverse students, researchers and engineers into the fusion energy and plasma science fields and make them feel part of an inclusive community in which they are welcomed, able to succeed and remain in the field.

That's where a new program comes in. The Pathways to Fusion Collaborative Center, for which PPPL is the lead institution, will serve as a new "user facility," providing help and guidance to other plasma and fusion programs embarking on initiatives to collaborate with institutions that serve historically marginalized populations as well as support these institutions themselves. It also will include assessment tools to measure their success. The program will receive $500,000 per year for 2023 to 2025 from a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW) grant.

The center is co-led by PPPL and three partner institutions: Howard University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, but it has 12 other institutional members. It will provide help to institutions as they embark on programs in collaboration with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Among other tools, the center will develop assessments that can provide metrics on the cultural climate of the institutions.

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo Dominguez (Elle Starkman/ PPPL Office of Communications)

The effort to diversify the fusion energy and plasma science field "has been done on a case-by-case basis," said Arturo Dominguez, head of science education and a principal investigator of the new program. "It hasn't been done systematically. It hasn't brought the historically marginalized into the process from the very beginning. And that's what our innovation is here. We're making sure their voices are fundamental to the creation of the center, so their viewpoints and concerns are folded in from the very beginning."

The aim of the program is ensuring that institutions do the groundwork required to create a welcoming climate for collaborations, Dominguez said. It will rely on a framework created by Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The concept is that institutions must establish a strong base of psychological safety and cultural competence before they can move on to diversity, mission readiness and innovation.

"It's more and more clear that diversity is a consequence of a healthy climate," Dominguez explained. "Even if we bring in new students, faculty or staff from diverse backgrounds, they will only stay if they find a welcoming and healthy environment."

A fusion plasma highway

Efforts to diversify the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have traditionally been described as improving the pipeline into the STEM fields and fixing "leaks" or issues that lead students or staff members to leave. But Dominguez and his partners instead use the analogy of creating a "fusion/plasma highway."

"We will work with them as a center to make sure that when they're making plans for students and making plans for research, that they're implementing best practices in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), and they have the resources they need so that they have a well-paved pathway into fusion energy science research. We have the national labs, academic research institutions, private companies and community partners as lanes in a highway and the on- and off-ramps for new members to join our field or transition to other programs."

One of the goals of the program is to ensure that MSIs have clear, well-designed pathways on those on-ramps, Dominguez says. And once they get there, the institutions must ensure they provide a level and pothole-free highway - a welcoming and inclusive community in which they can succeed.

A pilot program with Hampton University

The center's pilot program will be a research collaboration with Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia, and a research institution like PPPL or Columbia University. "The gold standard is to have a program that allows the HBCUs or the MSIs to develop the bandwidth within their own institution that can sustain more students, faculty members, scientists or technicians," Dominguez said.

The goal of the DOE's RENEW grant is "building foundations" for bringing more underrepresented students into research programs at Office of Science research institutions like PPPL. The Lab was one of seven institutions to receive a total of $4 million in funding from the DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences program. It is one of several Office of Science programs that includes advanced scientific computing research, nuclear physics, high energy physics, basic energy sciences, and biological and environmental research.

In the proposal for the center, Dominguez cited several of the Lab's workforce development and engagement efforts through PPPL's science education program and strategic partnerships office, including its apprenticeship program; the DOE programs Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship and Community College Internship; as well as programs aimed specifically at underserved students and faculty such as the Plasma and Fusion Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, which partners students with researchers at other institutions on plasma science and fusion research; the Minority Serving Institution Faculty Workshop; and the Plasma Physics Undergraduate Workshop.

A collaboration with Howard University, U.S. Coast Guard Academy and University of Maryland Eastern Shore

One partner in the center is the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, an HBCU that is an 1860 land-grant institution for the state of Maryland. A research group led by Kausik Das, a professor at the college, has collaborated with PPPL's Science Education staff on plasma research. The group recently published a paper with Dominguez as a co-author on plasma generation by household microwave ovens that was featured by MIT Technology Review as a "game changer" and became the most downloaded paper in the American Journal of Physics in 2021.

Another partner is Howard University, one of only six HBCUs that has a graduate program in physics. Marcus Alfred, a co-principal investigator with the center, is director of Howard University's Computational Physics Laboratory, which has successfully recruited students in computational physics and STEM.

"My work with PPPL and Princeton on FES training and possible research projects has been incredibly important," Alfred said. "I hope to help other HBCUs that may not have dedicated faculty in plasma physics to provide multiple paths for opportunities for our students and communities."

The third partner is the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, which has a successful DEIA model called "the Diamond Model," which another co-principal investigator, Capt. Royce James, helped to develop. The model is being used by the DOE, the Air Force Institute of Technology, and the American Physical Society's Division of Plasma Physics, among others. The academy also has multiple community STEM programs.

In addition to Princeton University, other members of the center and their representatives are: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Amelia Campbell); Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Patrick Poole); CTFusion (Derek Sutherland); the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, (Ane Lasa); the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Steffi Diem); the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Carolyn Kuranz); Wittenberg University (Jeremiah Williams); and Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Nick Murphy).

"The plasma/fusion energy science and engineering community stands poised to create a healthy, innovative climate of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility," James said. "Our pathways user facility collaboration was formed through a collective process, centered on the racialized and historically marginalized that will create impactful actions, frameworks, metrics and opportunities for us, the community, to realize. We will need to be agile, transparent, and institutionalized in our approach and execution, which can systemically eliminate barriers that limit us all. This is how we chart our course to achieve the world's critical fusion and plasma science/technology breakthroughs."

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