An interest in astronomy prompted Samantha Strasser, '11, to study physics at Albion College. An on-campus research opportunity, which led to a summer internship with the fusion energy division of the energy and engineering sciences directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has opened up even more future paths for the Brighton native to consider.
"I like everything about physics," Strasser said. Right now, her interests range from astrophysics to electronics.
While many of her classmates returned home, Strasser remained on campus for the summer after her first year at Albion to work with physics professor David Seely on a project funded by the college's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity that led to a co-author on a peer-reviewed article in a bound volume of conference proceedings. Seely, who had completed a sabbatical at ORNL, took Strasser to the facility in Tennessee for a week to demonstrate the type of collaborative research being done. It was on that trip that Strasser met her ORNL mentor, Charles Havener.
When Strasser was looking for an internship last summer, Havener jumped at the opportunity to bring in a student who knew her way around the lab. The work being done involves building a fusion reactor to make energy creation through the atomic collisions more efficient.
"We think of nuclear energy as fission, and people are scared of it because they think about (the dangers associated with reactor accidents like) Chernobyl or Three Mile Island," Strasser explained. "Meltdowns can't happen because of the nature of fusion. It is so hard to get atoms to fuse together that if something goes wrong, the reaction just halts. There is not a lot of radiation that comes from it because the elements we use do not continue to decay for hundreds of years like uranium or plutonium."
"We had to make a lot of repairs on the machine," Strasser added. "Charlie was happy that I had experience with high vacuum systems because there are a lot of highly specialized tools that go with that. If you screw up it's hard to know where you made a mistake. I think if I was at the University of Michigan there's no way I'd be doing something like this right now. I would have to be in my third year of graduate school before I got to do something like this."
Strasser's specific work was in charge exchange, where the nuclei of atomic particles don't have enough energy to collide. Instead, only an electron is exchanged between the atoms. The issue being investigated is the rate at which neutral particles develop from charge exchange in an environment like a fusion plasma. Neutral particles are bad for fusion because they inhibit the fusion reaction.
Back on campus for the fall semester before heading off to study in Japan, Strasser has an invitation to return to ORNL, and she is using some of the things she learned in the electronics lab at Albion.
"My mentor wants me to come back to Oak Ridge over winter break to do some more work because I wrote some LabVIEW programs," she added, talking about her work with the software that is standard in many labs. "He had no idea how to use it and he said, ‘Here's what we're using now and I want it to do this and this.' I essentially had to learn how to use LabVIEW, and now I'm a teaching assistant for the electronics lab this semester and the professor teaching it is excited because I'm able to help students with it."
Strasser's experience at ORNL may lead to another co-authorship on a paper if the research pans out, and she reports that the poster she developed from the internship has been noticed by graduate school recruiters.
"I submitted my poster to a scholarship competition for a program funded by the Department of Energy and a scout from West Virginia University called me a couple of weeks ago," Strasser said. "I'm trying to get my name out there."