Barbara Garcia, a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships program participant at PPPL during the summer, peers into the liquid centrifuge.
Barbara Garcia, a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships program participant at PPPL during the summer, peers into the liquid centrifuge.

As a first-generation college student, Barbara Garcia had to figure out a lot of things on her own when applying for college. Her parents were Mexican immigrants who didn’t go to college and couldn’t help her navigate the application process, couldn’t help her study for the SATs or look over her application essays. 

“Being a first-generation college student has influenced me by teaching me independence and helping me to carve my own path,” Garcia said. “I didn’t have my parents to guide me toward STEM – I just sort of found it on my own and discovered physics on my own.” 

Garcia forged ahead and found out everything she needed to know herself. That resourcefulness was useful to her as a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program participant at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), where she spent 10 weeks doing hands-on research on an advanced liquid centrifuge with physicist Erik Gilson. She was one of 45 students who spent their summer doing hands-on research side-by-side with scientists and engineers at PPPL. See story here

The advanced centrifuge was invented by PPPL physicists who study angular momentum in astrophysical plasmas. It has an inner cylinder that spins faster than the outer cylinder resulting in better separation of materials than in standard centrifuges. Applications of the centrifuge include nuclear material separation and numerous potential other industrial uses, including wastewater treatment, separating oil from water, separating materials to produce bio-fuels, and separating fluids in the pharmaceutical and food industries. 

Garcia’s project was to add test particles to the rotating water in the centrifuge and measure and analyze how well the centrifuge removes the particles compared with traditional centrifuges. (Other inventors of the device, which recently received a patent, were Hantao Ji, a PPPL physicist and professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University; Adam Cohen, former deputy director for operations of PPPL; Phil Efthimion, head of Plasma Science and Technology at PPPL; and Eric Edlund, a research scientist at MIT who was formerly at PPPL.)

Garcia, now a senior at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, is majoring in physics and mathematics. She was one of three students who came to the SULI program after attending the 2018 Undergraduate Plasma Workshop at PPPL. The workshop teaches undergraduates about plasma physics and fusion energy and is aimed at encouraging  Hispanic, black, Native American, and female undergraduates to pursue STEM careers. See story here.  The SULI program is funded by the DOE’s Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) office.

Gilson didn’t know Garcia was a first-generation college student but said he observed her ability to think out of the box as they worked together on a method to analyze how well the advanced centrifuge that he and PPPL colleagues invented can separate solids from liquids. “I was excited because she brought some new ideas to the table,” Gilson said. “I was locked into my way of doing it and she had several other ideas to try out.” 

The ability to pursue new ideas is what makes the internship such a rich opportunity for aspiring scientists, Gilson said. Students are accustomed to going to lectures, doing homework, and taking tests where they’re graded on their knowledge of the right answers. But in research, the answers aren’t as clear, Gilson said. “In the research environment, you have a problem and sometimes you can solve it easily, sometimes it’s difficult to solve and sometimes you can’t really solve it at all. When the research moves forward, sometimes it’s in fits and starts but being exposed to what research is really like is good for students.”

“You don’t really have opportunities like this at any college or university,” Garcia said. “Here, you have the freedom to really explore.”

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 energ(link is external)