Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University and PPPL wins Highly Competitive Award for groundbreaking research
Newswise – Elizabeth Paul, pioneering physicist and Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University, has won the prestigious and highly competitive Marshall N. Rosenbluth Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award 2021. The award, awarded by the American Physical Society (APS), recognizes Paul’s University of Maryland’s dissertation, which applies a mathematical tool to the design of cars and airplanes to fuel the development of stellarators – twisted magnetic bottles aimed at the earth to generate the fusion energy that drives the sun and stars.
Fusion energy generated by stellarators or more widely used donut-shaped tokamak devices could become a virtually limitless source of safe and clean energy for generating electricity.
“I am very honored to receive this award,” said Paul, a Fellow of the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences led by Amitava Bhattacharjee, a university professor recently retired from the Theory Department of the US Department of Energy (DOE.) resigned) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). “There is only one plasma physicist each year who receives this award, and there are a great many newer PhD students. Students who have done high quality research, ”said Paul. “That’s why I feel very honored to have been selected for it.”
Bhattacharjee notes, “Elizabeth made a masterful contribution to stellarator design by combining an elegant mathematical technique that speeds up existing computational methods by orders of magnitude, and implementing the method with physical knowledge to produce impressive results. Her thesis is characterized by her maturity and technical mastery. “
The Marshall N. Rosenbluth Award, named after one of the world’s leading companies in plasma physics, honors “exceptional young scientists who have produced original theses of outstanding scientific quality and performance in the field of plasma physics”. The award honors Paul in particular for “pioneering the development of adjoint methods and the application of shape calculations for fusion plasmas that enable a new derivative-based method of stellarator design”. With the award of the prize, Paul joins the company of previous award winners and pioneering physicists such as Felix Parra Diaz from Oxford University, who is moving to PPPL as head of the theory department in October.
Paul credits Maryland Professor Bill Dorland, now PPPL Associate Laboratory Director for Computational Science, and Matt Landreman, Maryland Associate Research Scientist, for “alerting me to issues that could be very influential. I am very grateful to have had good advisors and I think they deserve the same recognition, ”she said.
The consultants soon recognized Paul’s unique skills and pioneering achievements in developing a unique mathematical method to accelerate the optimal design of the plasma shape and complex magnet coils in stellarators. “It was a pleasure working with Elizabeth during her PhD,” said Landreman. “I started learning from her from day one. In her dissertation, Elizabeth applied cutting-edge ideas from applied mathematics to several areas of plasma physics and opened up a new approach to optimizing the design of magnetically confined plasmas. “
Paul pursues a variety of interests as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow, a three-year designation that the university funds for the first two years and PPPL for the third. “I have a lot of freedom and can study what I want to study,” she says.
Her interests range from expanding her dissertation to understanding heat transport in chaotic magnetic fields and optimizing stellarators for experimental flexibility. She has a Princeton PhD student and a DOE Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) student from the University of Missouri involved in her most recent research. In the coming months, she plans to begin studying energetic particles in stellarators with Bhattacharjee and Roscoe White, a recently retired PPPL physicist and now a senior researcher.
“One of the biggest challenges in the development of stellarators is to contain the energetic particles,” said Paul. “When you have a reactor, you have to isolate the energetic particles, and I think that’s one of the reasons I work in this area.”
Her research is closely related to, but not funded by, the Simons Foundation in New York City-sponsored collaboration between Hidden Symmetries and Fusion Energy, which aims to push the frontiers of math and basic science. Paul has worked with Adelle Wright, a postdoctoral fellow at PPPL, and Lise-Marie Imbert-Gerard, a math professor at the University of Arizona, for the past three years to write an introduction to stellarators that they plan to publish as a book. The Simons Foundation supported this work and used an early version of the book in a summer school class co-sponsored by PPPL.
Paul, a native of Portland, Oregon, received her bachelor’s degree in astrophysical science from Princeton University in 2015 and her PhD in physics from the University of Maryland in 2020. “When I first came to Princeton, I wasn’t sure what I was studying would be, ”she said. “But as a student at Princeton, I was exposed to plasma physics research and that had a huge impact on my career.”
Benefit to humanity
One aspect that has drawn her heavily to plasma physics and stellarators “is the potential benefit to humanity,” she said. “But plasma physics itself is a really interesting subject with a lot of complex phenomena, and I like that.” She also said, “There is a lot of mathematical beauty in understanding stellarators.”
Paul finds this combination of mathematical beauty and potential human benefit as compelling. “I like problems that are at the intersection of math and physics,” she said. “I like something that is practical and that you can understand with some theoretical tools. That is what makes plasma physics such an exciting field. “
PPPL, located on Princeton University’s Forrestal campus in Plainsboro, NJ, is dedicated to discovering new insights into the physics of plasmas – ultra-hot, charged gases – and developing practical solutions for generating fusion energy. The laboratory is administered by the University for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the United States’ single largest contributor to basic research in the physical sciences and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. More information is available at energy.gov/science.