Engineering the Summer: Working at the forefront of nuclear fusion

Engineering the Summer is an annual series following molecular engineering students as they embark on summer internships and career experiences.

This summer, Mike Jones, a graduate research assistant working in Ferguson Lab at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), is interning at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. Throughout the internship, Jones has had the opportunity to collaborate with scientists who work at the forefront of nuclear fusion research.

What first sparked your interest in computational research?

Through most of college I was pre-med, but I realized that I had a stronger passion for the science and research underlying medicine than for the practice itself. I applied to a +1 Master’s program to explore careers in research, and I was mentored by a senior PhD student who helped me weigh the decision to pursue a PhD and encouraged me to investigate computational research opportunities. I was not exactly sure what I wanted to focus on when I applied to the PME, but it seemed like a unique environment where I could channel my scientific background towards meaningful multi-disciplinary problems.

What research are you focused on at PME?

I am a member of the Ferguson lab, and I use machine learning to solve computational bottlenecks in molecular dynamics simulations. In particular, we are developing tools to unify experimental and simulation timescales and to bridge the gap between simulations performed at difference resolutions.

What has been your experience at Lawrence Livermore National Lab?

Lawrence Livermore is home to some of the most powerful lasers and computers in the world, and it is the only site to have surpassed the nuclear fusion ignition threshold. It has been a privilege to work closely with the physicists and data scientists who advise and model these groundbreaking experiments. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my preliminary research to the data science team, and they responded with engaging critical feedback that has helped to shape the second half of my internship.

Why is an internship a valuable part of your experience at PME?

This internship experience has taught me that it is possible to apply very similar thinking, skills, and workflow to a research career outside of academia. Of course, research jobs vary dramatically, but I now have a much better idea of what I should be looking for as I approach graduation.

What impact do you think your field will have on the world in the next 10 to 20 years?

Thinking 10 years into the past, most people had never heard of a “machine learning engineer” or a “data scientist,” yet today these terms are ubiquitous and increasingly important in scientific fields. I think one can make the most impact, however, by building both data science skills and scientific competency in a specific field.

What role do you hope to play in that vision of the future?

Renewable energy through nuclear fusion is just one example of an enormous scientific and technological challenge. Increasingly, solutions to these challenges can only be delivered by large teams and cooperation between academia, government, and private industry. As I progress through my career, I hope to find a place on one of these teams that enables me to both maximize my contributions to the end goal and my enjoyment of the day-to-day work.

How has the environment at PME influenced you?

I really appreciate the collaborative culture both within my lab group and in the PME overall. In general, fellow students and professors are eager to share insight into research questions as well as to help build connections that can lead to internship and job opportunities down the road.

What else do you think people should know?

You never know which random conversations that might spur collaborations or internship/job opportunities. I learned about several national lab positions from a staff scientist who was presenting a poster next to me at AIChE last fall, and I was able to follow-up for an informational interview that helped me write a more targeted and effective cover letter. Of course there is an element of luck there, but the PME presents many opportunities for such luck to develop.

PME is at the forefront of engineering and science related to materials systems, addressing challenges and technological issues that have a major impact on humanity and quality of life.

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.