Turbulent Fusion Research with Pride

#BiinSci, I use spectroscopy signals to study & reduce plasma turbulence in fusion energy devices. At the end of my PhD. Find me on twitter @amateurscotsman where I post fusion research news or our podcast A GLASS OF SEAWATER for accessible chats introducing fusion science, materials and tech!

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Turbulence is a major problem for nuclear fusion reactors. They all try to hold fuel together in its plasma state for as long as possible. The designs that use magnetic fields lose hot, dense plasma because turbulence mixes it across magnetic field lines and by an order of magnitude or two more than any other losses. Since turbulence is an unavoidable part of fluid behaviour, the fix for this is still an engineering one: make the machine bigger so the plasma has farther to go, taking longer before it is lost, and hope a nuclear reaction occurs in the meantime. I work on a physics fix to save a lot of time and money! I studied Physics and Philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, where I found out I was bi, and then studied fusion energy as a postgraduate at the University of York, where I am finishing my PhD.

My work (briefly!) was initially involved with the upgrade of the UK’s flagship fusion machine MAST-U and its instrumentation. Now I sift spectroscopy data to uncover what NASA would call an ‘unambiguous detection’ of zonal flow in MAST-U’s alternative ‘spherical’ design. Zonal flow is familiar from the rings in planetary atmospheres so we know it is caused by turbulence; draining turbulent energy. Now, studying the emergent physics of stochastic turbulence in a magnetohydrodynamic system is a pretty intractable problem. I wrote a code that uses the statistics of correlation to do velocimetry and we expect the signature of zonal flow will be revealed in the temporal and spatial changes of flow velocity. My thesis advisors describe the project as ‘photographing a unicorn’ – one reference example will do but it had better not be blurry! If it works, controlling turbulence could let us keep plasma hot enough for long enough to get lucky with the reactions.

All the while Ive not felt the need to hide my sexuality at work. As a postgrad Ive only met management (if not always PIs) of my research group and department keen to develop ED&I policies. I had great opportunities to help build those, sometimes worryingly from scratch, with the department and for my many-uni, many-lab PhD programme. Ive also been supported (even expenses paid!) to represent the group at local Pride events and join up with networks like PrideinSTEM at bigger ones, engage with the IoP’s diversity climate survey and gone to the LGBTSTEMinar workshop (a fab hashtag for finding some wonderful out scientists.) Those networks and these spotlight days have huge value counteracting a lack of visible cultural and historical examples to follow. In so doing they make STEM a less scary, les risky choice for LGBTQ+ people. Simple solutions are best - my fave thing has been my rainbow lanyard. First, it's surprisingly stylish for a uni and second it means at any of the outreach and science communication events we’re let out to do I can easily signpost diversity to the audience without making my lecture/ patter about it. Sometimes, though not always, it’s about making a fuss.

Ive been very lucky to get chances to work on making STEM a workplace where all and especially LGBT+ people can see themselves and be respected at work. Ive been out all the way and met nothing but allies. Let’s make that everyone’s story in a workplace where everyone is welcomed.

p.s. if you made it this far there’s a fair chance you're interested in bonus #fusionenergy content or at least some scicomm… you can check out:

  • ‘A Glass of Seawater’ is a chatty podcast I made with my colleagues introducing the science and tech of fusion.
  • @amateurscotsman is me on twitter where, among other things, I share fusion research news.
  • ‘Using the Wider Science Curriculum to Investigate Fusion Energy’ for details of a workshop I wrote on teaching fusion with high school physics. doi.org/10.1088/1361-6552/ab129a

Andrew MN {he/him}

PhD , University of York

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