Princeton alumna and postdoctoral fellow wins award for groundbreaking plasma physics

Aug. 5, 2021, 4:18 p.m.

Elizabeth Paul, a groundbreaking physicist who is a 2015 alumna and a 2020 Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has won the prestigious and highly competitive 2021 Marshall N. Rosenbluth Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award.

Elizabeth Paul, a 2020 Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Elizabeth Paul, a 2020 Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow and member of the Class of 2015

“I feel extremely honored to receive this award,” said Paul, who works with Amitava Bhattacharjee, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton and the former Head of Theory at PPPL. “There’s only one plasma physicist every year who receives this award, and there are very many recent Ph.D. students who have done high-quality research.”

Paul, a native of Portland, Oregon, earned her undergraduate degree in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University in 2015 and her doctorate in physics from the University of Maryland in 2020.

“When I came to Princeton, I didn’t exactly know what I would major in,” she said. “But as a Princeton undergraduate, I was exposed to plasma physics research, and that had a big impact on my career.”

One aspect that drew her strongly to plasma physics and stellarators “is the potential benefit to humanity,” she said, echoing Princeton’s informal motto, “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

“But also, plasma physics itself is a really interesting subject with a lot of complex phenomena,” she said. “There’s a lot of mathematical beauty that comes into understanding stellarators.”

Paul finds that combination of mathematical beauty and service compelling. “I enjoy problems that are at the intersection of the mathematical and the physical,” she said. “I like something that’s practical and that you can use some theoretical tools to understand. That’s what makes plasma physics such an exciting field.”

The award, presented by the American Physical Society, honors Paul’s dissertation, which applied a mathematical tool used to design cars and airplanes to advance the development of stellarators — twisty magnetic bottles that aim to produce on Earth the fusion energy that drives the sun and stars.

Fusion energy produced by stellarators — or more widely used doughnut-shaped tokamak devices, like the one at PPPL — could become a virtually limitless source of safe and clean power for generating electricity.

“Elizabeth has made a masterful contribution to stellarator design, combining an elegant mathematical technique that speeds up existing computational methods by orders of magnitude and implementing the method with physical insight to obtain striking results,” said Bhattacharjee. “Her thesis is unusual for its maturity and technical command.” 

The Marshall N. Rosenbluth award, named for a world leader in plasma physics, honors “exceptional young scientists who have performed original thesis work of outstanding scientific quality and achievement in the area of plasma physics.” The award specifically recognizes Paul “for pioneering the development of adjoint methods and application of shape calculus for fusion plasmas, enabling a new derivative-based method of stellarator design.”

Paul is pursuing a variety of interests as a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow, a three-year designation that in her case will be funded by the University for the first two years, then PPPL for the third. “I have a lot of freedom and can study what I want to study,” she said. 

Her interests range from extending her dissertation work to understanding the transport of heat in chaotic magnetic fields and optimizing stellarators for experimental flexibility. In the coming months, she plans to study of energetic particles in stellarators with Bhattacharjee and Roscoe White, a recently retired PPPL physicist who is now a senior researcher.

For the past three years, Paul has been writing a book on stellarators with Adelle Wright, an associate research physicist at PPPL, and Lise-Marie Imbert-Gerard, a mathematics professor at the University of Arizona. The Simons Foundation in New York City supported this work and used an early version of their book in a summer school class co-sponsored by PPPL. 

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 energy.gov/science.