Two female graduate students presenting plasma demos at a table

Skylar Dannhoff (left), with plasma sword, and Audrey Saltzman (right) with plasma globe, introduced plasma science and fusion research to participants at the Young Women's Conference at Princeton University.

Photo: Julie Manns

Engaging young women in plasma science

Graduate students Skylar Dannhoff and Audrey Saltzman bring the PSFC to the Young Women’s Conference

Paul Rivenberg  |  PSFC News

“You forget what you didn’t know in high school and middle school, what surprised you then that you are so familiar with now.”

Physics graduate student Skylar Dannhoff is just back from the Young Women’s Conference in STEM (YWC) in Princeton, NJ, where she hosted, along with Nuclear Science and Engineering graduate student Audrey Saltzman, the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) demonstration booth.

“You know when you turn on an electromagnet that the compasses surrounding it are going to respond,” Dannhoff continues, “but most of the young students don’t. And they are so surprised by it!”

She and Saltzman attended the event in person after two years when participation had to be virtual, bringing with them two tables of hands-on demonstrations, including plasma balls, a plasma sword and magnet demonstrations.

Saltzman was impressed with the supportive spirit among the classmates, noting that some girls would encourage their peers to participate in the demonstrations going on at the PSFC booth and to ask questions. 

The YWC was started in 2002 at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) to inspire young women to consider science as a field of study and a career. Demand for the program grew quickly, and the event eventually moved to Princeton University’s main campus to accommodate more students. This year approximately 780 students attended, with 23 institutions exhibiting from around the US, and even Puerto Rico.

While the PSFC has participated virtually in the past, this was the first time it presented demonstrations live at the event.

Organizer Deedee Ortiz is thrilled to be returning the event to the solid ground of the university campus.   

“We tried to keep some semblance of normal for the girls throughout COVID by taking the event online, and we had over 800 attendees in 2021 and 2022,” she says. “While our reach made it to as far as India and South Africa, and with a bi-coastal event in NJ and San Diego, it wasn't quite the same as having that face-to-face interaction. That feeling of being in the same room as your peers of similar mind and interests, as well as seeing and speaking to some of the best role models and experts in their fields of STEM, make it an unforgettable, life-changing experience. I dreamt of this day for over two years and it was entirely one of the best days of my life.”

Audrey Saltzman and Skylar Dannhoff agreed that the event challenged them to make their presentations of some complicated physics concepts as engaging as possible. They’ll have more chances to excite middle and high school students about science during upcoming PSFC outreach days, and in October when they will participate in a similar science expo-styled event in Denver for the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics annual meeting.

Topics: Magnetic fusion energy, Plasma science, Technology & engineering