DOE Physicists at Work
Profiles of representative DOE-sponsored physicists
doing research at universities and national laboratories
Compiled by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information
The drying up of his research funds may have been the best thing that ever happened to Andrew Post-Zwicker, head of the Science Education Program at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL).
"I thought I was getting my Ph.D. in physics, then off to a few years of a post doc, and finally to a standard research career," says Dr. Post-Zwicker. "Whoops."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in physics from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1986, and his master's and Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Post-Zwicker conducted post-doctoral research for Oak Ridge National Laboratory at PPPL and at a fusion science laboratory in Jülich, Germany.
But early in his career two things happened: his grant money began to dry up, and a student crossed his path.
"She was a junior at a large urban high school and I agreed to work with her for eight weeks as part of the laboratory's Science Education Program," says Dr. Post-Zwicker. "No one told me that I would find the experience as enriching as she did. No one told me that it would profoundly change my career path."
The student's project was to write a computer code to display data in real-time in the control room of a fusion energy reactor. "I figured I'd quickly explain the project, hand her a manual or two and step out of the way," says Dr. Post-Zwicker. "Yeah right. She had never written a computer code before." The student was bright, but far behind the other high school students working at the lab that summer. "Her school was not providing her with the education she craved and she was literally starving for it," says Dr. Post-Zwicker. "So we worked together on her code and her analytical skills in general. She soaked up knowledge like a sponge and it was so fulfilling to help her, To watch her go 'Ah, ha!'"
By the end of the summer, the student wrote a code that was used well after that summer ended. Dr. Post-Zwicker made some phone calls, wrote some letters, and soon the student had an interview at a private prep school willing to give her a full scholarship if she was willing to repeat the 11th grade. She left her school friends behind and became a boarding student. After graduation, she entered college, and was one of three university students given early acceptance to medical school during her junior year. Today she has a family and career. It was a life-changing experience for both student and mentor.
"This young woman was going to succeed with or without me," says Dr. Post-Zwicker. "But I had the opportunity to help her along her way. If I did nothing else in education, I knew I would always have this experience. I was hooked now. The feeling of opeing a young person's eyes is addicting. As it turns out, the drying up of my research grants was the best thing that could have happened."
Since joining PPPL's Science Education Program in 1997, Dr. Post-Zwicker has created the Plasma Science Education Laboratory, as well as the Plasma Camp and Plasma Academy programs, which are intensive summer programs for high school teachers and students, respectively. "We began the Plasma Science Education Laboratory at PPPL as a unique resource for students and educators - a place where they can conduct experiments and learn firsthand about the beauty of plasmas (hot, ionized gases used as the fuel for the production of fusion energy). I'm looking forward to expanding the center by better tapping into PPPL's resources - which are made up of an amazing blend of people, equipment, and expertise - and by increasing the number of partnerships we have with outside entities," says Post-Zwicker.
Dr. Post-Zwicker still conducts a bit of research, and admits to missing it from time to time. "But vacuum pumps don't smile," he says. "Power supplies don't say 'Ah, ha!' Let me tell you, helping a student learn in one of the most rewarding things you could ever do with your scientific training."
Dr. Post-Zwicker's articles accessed via OSTI: