The University of New Mexico has offered me more opportunities than I would have ever expected. In New Mexico, there is the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and two Federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC), Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory with AFRL and Sandia no more than 15 minutes away from campus. With these labs so close to UNM, lots of research faculty have collaborations with the scientists on Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) which comes in handy when applying for internships. 

Using my UNM resources, I was lucky enough to receive a summer internship with AFRL. At the end of the summer, my research group offered me a conference opportunity to present a poster of my research at this year’s APS Division of Plasma Physics Meeting. And I really lucked out because this event was taking place in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Florida. With a physics exam Monday and a class on Saturday, my time at the conference was shorter than I would have liked. I flew all day Tuesday and Friday but was able to enjoy the conference Wednesday and present on Thursday.

I had a few difficulties when I got there. I am under 21 and could not check in to the hotel my reservations were for. I had to have my primary investigator (PI) walk 40 minutes to help me out. After, I grabbed dinner with her, her husband, and another intern. I walked back to my hotel and got ready for my first day at conference.

The conference material was way over my head. I thought it would be similar to SWE conference I went to last year, but I was not. I sat for the 8:00 am keynote speaker on Wednesday. His presentation was “Physics and Application of Photonic Plasma” where he drew connections between fundamental optics and plasma concepts to show how you could use plasma to understand signals. It was also a good thing I sat with my PI through the whole thing because I had so many questions by the end of it.

The rest of the day was spent in various ballrooms where different sessions of talks took place. Here, I totally did not understand a lot, but I was able to recognize certain topics which was exciting at times. Thursday, I listened to another keynote speaker who received the James Clerk Maxwell Prize. I am sure his research was awesome, but I was lost by slide two. The presentation, “Who needs turbulence? A tour of turbulence effects and outstanding questions in space plasma,” had everything from equations to simulations. After the talk, a pulsed power microwaves scientist asked me if I got any of it. I said no and he expressed he had no idea what that was about either.

I would like to clarify, though, the keynote was not a bad talk; it was a great one if you study turbulence and space plasmas. The speaker had tons of questions at the end with great discussion with the scientists that also studied that field. This was the biggest lesson for me. Even though plasma physics sounds like such a niche area, there are even more niche subtopics under the plasma physics umbrella.

After I realized that for the rest of career in plasma physics probably won’t ever intersect with other topics like space plasma, I was able to enjoy the conference more and take the pressure off of trying to get something from every talk. When I presented my poster, I saw this even more with some decorated scientists not fully understanding the results I found, mainly because that is not their area of expertise.

Me during the Poster Presenation

Some highlights of the trip aside from the conference: my hotel had a private beach and I had all my meals paid for. I think I was still able to squeeze a little vacation out of this work trip. It was awesome to have another poster presentation under my belt and to be exposed to more physics that I will ever see in my undergraduate education. I had a great time and it made the internship a little bit more awesome to get to see what I can expect if I am to pursue plasma physics in the future.

I hope you are able to do something out of your comfort zone or so above your head just for the experience!