A high school track star and valedictorian, Anne White has always liked to go fast and overcome high obstacles. Since joining the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2009, she has produced groundbreaking fusion research, helped attract a more diverse cohort of students and scholars to the discipline and, during a global pandemic, assumed the role of department head. as well as co-lead an Institute-wide initiative to address climate change. For his outstanding leadership, innovation, and achievements in education and research, White was appointed the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering in July 2020.
But White says little interest in recognition or promotions. “I don’t care about any of that,” she said. She is in the race for much higher stakes. “I want to find ways to save the world with nuclear,” she says.
Dealing with Turbulence
It was this goal that drew White to MIT. His research, honed during his graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, focused on developing a detailed understanding of conditions inside fusion devices and solving problems critical to realizing the vision of fusion energy – a carbon-free and almost limitless source of energy generated. by a plasma at 150 million degrees.
Harnessing this form of superheated gaseous matter requires a special doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak, which contains the plasma in magnetic fields. When White entered fusion around the turn of the millennium, patterns of plasma behavior in tokamaks did not reliably match observed or experimental conditions. She was determined to change that picture, working with MIT’s cutting-edge research tokamak, Alcator C-Mod.
White believed that solving the fusion puzzle meant mastering plasma turbulence – the process by which charged atomic particles, emerging from magnetic confinement, transport heat from the core to the cold edges of the tokamak. Although researchers knew that fusion energy depends on the confinement and heat control of plasma reactions, White recalls that when she started graduate school, “it was not widely accepted that turbulence was important. and that it was at the heart of heat transport. She “felt that it was essential to compare experimental measurements to first-principles physics models, so that we could demonstrate the importance of turbulence and give models of tokamak a better predictive capacity”.
In a series of groundbreaking studies, White’s team created the tools for measuring turbulence under different conditions and developed computer models that could account for variations in turbulence, all validated by experiments. She was one of the first fusion scientists to perform experiments and conduct simulations. “We lived in the realm between these two worlds,” she says.
White’s turbulence models opened up approaches to managing turbulence and maximizing tokamak performance, paving the way for net-energy fusion energy devices, including ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, and SPARCa compact high magnetic field tokamak, a collaboration between MIT Plasma and Fusion Science Center and Commonwealth fusion systems.
Laser focused on turbulence
Growing up in the desert town of Yuma, Arizona, White spent her free time outdoors, hiking and camping. “I’ve always been in the space of environmental protection,” she says. The daughter of two lawyers who taught her “to argue quickly and effectively”, she excelled in mathematics and physics in high school. Awarded a full turn at the University of Arizona, she intended to pursue a scientific path, a path where she could tackle issues like global warming, as it was then called. Physics seemed to be the natural focus for her.
But there was an unexpected setback. The Physics Advisor thought his Physics grades were poor. “I said, ‘Who cares what this guy thinks; I’m still going to take physics classes, ”recalls White. Being tenacious and thick-skinned, says White, proved life-changing. “I took courses in nuclear physics, which opened my eyes to fission, which then gave me an understanding of nuclear energy and advanced nuclear systems,” she says. Math classes introduced her to chaotic systems and she decided she wanted to study turbulence. Then, at a meeting of the Society of Physics Students, White says she attended for free food, she learned about fusion.
“I realized that was what I wanted to do,” White says. “I became totally focused on turbulence and tokamaks.”
At UCLA, she began developing instruments and methods to measure and model plasma turbulence, working at three different fusion research reactors and winning Department of Energy (DOE) fellowships at the during his graduate and postgraduate years in fusion energy science. At MIT, she received a DOE Early Career Award which allowed her to build a research team that she now considers her “legacy”.
As she expanded her research portfolio, White also intended to integrate fusion into the undergraduate and graduate NSE curriculum, and more broadly, to make NSE a destination for students concerned about climate change. In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2014 Junior Bose Teaching Award. She also helped design the EdX course, Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society, introducing thousands of online learners to the potential of the field. “I have to be in the classroom,” she said. “I have to be with the students, interact and share knowledge and avenues of research with them.”
But even as she deepened her commitment to teaching and to her fusion research, which helped spur the development of new fusion energy technologies, White couldn’t help but embark on a massive new endeavor. : to chair the department. “It sounds corny, but I did it for my kid,” she says. “I can be useful working on fusion, but I thought to myself, what if I could help more by helping other people in all areas of nuclear? This department gave me so much that I wanted to give back.
Although the pandemic hit just months after he took office in 2019, White propelled the department toward a new strategic plan. “It reflects all the urgency and passion of the faculty and attracts new students, with more undergraduate students enrolling and more graduate students applying,” she says. White sees the department advancing the field’s broader goals, “explaining why nuclear is fundamentally important in many dimensions for electricity and carbon-free generation.” This means involving students in advanced fission technologies such as nuclear batteries and small modular reactors, as well as giving them fusion training that will help catalyze a nascent energy industry.
Stirred for a challenge
White feels she continues to grow in the leadership role. “I’m really enthusiastic and sometimes too intense for people, so I have to backtrack on difficult conversations,” she says. She recently took a leadership course at Harvard Business School.
As the recently appointed co-chair of MIT’s Climate Nucleus (along with Professor Noelle Selin), responsible for overseeing MIT’s campus initiatives around climate change, White says she draws on a repertoire of skills that come naturally to her. : listen carefully, build consensus, and see the value of a diversity of opinions. She’s optimistic about the Institute’s rallying around goals to reduce MIT’s carbon footprint, “using the entire campus as a research lab,” she says.
Amid this push, White continues to push forward on projects that matter to her, such as making nuclear physics education more accessible. She developed a classroom module involving a simple particle detector to measure background radiation. “Any high school or college student could build this experiment in 10 minutes and see clusters of alpha particles and muons,” she says.
White also plans to host “Rising Stars,” an international conference aimed at helping underrepresented groups break down barriers to entry into the field of nuclear science and engineering. “Big intellectual challenges like saving the world appeal to all genders and walks of life,” she says.
These projects, her departmental and institutional functions and, most recently, a new position as DOE President Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee leaving him precious little time for a life outside of work. But she makes time to walk and hike with her husband and toddler son, and read the latest books from female faculty colleagues, such as robotics researcher ‘The New Breed’. Media Lab Kate Darling, and “When People Want Punishment,” by Lily Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science. “There’s so much I don’t know that I want to understand,” White says.
Yet even at leisure, White isn’t slowing down. “It’s restlessness: I like to learn, and whenever someone says a problem is difficult or impossible, I want to tackle it,” she says. According to her, there is no free time when the goal is to “solve climate change and amplify the work of other people trying to solve it”.