NPRE Illinois Jul 17, 2017

Fresh from his year in France as a Fulbright Grantee working on the ITER project, one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today, Matthew Parsons has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support his PhD work in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at Illinois.

Now working with Prof. David Ruzic in the Center for Plasma-Material Interactions, Parsons chose to come to Illinois in large part to work with HIDRA, the center’s unique plasma/fusion facility.

In addition to his work with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), Parsons has gained experience at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, first as part of an undergraduate co-op program through Drexel University, and later as a contracted researcher. His PPL work involved applying machine learning methods to predict plasma disruptions in tokomaks, fusion devices used to confine plasma.

Matthew Parsons, left, and Daniel Andruczyk discuss working on HIDRA.

“(A disruption) can happen in tens of milliseconds to a few hundred milliseconds, and there’s not always warning that it will happen,” Parsons said. “It can be dangerous for the machine when the plasma slams into the (tokomak) walls with a lot of extra heat. There’s not really a physical model for when these disruptions occur; we know some reasons why, but they’re really complex.

“I came up with a very simple way to analyze these very complex machine learning models to get information that would be useful to predict disruptions,” he said.

Parsons continued the research during his year at ITER. At Illinois, he will work with Assistant Prof. Davide Curreli and Research Assistant Prof. Daniel Andruczyk to combine computational modeling with experiments on HIDRA.

“Here, I’m going to be doing more hands-on work,” Parsons said. “There’s very few places in the world where you can get hands-on experience with a machine like this.”

Upon earning his degree, Parsons would like to work in research management and policy. “I consider myself in a big picture kind of position, with science outreach and advocacy,” he said.