The world is constantly exploring different sources of renewable energy for our future energy needs. One of the most powerful sources of energy is Nuclear Fusion, a nuclear reaction that takes place in the Sun and the stars. 

Palak Jain, our next pathbreaker, is a researcher on an experimental nuclear fusion reactor aimed at proving the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy by maintaining fusion over long periods of time.

Palak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to Nuclear Science and Technology through an unusual master’s degree program jointly offered by Delhi University and the University of Paris Sud 11.

For students, take calculated risks in exploring new areas, try to take a path less travelled and do something unique !

Palak, tell us about your background? 

Hi, I was born and brought up in Delhi. I belong to a middle-class family living in old Delhi. Both of my parents work together and run a small business. I have two younger siblings, one sister, and a brother. For the major part of my childhood and until my early 20s, we used to live in a joint family with my grandparents and three paternal uncles and their families, making a total of 17 members in one house. Since my childhood, my parents were very clear about my education and were very supportive throughout my entire life. They have given everything they had to make me what I am today. I have done my schooling in Presentation Convent Senior Secondary School, near Red Fort in old Delhi. I was very good at studies ever since my school days and was always among the top five students in the class. In other activities, I was like any other child; the only difference was, I was very shy and reserved. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I completed my Bachelor’s in Physics (Hons.) from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University in 2011. After this, I was selected for a three years dual degree Master’s program between the University of Delhi, in India and the University of Paris Sud 11, in France. Following this, I obtained a master’s degree in Nuclear Reactor Physics and Engineering (2013) and Nuclear Science and Technology (2014). Going a step forward, I decided to pursue a career in nuclear fusion and was awarded an ERASMUS MUNDUS Fusion-DC Fellowship. Recently, I have obtained a Ph.D. degree in Fusion Science and Engineering from the University of Padova, in Italy and a Ph.D. degree in Engineering Physics from Ghent University, in Belgium in 2018. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? 

The feeling to strive for the best in whatever I do is the key influencing factor for any step I take and choose. Major credit for shaping me (both personally and professionally) goes to my mother, I still remember the days when she used to take out extra time from her busy schedule and teach me, my brother and my sister, every day, no matter what time of the day it was. My mother has taught me how to be an extremely hardworking person no matter what the circumstances are; she used to wake up very early in the morning, take care of all the household chores, take care of the children, run the small shop every single day and never forgot to pay attention to the studies of her children. Since she graduated in Sanskrit (Hons.), teaching us in the English language was quite challenging for her. All these tasks were very demanding for her and in the meanwhile, she was also facing major health issues. She has immensely motivated me and has taught me that everything is possible to achieve with an honest heart and intentions along with continuous hard work. 

After school, like any other child in the science stream, I gave various entrance exams for both medical and engineering. I couldn’t clear the entrance exam for medical as I was never prepared for it, so I thought of trying for another year after sufficient preparation. On the contrary, I got selected for several engineering colleges, but due to financial constraints, it was impossible to pay the tuition fees for those colleges. In the meanwhile, my parents also applied on my behalf for the colleges in Delhi University. In the meanwhile, I got selected in St. Stephen’s College, one of the most prestigious colleges in science and arts. The experience in that college was one of the turning points for me. I still remember the day of the interview, I was shivering and both my hands and feet were cold. It was my first interview and it was very intimidating, I had never faced such type of questions from the professors/teachers at the school. I came to know that there is a vast source of knowledge present in the world and I wanted to receive as much of it as possible. Fortunately, I was selected. After admission, I realized that the real world is yet to be seen. Being surrounded by one of the best teachers and students in India was never easy and in fact, it was very difficult to reach their level of expectations. I learned that no matter how good you think you are in your field there will always be someone who will be better than you. St Stephens has educated me a lot, not just in physics but has also shaped me as a person. The experience has taught me how a complex problem can be solved by just using simple common sense, how not to panic in a strange or a difficult situation, and how to explore the world from a different perspective. It has trained me on how to be persistently curious in different aspects of life. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path 

Honestly speaking, I never really had an aim to become “something”, in particular, I am a person who would like to make my way. I like to keep all the doors open and try for multiple opportunities. Once I have those opportunities, I imagine myself in different scenarios and ask myself these three things 

1) do I feel connected to that field?

2) is it challenging?

3) will I be able to do justice with it? 

If the answer to the three points above is yes, then I grab it with both my hands. While I was studying at St. Stephen’s, several courses in physics, mathematics, chemistry, economics were taught. I learned not only through theoretical lectures but also through experimental lab sessions. Several lectures and group discussions in the college introduced me to various fundamentals and technological fields of physics. I realized that the path to becoming outstanding in my field of work was never going to be easy, would never be instantaneous and cannot be obtained without persistence and hard work. During these years, I was inclined towards electronics, nuclear physics and economics. I was very clear on one thing, that after my bachelor’s degree, I will carry out further studies without any financial burden on my parents. I decided to apply for an unusual master’s degree program at Delhi University in Nuclear Science and Technology. It was a fully sponsored three-year degree program and allowed me to pursue one year of education at the University of Paris Sud 11. To get into this degree program was another challenge, as only 10 students were to be selected from all over India. Applicants went through an initial cut off, an entrance exam followed by an interview. 

Acquiring the right knowledge and education about nuclear science was an eye-opening experience. This program gave me an overview of how different nuclear power plants work (both fission and fusion), what are the basic principles, engineering challenges, and technologies involved. We were also introduced to the field of nuclear medicine. A lot of events happened for the first time like: 

I got the chance to visit and do an internship at an operational nuclear fission power plant present at Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, India.

I got the chance to visit and do an internship at the fusion research facility center, at the Institute of Plasma Research (IPR), at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. 

I got the chance to study at an international university in France. 

Once I completed my master’s, I started looking for a Ph.D. degree program. Since I already had a little bit of European experience from my master’s degree I was interested in universities in Europe. I started to google various programs and wrote to several people asking if there was any project opening. Simultaneously, I also applied for the ambitious Erasmus Mundus Fusion DC Ph.D. program. It was an extremely tough program as only 7 candidates were selected that year from all over the world. God willingly, I was selected for that program and started my career in the field of nuclear fusion both as a physicist and as an engineer. 

How did you get your first break? 

Each of the experiences that I have mentioned above was quite overwhelming and has taught me a lot. But the opportunity to do a Master’s degree in one of the international universities can be considered as the first break for me. Although the University of Paris, Sud 11, was the degree-awarding institution, INSTN (Institut national des sciences et techniques nucléaires) was the official institution responsible for my education and training. During this program, besides theoretical education, I got the opportunity to do an internship in the research and development division of the French-based Nuclear electric power generation Company called EDF. This internship provided me with an in-depth knowledge of one of the topics of nuclear science called neutronics. It is the study of the path of neutrons (inside a nuclear reactor).

What were the challenges in your career? How did you address them? 

Well, different paths in life came with their own set of challenges: 

During my Bachelor’s study, meeting the educational expectations of the professors was quite tough for me. At that time, my college environment had influenced me considerably, many of my peers were well focused and were very hardworking and this had encouraged me a lot. 

As soon as I reached Paris to begin the second year of my Master’s degree, I realized that the education system in France was considerably different from what I have seen or accustomed to in Delhi University. The course work and the internship were for six months each. Since I opted to specialize in Nuclear Reactor Physics and Engineering, the associated coursework was intense and had a total of 10 subjects to pass within 6 months. Each subject was taught for about two weeks and in the end, was followed by a thorough examination. In the beginning, some of the subjects were quite tough for me especially neutronics and thermal-hydraulics. In fact, in the first attempt, I couldn’t clear the exam for both of these subjects. I was morally shattered since something like that had never occurred to me before; I used to pass all my exams with good grades. Eventually, I reflected on my approach towards those subjects, made considerable changes in my strategy and tried to understand the subject in detail, cleared a lot of my doubts with the professors and in the second attempt, I cleared both of them. Moreover, in neutronics, I passed with numbers far greater than expected. 

Finding an internship in France was quite challenging at that time. One should either have contacts or should be at least fluent in French. Adding to this, in the field of nuclear energy, each country has its own set of rules and regulations and sometimes institutions or companies cannot enroll students from other nationalities. Thus, I was no exception within this environment; I had to stay positive and continue to write emails to different people from different institutions asking if there was an open position and if it could be of any interest to me. Fortunately, I managed to find an interesting topic at EDF. 

Since the beginning, I knew my internship was about the calculation codes of the different isotopes within the nuclear reactor. These codes were based on Monte Carlo simulations and involved heavy computer coding. Then, my biggest nightmare was to work with computer codes as I had no previous training on that matter. But over time, I managed to overcome this fear pretty well and learned to write scientific codes with the help of other colleagues and supervisors. 

Changing fields from Nuclear Science/Engineering to Electrical Engineering in the Ph.D. degree program was tremendously difficult. It was almost like starting to learn and explore everything from scratch. My Ph.D. thesis involved working on physics and electrical aspects of radio frequency inductively coupled plasmas. But with time, I realized that with dedicated efforts, interest and time investment nothing is impossible to learn. 

Working on an international project with the involvement of several institutions in one project has been very demanding for me until today. This has encouraged me to become more professional and trained me to become a manager for my activities. Besides the academic challenges, everyone faces a lot of social and cultural challenges on foreign land. Trying to learn the local language of any of the places I have been to, has helped me a lot in overcoming these challenges. 

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as a researcher on an EUROfusion Engineering grant at Consorzio RFX, in Padova, Italy. I have been working here ever since I started my Ph.D. I am a part of the team responsible for the research and development of one of the external heating systems called Neutral Beam Injector (NBI) required for the ITER project. Regarding this, a Neutral Beam test facility consisting of two experiments called SPIDER and MITICA; has been started at Consorzio RFX. The main goal of NBI is to generate a neutral beam of deuterium or hydrogen with the particle energy of 1 MeV for a total power of 33 MW, capable of operating for 3600 seconds.

The heart of the NBI is the ion source, where hydrogen or deuterium ions are generated by a plasma source and are then extracted and accelerated to the desired energy (up to 1 MeV) by an electrostatic acceleration grid system. The negative ion beam produced is then passed through a gas-filled neutralizer (forming the neutral beam) and the residual ions are deflected by the residual ion beam dump. 

Since the requirements of ITER NBI are quite demanding and have never been achieved all together in a single device, gaining in-depth knowledge of NBI is quite important. My work, in particular, is focused on its radio frequency (RF) electric power and supply systems. Furthermore, I investigate the efficiency of RF inductively coupled ion source through dedicated experiments and analytical models. The obtained results shed some light on the performance of the system and could also predict possible improvements. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As I have mentioned earlier, my work is related to a project called ITER. It is an experimental nuclear fusion reactor aimed at proving the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. In a fusion reaction, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing a tremendous amount of energy. It has been identified by scientists that the most efficient fusion reaction is between two hydrogen isotopes – deuterium (D) and tritium (T). 

ITER is currently under construction in Cadarache, in southern France and is designed to produce a thermal output power of 500 MW via fusion reaction for an input thermal power of 50 MW. It’s like creating our own little Sun on earth in a doughnut ring shape, called tokamak and is expected to heat hydrogen gas to a very high-temperature plasma state (150 million degrees Celsius – almost ten times the temperature at the core of the Sun). Very large magnetic fields are also generated to control and contain the plasma. 

At the moment, ITER is the most ambitious energy project in the world and a lot of countries like China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States are its members. 

In my vague imagination; scientists, researchers, and engineers are trying to study and benefit from the “water” of the universe. Here, I compared plasma to water because 99.9 % of the observable universe is plasma. It is like when we see the earth from space we mostly see water, which is essential for all life on earth. From earth, we mostly see plasma in the universe, which to our understanding until today is the source of energy for stars and sun and thus life. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

There is nothing one in particular; I am still looking forward to the one.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

As a student, we sometimes remain caged in our fears, doubt ourselves, feel stupid either to ask questions or to choose the path less trodden. I would like to tell them, it’s okay to be fearful because then you can judge better between right and wrong choices for yourselves. It’s necessary to doubt yourself because it will help you to analyse your strengths and weaknesses. It’s perfectly fine to feel stupid at times because no one can know about everything. 

Most importantly, it is perfectly normal not to have one fixed ultimate goal of life at a very young age. Your aim in life might change with age and the choices you make. So be flexible, try to make short term goals and work passionately to achieve them, grab your opportunities wisely, make mistakes, experiment and by-default, nature will put you on your destined path.

Future Plans? 

As of today, considering all the technological challenges, it is foreseen that ITER will be in operation by 2025, I hope to continue to work for this dynamic project. Along with this, I would like to discover other fields of research related to this project and also the next generation commercial fusion reactor called DEMO. I will try my best to give my gained knowledge back to the society who has supported and invested so much in shaping me professionally