Launch pad: Physics graduate turns undergraduate research into NASA internship – News


One of the most interesting aspects of science, according to physics graduate Alex Plumadore ’21, is that it has no borders. This is good news for Plumadore, whose field of study extends to space.

Plumadore spends the summer as a trainee entrepreneur with the NASA Ames Research Center, working on a project examining how nitrogen in the atmosphere interacts with a spacecraft as it re-enters Earth.

Dr. Allison Harris, associate professor of physics, had Plumadore in her research group for several years when she connected with Dr. Eve Papajak, one of her colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center, at a conference in 2019. Harris put Plumadore in touch with Papajak, and work began to secure funding for the internship. It was originally scheduled for summer 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) pushed it back to this summer.

There are still some restrictions as Plumadore has a virtual workstation at his parents’ house in Bloomington instead of the Silicon Valley location, but the work he does is invaluable to his future efforts as hopeful mechanical engineer.

“It’s a perfect stepping stone into this world, working with NASA and working with this sphere of rockets and space system,” said Plumadore, a 2017 college graduate.

Plumadore spends his time with NASA running simulations to calculate reaction rate coefficients and analyze the results with data visualization to improve spacecraft reentry heating models. His undergraduate research experience was very relevant to the work he does with the internship and likely helped him land the job.

Working as a research assistant with Harris, Plumadore’s projects involved developing and implementing computer models for the collision systems they studied, as well as analyzing and interpreting the results.

“He’s a fast learner and isn’t afraid to take on high profile projects,” Harris said. “Over the past four years he has become a more independent researcher and has assisted my group’s work on atomic collisions of twisted electrons.

Plumadore said his undergraduate research at Illinois State prepared him for his internship and that he was proud of the foundation that the work on the computational model set up for future researchers.

“These models are cheaper than experiments, show exciting new properties of the systems, and give us a glimpse of what future experiments can explore,” he said.

Through her work in Harris’ group, Plumadore has published three papers, including one in preparation, presented at 10 conferences, including two virtual internationals, and has co-authored nine other presentations.

“It’s an exceptional record for the undergrad,” said Harris.

It will be a quick turnaround for Plumadore. The day after completing his internship at NASA, he left for Purdue University to pursue graduate studies in mechanical engineering. While he is excited to work in an ever-changing and borderless discipline, Plumadore is forever grateful for the launch pad provided by Illinois State for a career that also doesn’t seem to have much of limits in sight.

“The ISU has been an incredible experience,” he said. “It was an amazing way to prepare for this.”


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