Anne White, Ph.D., traces much of her career success to her generous fellowships and strong network of mentors.
Recently, White was appointed professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). An MIT faculty member since 2009, White also serves as associate director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
White completed her education while receiving an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fusion Energy Science Fellowship for graduate students and Fusion Energy Sciences Postdoctoral Research Program Fellowship. Both fellowships were managed for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) by ORAU. White earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson and her master’s degree and doctorate in physics at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
“Both fellowships were enormously valuable to me,” said White, who recalls the time when her laboratory at UCLA shut its doors unexpectedly. “Because I had the graduate fellowship, I spent my summer away at an internship during this difficult transition time,” White said. She landed at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
“That was an enormously formative experience for me because I interacted with an amazing research group and mentor. When I look back on it, I can say that was the moment when I knew I was going to continue in the field. I was in love with my thesis. I was in love with the challenges of writing a paper,” she said.
White and her mentor collaborated on plasma physics research, leading to a journal publication. “It was the first time I was the first author on a paper,” she said.
Her internship at the Princeton Lab caused a ripple effect.
“If I had not written that paper, I would not have gotten on the radar of research groups. I was able to secure a position with a new research group,” said White. “My mentor at UCLA gave me a lot of flexibility because I was coming as a proven person who had done some good work. I got to pick the project I wanted, and the project turned into my doctoral thesis.” She won the Marshall N. Rosenbluth Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award in 2009.
“So it all goes back to the ORISE fellowships. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for the programs,” said White, expressing appreciation for the research opportunities, mentoring and financial support.
“My ORISE fellowships made me feel ‘Wow! I definitely belong here.’ It was a validation,” White said. During networking events, senior scientists would oftentimes tell her they once had the same fellowships. “It was an icebreaker. It was really nice to hear and made me feel I was part of a community,” said White. She remains connected to many of the scientists she met a decade ago.
Beginning at MIT as an assistant professor, White has risen through the ranks and kept her focus on teaching and advising students all the while conducting innovative advanced research.
“The good thing about being at a university is we are all about learning,” said White.
“You may think your work is about science, labs and experiments. What I have learned is that it’s really about the people. I realized I really enjoy helping people and being of service in the community,” she said. White encourages students to be proactive about finding mentors and advocates who can help them make professional connections.
“I try to be a matchmaker—put together people with great ideas to people with resources,” said White.
“I talk to my students about the possibilities of careers in industry and at national labs,” said White. Because of her experience at the Princeton Lab, she encourages her own graduate students to spend a summer away from their research group and accept an internship with a different lab, as a way to broaden their research and networking horizons. “For some students it can be an extremely valuable experience personally and professionally,” she said.
White is an international leader in assessing and refining the mathematical models used in fusion reactor design. She and members of her research group are generating essential data for the development of fusion reactors. They are researching diagnostic techniques that allow for simultaneous measurements of fluctuation in plasma density and temperature in the core and edge of tokamak reactors. In these large devices, plasmas reach temperatures higher than 100 million degrees. The research group hopes to improve the understanding of how turbulence is suppressed and how the turbulent-transport of particles, energy and momentum can be separated from one another.
She is a past winner of the DOE Early Career Award (2011–2016), the Fusion Power Associates Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award and the American Physical Society (APS) Katherine E. Weimer Award. She is a member and distinguished lecturer of the Division of Plasma Physics of APS and a member of the American Nuclear Society. She has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles and given more than 25 invited presentations and seminars.