Fusing global minds and hydrogen atoms

Developing fusion as an energy source has been compared to the construction of a cathedral. It takes generations, and each milestone builds upon decades of ideas, mistakes and dead ends. Today, the physics of fusion machines must be passed on to the up-and-coming scientists who will exploit ITER. At a later stage, a new generation of engineers will use the knowledge gained from ITER to plug in the first DEMO pilot plants. The fantastic complexity of fusion devices necessitates collaboration among experts from different communities, each with their own backgrounds and perspectives. Rising to the challenge of commercializing fusion energy will demand goal-driven leaders with multidisciplinary training, sharp communication skills and keen cultural sensitivity

An alumni perspective on the challenge of fusion education

An adequate curriculum should attract students with a talent for experiments as well as those gifted with computer modelling abilities or an instinct for theory. Let them upgrade the control system of a probe on a small stellarator or turn the MHD (magnetohydrodynamics) equations inside out. They will pour their heart into it and might even remember their lessons after the exam! Combined training and teaching activities organized among university partners, associated research centres and the industry can offer such opportunities and a variety of hard skills up for grabs. However, facing too many options, fusioneers often struggle to make informed career choices. At the crossroad of research areas, a solid knowledge basis is needed to connect the dots. To this day asking graduates how they selected a thesis usually leads to the answer: “I don’t know. It seemed fun.”

Enthusiasm is essential but not sufficient. Newcomers need explanations, discussions and feedback to form their own concepts. However, the courage to share their thoughts with senior colleagues, or even peers, does not come naturally to everyone and is continuously eroded by instant messaging and social media. Proper training in the preparation and oral defence of their work before small expert groups or large audiences is thus crucial and goes beyond reading and writing: concluding the Q&A of a presentation on magnetic dynamos, a teacher once asked me what could cause the Earth’s magnetic field to change polarity. Embarrassed, I offered a guess but confessed my ignorance. “This is the right answer,” he said with a smile, “no one really knows”.

The importance of intercultural communication

In an international team where people collaborate on distant pieces of the same puzzle, communication can be tricky. The ITER project is a perfect example. Consider a Japanese software engineer politely telling a German physicist that their work needs improvement. The German might understand indirect criticism as a compliment! And while English is the starting point, notions of other languages and cultural references can greatly improve mutual understanding. No book, classroom or internship can replace life-experiences such as collectively suffering over school assignments or the taste of success upon completing a joint training exercise. Everyday activities like cooking, watching movies or visiting a classmate’s hometown also help us to grow out of our comfort zones, and to cultivate trust and empathy.

But intercultural communication is never easy, especially at first. How does a European woman react when her Middle Eastern male colleague refuses a handshake? How does the latter feel among classmates sharing intimate storiesover a bottle of wine? These seemingly innocent questions represent major concerns in the day-to-day management of large fusion laboratories. The complexity of fusion research presents a considerable challenge in terms of knowledge transfer to the ITER Generation of physicists and future DEMO engineers. The lessons learned over half a century of fusion research are not only scientific and technological. Mutual trust and creativity in dealing with the shifting sands of international projects are just as important. Educating the next generation of fusion scientists and engineers therefore needs a high-level research-driven curriculum with a well-integrated language and cultural experience.

European Master in Nuclear Fusion and Engineering Physics

The European Master in Nuclear Fusion and Engineering Physics (Fusion-EP) started in 2006, after the decision to build ITER in Europe. FUSION-EP is based on existing EU research on education networks. The core partners are from Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, and Spain. Besides the ITER International Organization, there are several academic and research associate partners from the EU and abroad. As of 2019, two hundred alumni form the global network of Fusion-EP (31% Europe, 69% international). Three out of four graduates pursue doctoral studies in the field of fusion science and engineering. They provide a solid foundation of researchers and leaders for the further development of fusion. Moreover, these graduates know each other and have a sense of belonging to a group that has been provided a unique opportunity. Many of them, in return, make it a point of honour to provide similar opportunities to younger students.

Fusion-EP in a nutshell: A two-year International Graduate Programme in Fusion Science and Engineering.

  • A well-integrated language and cultural experience in Europe and abroad.
  • Hands-on training at the WEST, COMPASS and GOLEM tokamaks.
  • A global network of scientists and engineers trained for ITER, DEMO and beyond

More information at www.em-master-fusion.org