UC San Diego Alumnus Receives APS 2023 Stix Award for Pioneering Work in Plasma Photonics

David Turnbull
October 18, 2023

David Turnbull, an alumnus of UC San Diego, was honored with The American Physical Society (APS) 2023 Thomas H. Stix Award for his groundbreaking achievements in plasma photonics and his significant contributions to laser-plasma applications, such as Raman amplification, inertial confinement fusion, and plasma optics. He completed his undergraduate studies with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 2007 at UC San Diego, followed by earning an M.A. (2009) and a Ph.D. (2013) from Princeton University. Turnbull has worked at renowned institutions including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory National Ignition Facility and the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics. His accolades include the 2020 David J. Rose Excellence in Fusion Engineering Award and the 2023 Edouard Fabre Prize. Read on to learn more about David's experience!

What led you to study at UC San Diego?
I was fortunate to attend UC San Diego on a full academic scholarship as both a Regents Scholar and a Jacobs Scholar. The prospect of living in San Diego also didn’t hurt!
What sparked your interest in plasma physics?
I had two experiences during my senior year that exposed me to my current field. Until I saw a flyer on a faculty member’s door for a lab tech position at General Atomics (GA) related to fusion science and technology, I thought that fusion was the stuff of science-fiction movies and I didn’t know that people were actually working to develop this technology in the real world. I applied to that job and briefly worked on their effort to develop target injection and tracking systems for inertial fusion energy.

At the same time, my group opted for a project offered by Professor George Tynan to redesign the magnet coils they were using to study heat transport in laser-produced plasmas. Though my tenure at GA was extremely short, and the magnet coil results were mixed, the experiences provided me with just enough confidence to apply for graduate programs related to fusion.

How did Professor George Tynan help shape your research topic and experience?
George provided valuable guidance while I was applying to graduate school. Recognizing that I was an idealist interested in working on some form of alternative energy, George made sure I understood that inertial confinement fusion in the United States has always been funded by the science-based stockpile stewardship program so that we can maintain confidence in our aging nuclear weapons systems without returning to underground testing. I have thought of that conversation often in the past 16 years.

What was your most memorable experience during your time at UC San Diego?
From my Wilderness Orientation trip sea-kayaking in Baja to my involvement in the Global Citizen Leadership Program orchestrated by the LEAD Center, coordinating an Alternative Spring Break expedition to Costa Rica, and residing in the International House during my senior year, I was fortunate to encounter remarkable individuals who expanded my horizons and played a pivotal role in molding the person I have become today.

What advice do you have for incoming students?
Math matters! My lowest grade was in Math 20E because I did the crossword in class every day instead of listening to the lecture, and I just assumed everybody else was as confused as I was (not true as it turned out). Broadly speaking, all of the course content is important, and the focus should be on gaining a deep understanding of the material rather than simply fixating on grades because it will come in handy one day.