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Stoking a passion for science with tales of plasma research

MIT Lincoln Laboratory's John Nwagbaraocha discusses his love of science, plasma, and popular culture with local high school students.
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Electrical engineer and computer scientist John Nwagbaraocha's childhood interests in science fiction eventually led him to a career working with plasma.
Electrical engineer and computer scientist John Nwagbaraocha's childhood interests in science fiction eventually led him to a career working with plasma.
Photo: Joel Laino
SEED Academy students responded positively to Nwagbaraocha's love of "Star Wars" and interesting work as a project manager at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
SEED Academy students responded positively to Nwagbaraocha's love of "Star Wars" and interesting work as a project manager at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Photo: Joel Laino

Computer scientist and electrical engineer John Nwagbaraocha of MIT Lincoln Laboratory visited the main MIT campus on April 11 and spoke to local high school students about discovering his passions, enjoying science in popular culture, and harnessing the power of plasma. His talk was part of the Lunchtime Leadership Series for students in the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, a four-year academic enrichment program for high school students from Boston, Cambridge, and Lawrence, Massachusetts.

“I was pretty much a nerd.”

Nwagbaraocha told the audience of 9th through 12th graders that, like them, he fell for science as a child. “Around five, I realized I was pretty much a nerd,” he said. The themes and characters he saw on television and in comic books shaped his interests. Like the local students participating in SEED Academy for their four years of high school, Nwagbaraocha sifted through career options before arriving at his destination. He added that his love for science and engineering was sparked when he found a concept that excited him.

“I wanted to do one thing, and that was to build a robot from scratch,” Nwagbaraocha explained. So as a young engineer, he entered a robotics competition. He had programmed a robot to complete a series of movements to demonstrate his engineering skills, but his robot began to run out of battery charge during his presentation. He struggled to find a solution as his robot began to move backward to its home base, as Nwagbaraocha programmed it to do in the event of a low battery. “It had proximity centers on the front and back, and sonar beacons so it would know where its home was,” he said. Even with the hiccup, Nwagbaraocha’s “over-engineered” robot impressed his audience and pushed him toward electrical engineering. 

His interest in robotics was only one of the factors that led to Nwagbaraocha’s pursuit of a career in engineering and science. “My parents were two of the biggest influences on my life,” he said. Popular culture also inspired and first taught him about engineering — specifically, the character Dwayne Wayne from the sitcom “A Different World.” “[Dwayne] was the first time I saw a black guy as an engineer,” Nwagbaraocha said.  “I had never seen an engineer.”

His interests grew as he began to research electrical engineering and learn about the different types of science and engineering careers. He was inspired by engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla — developer of the modern alternating electric current — as well as science fiction tales.

Fact from fiction

“Somewhere in the mid-’90s, I wanted to take things from science fiction and make them into reality,” Nwagbaraocha said. “I was fifteen, combing through books in the library, [on topics such as] electromagnetism.” He got his chance to fulfill this desire in graduate school when he “fell in love with plasma” and decided to devote his thesis to the fourth state of matter.

“It blew my mind that there was a fourth state,” Nwagbaraocha explained. “I like to think of it as a state of matter that is excited and happy [because] it has positively and negatively charged ions.” 

Nwagbaraocha talked to the students about the three energy levels of plasma, which are low, medium, and high. Examples of low-energy plasma include television screens and neon signs — “plasmas you can touch,” according to Nwagbaraocha. At the other end of the spectrum are high-energy plasmas, such as stars and other gaseous bodies in space, which are too hot for humans to handle. 

Nwagbaraocha now works as a project manager at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he seeks out new ideas to explore through future projects and directs his team in the development of new technology. Although most of his work at Lincoln Laboratory is confidential, he discussed one of his favorite projects, which involved directing his team in creating a game for analysts.

Jacqueline Nkuebe, an instructor in the SEED Life Mastery course, asked Nwagbaraocha about an average day at Lincoln Laboratory. “Right now, I’m a project manager. Communication is one of the biggest parts, putting fires out before they occur,” he said. Along with managing his team, Nwagbaraocha seeks out new ideas for them to take on at the lab. "Then I do the fun part,” he said. “I’m researching on Ciphernet, looking up names, scouring things to figure out how I can create new projects.”

Flying cars and light sabers

SEED students were excited by Nwagbaraocha’s work with plasma and expressed curiosity about the specifics. “When you said you wanted to turn science fiction into reality, I realized the plasma thruster is like a phaser [from Star Trek],” one SEED student said.

When asked about other technologies he wanted to see developed, Nwagbaraocha responded with “teleportation, flying cars, and light sabers.” 

SEED Life Mastery instructor Ryan Marnane asked Nwagbaraocha about the relationship between the arts and engineering, a question that students grapple with in Marnane’s course. Nwagbaraocha's answer championed studying the arts in tandem with science and engineering. “I thought I would be a science fiction writer or comic artist. You have to have the ability to think outside the box," he said. "If you have a good imagination, you will become a good engineer.”

One SEED student asked what project Nwagbaraocha would take on if he had access to unlimited resources. “We need to get away from fossil fuels, so fusion is a good idea,” he said, explaining that he would fund a group of scientists to develop fusion technology in order to replace fossil fuels. “You just need to get the right minds in the right room.” 

In closing, Nwagbaraocha gave the students career advice: “Find something you’re really interested in during your journey of discovery," he said. "You may find something unexpected."

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