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Ph.D. student gets ‘real-world experience’ in summer fellowship with Dominion Energy

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    Select group:  Ryan Chaban was one of six graduate students and postdoc fellows selected for inaugural Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Fellowship, in which fellows served as science advisors for a variety of stakeholders, including legislative offices, executive agencies, as well as prominent companies and nonprofits in throughout the state.  Submitted photo
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Ryan Chaban’s plan was to jump directly into the academic world after earning his Ph.D. from William & Mary’s Department of Applied Science. Now, although teaching remains on his radar, he’s thinking about someday rather than tomorrow.

“I still want to teach eventually,” said Chaban, whose Ph.D. will be in physics with a concentration in plasma and fusion science. “But I want to have a career first and then come back and teach.

“I realized a lot of my professors in undergrad who I liked the most had real-world experience. They had done real-world projects.”

Looking to “branch out,” as he put it, Chaban decided to apply for the inaugural Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Fellowship.

In April, he was one of six graduate students and postdoc fellows selected for the 12-week program, in which fellows served as science advisors for a variety of stakeholders, including legislative offices, executive agencies, as well as prominent companies and nonprofits in throughout the state.

Also factoring in his decision to apply for the fellowship was Saskia Mordijck, an assistant professor of physics and Chaban’s advisor. She not only has taught him what he needs to know, she has inspired him to go beyond that, he said.

“What she has done in my research is encouraged me to ask questions about the modern state of the technology,” Chaban said. “I’ll go into my research meetings with her and we do the usual, ‘Here’s what I did, here’s what I want to do, I’m stuck on this step.’ We’ll resolve that problem, and then we’ll chat.

“We’ll talk about the economics of where energy research comes from and the structure of government that provides these grants. All of those secondary conversations, that drew me to doing this fellowship.”

Chaban, who expects to finish his Ph.D. research in early 2023, served his fellowship with Dominion Energy’s Public Policy Department. Because of the pandemic, the 12-week program was entirely remote.

Although he studies magnetic fusion energy, Chaban worked outside his specialty throughout the fellowship.

“He had to do research that had nothing to do with what he does here with me,” Mordijck said. “But because he knew how to solve problems and because he had this vast background on how to approach a research problem, he could actually make good progress.

“For someone like Ryan, who was able to get experience in a non-academic setting, these internships provide an amazing opportunity for our students to broaden their skillset and make themselves much more valuable.”

Chaban, who graduated Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2017 with a B.S. in engineering physics, described the COVES fellowship as “expansive.” One of his favorite parts was researching carbon pricing, the cost applied to carbon polluters with an aim of reducing greenhouse gasses.

It normally works one of two ways: a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.

“With the carbon tax, you set a price for a ton of CO2 emissions,” Chaban said. “With a cap-and-trade system, you cap the number of emissions, you assign emissions to companies somehow, and you allow the companies to trade emissions kind of like currency.”

“I learned that cap-and-trade has a lot of implementation weaknesses. One of its positives is that you are limiting carbon emissions. Carbon emissions have to go down a given amount every year or you’re going to get penalized. With the carbon tax, things are so much simpler and you’re going to achieve the same things.”

Another of his projects was controlled environment agriculture, a technology-based approach toward food production that works to create the ideal setting for plant growth.

“Wisconsin recently has had a few companies expand into their area, so I looked into what Wisconsin has that we don’t,” Chaban said. “Does Virginia have any advantages over Wisconsin in terms of climate? What about Dominion’s carbon footprint?

“Does Dominion produce energy that has lower carbon emissions in general than other states and places? They actually do, which I was thought was pretty cool, and they’re working to bring that to net zero by 2050.”

Chaban also researched hydrogen energy storage, in which excess electrical power (usually from solar) is converted into hydrogen. He also helped a team of interns on a nuclear energy project and was able to tour the Surry Nuclear Power Plant.

“I definitely learned things,” said Chaban, who turned in his final report on Aug. 21. “Probably the most important thing was about industry and what it’s like to work for a company. What does a healthy company culture look like?

“A lot of the things that I had read, because I’m in such a liberal sphere, is that corporations are bad. Then I went out and actually worked for corporation, and there’s no malice. They’re all working the way they’ve been taught.”

On Aug. 28, Chaban left Williamsburg for California. He will finish his Ph.D. work at General Atomics, an 8-million square-foot engineering, laboratory and manufacturing facility with more than 15,000 employees. He completed a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship there in the summer of 2016.

General Atomics is home to the DIII-D tokamak, a donut-shaped chamber surrounded by powerful electromagnets that confine high-temperature fusion plasmas. The facility is located in San Diego, which is just 90 miles down the Pacific coast from Chaban’s hometown in Orange County.

In what he called “a classic millennial move,” he will be living with his parents until he is able to find housing. Due to the pandemic, there are still some uncertainties about how he will conduct his work.

“Things are all in flux right now, and I really don’t know how things are going to go down yet,” Chaban said. “But least for the month of September, I have a feeling I’m going to be working from home doing edits on my paper and then October is when I’ll finally get the OK to go down there and meet people.

“I already know a lot of people there because of my internship. I know the systems, too, so my startup time will be shorter. I’m looking forward to setting my nose to the grindstone and finishing out strong.”