Glasgow's Physicist: Cami Starr Collins
For The Courier
Cami Collins accepts her doctorate in plasma physics from the University of Wisconsin in 2013. The GHS graduate is now in postdoctorate work studying nuclear fusion – and hoping to find a way to make the world a better place.
Some of the credit could go to the hard work and dedication of one Glasgowite. Those who remember her years in the local schools seem to remember a student who was extremely gifted and talented, and perhaps a student who had a passion for learning.
Cami Starr Collins recently finished her Ph.D. in plasma physics. She obtained that degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December. Plasma physics might not ring a bell for anyone on the street, but many science fiction movies and television shows have portrayed the possibilities of something interesting. The possibility to create nuclear fusion.
Before Collins became deeply immersed in the subject, she had to start somewhere. That start was here in Glasgow, a graduate to the class of 2003. After a short few years in Nashua, she moved to Glasgow with her parents Dennis and Julianne Collins. Her father, Dennis, was from the area. Her mom was an implant from New York who found her way out to the area through college and teaching. After they married they had three children, two boys and a very bright girl.
Cami explained that she remembered the first moment she realized she wanted to be involved with plasma physics in the fifth grade. Hard to believe a student at such a young age could come to that conclusion, but she credits some of her interest to the subject to Curt Brayko, her fifth grade teacher.
"We were reading in our science books, which was introducing nuclear fusion, at a fifth grade level that is. I read ahead because I was totally fascinated by it," Cami said. "When they called on me to read, I didn't know where they were in the book."
Throughout her school years she had the same fascination with the topic; it never left her. She remembers doing a career report on being a nuclear engineer. Brayko said he didn't remember the specific moment she remembered, but he said he'd never forget the student that sat in his classroom many years ago. She was dedicated, and a times she was a challenge to challenge, he recalled.
"You couldn't ask for a better worker," Brayko said. "She was a wonderful person and very exceptional as a student."
He explained that she would stay after class at times to do some accelerated math work. He said she never complained or spoke out. She would just try very hard to get it right. Cami's mother, Julianne, has many memories and a box full of awards and trophies to show her hard work. While Julianne had a teacher tell her that it was her environment at home that made her different, she disagreed, as the environment was very much the same for most students.
Julianne was a teacher for kindergarten for 17 years. Her husband, Dennis, worked for the county in the road and bridge department for several years. While she taught, he tinkered with things. Julianne said that the boys were always building and fixing things, and Cami was in there building and working on several projects as well.
In the seventh grade Cami built a hoverboard, working with her father on the 4-H project, she created it with some hard work and a few mishaps. Cami remembered the styrofoam getting sucked into the lawn mower engine and a styrofoam snow storm hitting the garage that year. Julianne said that her determination in her projects often carried her through the hard work to create them.
Julianne also remembers at an even younger age Cami had a determination to be a dancer. She worked extremely hard and found herself chosen to do a solo. She planted flowers in a dirt pile that her parents thought wouldn't grow marigolds, soon after she found the dirt pile covered with blooming flowers. In the third grade, she won an award for a sketch of whales, she taught herself the guitar in school and played the piano. It seemed that whatever she set her mind to, she was able to accomplish.
"She's just always been extremely motivated; once she gets excited about something, she doesn't quit," Julianne said. "She overkills on things, and she'll just pound away at it until she gets it right. Her brothers and father are the same way."
With her intensity when she graduated from Glasgow High School her journey continued very much in the same way. Julianne explained that while most of us don't work to our full potential, Cami seemed to work hard at whatever she focused on.
She went to Montana State University in Bozeman for her BS in physics and applied mathematics. She received high honors there. Cami said that the school was a logical choice because of their physics program. She explained that while there she completed the National Undergraduate Fellowship Program in Plasma Physics and Fusion Energy Science through the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at General Atomics in San Diego, Calif.
When she attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin she had an advisor who encouraged her to go to conferences and present. She ended up traveling to several places around the world through many of these meetings. She was awarded a three-year U.S. Department of Energy Fusion Energy Sciences Fellowship. She was selected to travel to the annual meeting of Nobel Laureates and Students in Germany. She said that she had some troubles talking in front of everyone at first but she soon overcame those fears.
She finished her master's degree in physics in 2010, and a second master's in nuclear engineering and engineering physics in 2011. After that, she was encouraged to keep moving on in her education. She said that her passion in nuclear fusion, not to be confused with nuclear fission, kept her interested in the potential that the science could bring to the world. Her interest was how the technology could essentially help change the world for the better.
She explained that as her studying plasma, which is the fourth state of matter, following liquids, gas and solids, came down to a few different focuses. She could focus on astrophysics, which focused on the stars and planets, or focus on nuclear fission. Her thesis work for her Ph.D ., was a experimental technique she developed to spin plasma. The idea is it can be used to study how stars and black holes create magnetic fields that are generated in the sun and other stars. She published several papers and spoke on the topic.
"But your Ph.D. Is almost not enough these days, it never ends because you can never learn everything," Cami said.
She's now working on her postdoctorate at the University of California. Focusing once again on her first interest of nuclear fusion. Her work at the General Atomics National Fusion Facility in San Diego has her focused on the process of taking two hydrogen atoms and fusing them together to form helium. The energy released from the process could produce electricity. If that electricity could be harnessed it would mean an abundant source of electricity that would put fossil fuels to rest.
The difference between this process and another process used to create nuclear energy, called nuclear fission, is that no waste is produced. She explained that one gallon of water could create enough energy to run a houseful of electricity for years. She said that the technology has been studied since the 1950s, but that the investment money has been hard to come by. The technology that could save the world, has gotten less funding than wind and solar energy.
Now that she's an experimental scientist who works to measure and understand how to control these fast moving particles, and to harness the energy created in the process, she said that she is is excited to do the research needed. Part of the work she's involved with is a teaming up with 13 other countries to build the largest containment for the process ever built. She said that it's being built in France and has been the effort of many, with hopes to make it operational by the year 2020.
"It's probably one of the hardest things ever built by humans," Cami said. "We haven't produced power yet, but there's a possibility this effort could change the world."
While she's focused on her work she's hoping to motivate the young to work hard in school. She hopes that another generation will join her in her field of work, or in other fields involving math and science. She said that one day she hopes to come to Glasgow to speak to young girls on the importance of education. The first step, she explained, is finding something that motivates or inspires students and focusing on that to get through the math homework.
She said while school was different in high school – she felt like the odd one out at time for her passion for science – college was a different world. She wasn't as nervous talking about her passions and focusing on her endeavors in physics.
"You just have to keep going and learn as much as you can," Cami said. "It's an investment."