One of the coolest things about science, physics graduate Alex Plumadore ’21 says, is that it comes without boundaries. That’s good news for Plumadore, whose area of study extends to space.  

Plumadore is spending the summer as a contractor intern with the NASA Ames Research Center, working on a project looking at how nitrogen in the atmosphere interacts with a spacecraft during its re-entry to Earth.

Dr. Allison Harris, associate professor of physics, had Plumadore in her research group for several years when she connected with Dr. Eve Papajak, a colleague of hers at the NASA Ames Research Center, at a conference in 2019. Harris put Plumadore in contact with Papajak, and the work began on securing funding for the internship. It was originally scheduled for summer 2020, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic pushed it back to this summer.

There are still some restrictions as Plumadore has a virtual workstation at his parents’ house in Bloomington instead of the Silicon Valley location, but the work he’s doing is invaluable for his future endeavors as a hopeful mechanical engineer.

“This is a perfect steppingstone into that world, working with NASA and working with that sphere of rocketry and space system,” said Plumadore, a 2017 University High School graduate.  

Plumadore is spending his time with NASA running simulations in order to calculate rate coefficients of reactions and analyzing the results with data visualization to improve heating models of spacecraft re-entry. His undergraduate research experience was highly relevant to the work he’s doing with the internship and likely helped him land the position.

Working as a research assistant with Harris, Plumadore’s projects involved developing and implementing computer models for the collision systems they studied, as well as analyzing and interpreting the results.

“He’s a quick learner and is not afraid to take on high-level projects,” Harris said. “Over the last four years, he’s become a more independent researcher and has helped my group’s work on twisted electron atomic collisions.”

Plumadore said his undergraduate research at Illinois State prepared him for his internship, and he’s proud of the foundation the computer model work set up for future researchers.

“These models are cheaper than experiments, show exciting new properties of systems, and give us insights into what future experiments can investigate further,” he said.

Through his work in Harris’ group, Plumadore has published three papers—with one more in preparation, presented at 10 conferences—including two virtual international ones, and has been a co-author on nine other presentations.

“This is an exceptional record for undergrad,” Harris said.

It will be a quick turnaround for Plumadore. The day after his internship with NASA ends, he’s off to Purdue University to pursue a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. While he’s excited to work in an ever-changing discipline void of boundaries, Plumadore is forever grateful for the launching pad Illinois State provided for a career that also doesn’t seem to have many limits in sight. 

“ISU was an incredible experience,” he said. “It was an incredible way to prepare me for this.”