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Annika Thomas works on plasma engines for space propulsion

Thomas participated virtually in Stanford School of Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.
Annika Thomas

Annika Thomas says her journey into science began beneath the stars, on the whitewater rafting trips she took with her family while growing up.

Every night on the river, while her parents recounted stories of how the constellations came to be, she would stare into the nighttime sky. To her, it wasn’t merely beautiful. It was a three-dimensional map of the universe.

“I knew then that I wanted to spend my life exploring what lies beyond our world,” says Thomas, a student at Columbia University, who recently completed a summer in the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

Thomas got to work in the Plasma Dynamics Modeling Lab, run by aeronautics and astronautics professor Kentaro Hara, who works on next-generation space propulsion engines. She was mentored by doctoral candidate Christine Greve in a field that has gained much attention in the astronautics world of late: plasma physics. In contrast to traditional combustion-based rocket engines, Hara’s lab is working on plasma engines that use accelerated electrified particles (ions) to produce thrust. Ion thrusters are already at work in hundreds of Earth-orbiting satellites and deep space probes, but the field is evolving rapidly.

Thomas enjoyed SURF’s focus on developing students as individuals through a sense of inclusion and personal identity, which correlated with her own interest in working to ensure a place for women in STEM fields. Her volunteer activities as a member of the scientific community include tutoring students and organizing outreach activities such as Pi Day, Astronomy Day and Mole Day (think chemistry, not burrowing mammal). If she had any lingering doubts about going on to graduate study, SURF resolved them.

“I want to work with people who share my deep-seated curiosity about the universe, and my SURF project gave me a place in that community,” Thomas says.