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Interview with a Plasma Physics Ph.D Dropout Turned Energy Entrepreneur: “Physics is Like a Bootcamp for Your Mind”

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By Danielle Fong (Co-Founder & Chief Scientist, Lightsail Energy)

One month ago, I was interviewed by Jane Affleck as a profile piece for my Alma Mater, Dalhousie University.

Interviewer: You “started” a PhD at Princeton… why did you stop? Was it boring? Did you feel driven to just do your own thing?

Danielle Fong: I was more temperamentally suited towards my own thing -– though that was only part of it. I entered a program in Plasma Physics to focus on fusion energy –- the process that powers the sun. I thought that with a few good ideas, we could produce electricity more inexpensively than, say, planet-smothering, lung-blackening, mercury spewing coal.

I guess I became disillusioned. The objective of fusion power is primarily to create a very inexpensive heat source. The reason people believed so strongly in fusion energy is that the fuel is practically free – unlike, say, coal. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how, even in principle, we might build a reactor that doesn’t wear out rapidly over time. Since you expend the reactor, it is most properly thought of as a kind of fuel. And if you consider the cost of ultra-high tech fusion reactors, versus pulverized coal, it looks like coal is going to be much cheaper.

I saw the technical work stretching out, endlessly before me, with no clear fix for our energy problem within sight. I got spooked.

There might be ways to solve these problems, but they certainly weren’t known.

I didn’t think the right things were getting funded. I saw my professors -– brilliant scientists -– spending most of their time in a struggle to acquire funding, rather than doing research. I thought there was a better way.

I came to Silicon Valley with the intention of making my fortune, and then funding research. After about nine months, I found myself compulsively doing energy research again, but this time, focusing on how to best harness and make use of energy from that great, fusion reactor in the sky, our sun.

Interviewer: How did the Physics and Atmospheric Science program prepare you for your current career? (either directly or indirectly…) Or, what do you find most satisfying about your current career? What’s the most challenging thing about it, and how has your education helped you?

Danielle Fong: I haven’t really reached a point of satisfaction. I am like a traveler on a long journey, who knows the destination is yet beyond the horizon. But I know I am headed in a good direction –- that I am on a good path.

The most challenging thing is when you worry that you’re off the right path! These existential questions are the most harrowing aspect of being an entrepreneur, or an inventor. We’ve made it through all of them though, so far.

Physics taught me how deeply one needed to dig in to something before one could say that one really understood it. How tenuous our knowledge was -– and is –- having our system of the world reconceived by each generation of scientists, over and over again. Physics taught me both to ignore the experts, accept my own fallibility, and to keep asking questions, to keep working!

Interviewer: What words of encouragement would you give students thinking of applying to the Physics and Atmospheric Science program, or students who are currently enrolled in it (especially those who might be questioning their choice of major)?

Danielle Fong: Physics is like a bootcamp for your mind; I don’t think there exists another field of study that develops such powerful and versatile mental skills. It gives us a powerful lens with which we can ask questions of the universe, and of ourselves. Physicists can, and have, gone on to make major contributions in almost every field. Physics, as a field of study, gives you freedom.

Beyond this, physics is one of the most fascinating fields of study just by itself. It satisfies some of our curiosity, but then rewards us with still greater wonder. There are still a great many mysteries yet to be solved!

Interviewer: What’s your greatest accomplishment so far? (in any aspect of your life –- from education to career…)

Danielle Fong: Always looking ahead, yet having fun in the present! I don’t think about the past too much; what’s fun and satisfying is the journey.

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done as an entrepreneur at LightSail Energy, but I’m just getting started -– it’s not an achievement yet!

Honestly, the two proudest moments in my life were dropping out of junior high and dropping out of graduate school. I’ll always remember to listen to myself if something’s just not feeling right -– and I’ll always remember to strive to find something that does. I don’t know if that qualifies as an achievement, in the common idiom, but it’s something I’m proud of.

Interviewer: Where do you hope to be in 5 years? In 10?

Danielle Fong: In five years, I hope to have caused the replacement of fossil fuels sufficient to power ten thousand people. In ten, I hope to have made renewables the economical choice for almost everywhere on our planet. And I hope to have helped hundreds of young entrepreneurs follow their dreams, and strike out, toward the unknown.

This interview was originally posted at Danielle Fong’s blog.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Danielle Fong is Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Lightsail Energy, a green energy startup that’s harnessing compressed air to allow intermittent renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, to reliably and economically power the world. She is an honors physics and computer science graduate of Dalhousie University, earning a university medal at 17, and performed graduate studies at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Lab. She publishes essays online at DanielleFong.com. Follow her on Twitter at @daniellefong.