Women in Fusion Profile: Dr. Denise Hinkel

Mar 09, 2023

Dr. Denise Hinkel is a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and serves as a Team Lead for predictive capability within the Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) Programme as well as Associate Division Leader for ICF and High Energy Density Physics (HED) within the Design Physics Division. 

Denise has M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2007 she was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS). In 2022, she served as Chair of the Division of Plasma Physics within APS, ending a three-year term. She is the recipient of multiple awards, has provided physics outreach to students of all ages, and has also served on many review committees.

What in fusion do you work on?

Currently I am the team lead for hohlraum predictive capability. A hohlraum is the part of the fusion target that creates the radiation oven for the fusion fuel. This is a grand scientific challenge, and it has been a pleasure to engage with an international community of both theoretical and experimental scientists on this project.

I have designed multiple targets for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) on our way to ignition. I was the lead designer for the “High Foot” campaign on NIF, where the fusion fuel released more energy than was used to compress it.

Can you tell us about your career path and how it led to fusion?

I came to LLNL as a postdoc, to work on basic plasma physics problems. This was just as key decision zero was being made for NIF. I was a postdoc at the time, and I got engaged in taking my basic physics understanding and using it to help make the case for building NIF. I then became engaged in performing research to overcome a major scientific obstacle for NIF, namely, coupling the laser energy to the target as efficiently as possible. As NIF became more of a reality, my scientific capabilities grew as well. I went from analytic solutions to massively parallel computer simulations of beam propagation into a NIF target. I then became a target designer for NIF, and now a Team Lead. It has been quite the ride!

Can you share your most exciting fusion moment?

I was on international business travel when the December 5th shot occurred. I got a text telling me of the results. I was absolutely elated that we achieved such an amazing result – and I was also crying. Not many individuals get to experience a career moment where everything they have worked on, where all of the team’s efforts, come to such an awesome fruition. To this day I get choked up over our team’s accomplishments.

Any advice for others looking to get into fusion?

If you want to work on fusion energy, contact people already working in the field to learn about internships, what you would need to do to get a job working on fusion energy, and how to best prepare for such a scientific future.

Share something about yourself and what you do outside of work.

I am the proud mother of very two fine young men – probably my most important accomplishment!

I also have had (until just a few months ago) a family of four German Shepherds (daddy, mommy, two of the litter). We did nose work together, where you and your dog are a team that works together to find certain scents. Sadly, I have just one left – I still miss them terribly. I used to run with all four of them, and people would clear the sidewalks for me!

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