Women in Fusion Profile: Kelli Humbird
To celebrate International Women's Day 2023, Fusion Energy Insights are highlighting some of the women who work in the fusion industry, to find out more about their work and career paths.
Kelli Humbird is a Design Physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She completed her PhD in Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University in 2019.
Most of Kelli's research is concentrated in inertial confinement fusion, and applications of machine learning to strengthen predictive modeling and optimise designs.
In addition to Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF,) she has spent time at LLNL working in stockpile certification and technical nuclear forensics. She is the Principle Investigator (PI) of a project to accelerate atomic physics calculations with neural networks, and briefly worked on machine learning analysis for the spread of COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. The common thread throughout much of this work is the application of machine learning to scientific problems with sparse data.
What in fusion do you work on?
Currently I spend part of my time designing inertial confinement fusion (ICF) experiments that are carried out at the National Ignition Facility, and part of my time leading a team of researchers using machine learning to improve how we model, understand, and optimize ICF experiments. I’m primarily known for my work in machine learning for fusion – I’ve spent many years coming up with ways to leverage new machine learning tools for fusion science applications.
Can you tell us about your career path and how it led to fusion?
I definitely didn’t start my educational journey thinking I would end up in fusion research. I started studying nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University because I thought it was cool, and would lead to a good job. I ended up really enjoying physics and decided to double-degree as an undergraduate. After spending some time in optics research, I ended up back at Texas A&M nuclear engineering for graduate school.
I took a summer internship at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNKL), and met the team that would totally change the trajectory of my career. I had so much fun that summer working at the intersection of ICF and machine learning, and knew I wanted to go back. I ended up completing my PhD at LLNL through a scholarship program, and then transitioned to a staff position after I completed my PhD in 2019.
Can you share your most exciting fusion moment?
Everyone’s most exciting fusion moment is December 5, 2022. For me, it was particularly exciting because our team had done this very thorough analysis of the design, and with our best understanding of how to model these ignition-class experiments, we predicted this particular experiment had a greater than 50% chance of producing more energy than was input by the laser, for the first time ever. It was a pretty bold prediction, but I believed in its credibility, so it was really exciting to hear about the initial yield estimates the morning of the experiment – it was clear this was going to be a big result for the entire fusion enterprise, and at the same time, it was a really nice illustration of how far we’ve come in predictive modeling of these really complex experiments. If we can predict what will happen ahead of an experiment, we can do a better job designing them to perform the way we’d like.
Any advice for others looking to get into fusion?
If it’s something that excites you, do it! Generally, fusion researched seemed to be discouraged when I was studying nuclear engineering in college. The running joke has always been that fusion energy is 20 years away, and always will be, but I think we know now that’s not necessarily true. It took many researchers over decades to get to the result we had on December 5. That’s a lot of people who chose *not* to listen to those saying there was no future in fusion research.
Share something about yourself and what you do outside of work.
While I love my job, I won’t deny that what brings me the most joy in life is being outside, and surrounded by animals. I’ve ridden horses since I was a child, and currently have an ex-racehorse “Lucca” who is always the highlight of my day. I also really love the mountains, I’m so lucky to live in a location where I can drive off on the weekends and experience some of the most incredible hikes this country has to offer.