Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Physicist Fay Ajzenberg-Selove Wins National Medal of Science

Yesterday the White House announced the recipients of the 2007 National Medal of Science, the US's highest honor for scientific achievement. There was one woman among the six awardees: Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, Professor Emerita of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

In her memoirs, Ajzenberg-Selove wrote about being one of the few women in physics. From the book's summary:

Ajzenberg-Selove came to America at the age of 15 after narrowly escaping the Nazi takeover of France. She had planned to become an engineer like her father, but switched to physics after she was told the only engineering jobs open to women were in drafting: Marie Curie's example proved to her that women could do physics. Her first attempt at graduate work at Columbia University was a disaster, but she was struck with the intellectual beauty of the field. After taking a Ph.D. in physics at University of Wisconsin [in 1952], she did post-doctoral work with Thomas Lauritsen at the California Institute of Technology, where she began writing the first of a series of major review papers on the nuclear spectroscopy of the light nuclei, a subject of fundamental importance to nuclear physics, astrophysics, and applied physics. She continued this work and experimental research for thirty-eight years while teaching at Boston University, Haverford College, and the University of Pennsylvania.
When she was hired at the University of Pennsylvania, she had to fight for her position all the way up to the state level. As an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian described it:
When Fay Ajzenberg-Selove began her days as a Penn Physics professor in 1973, some of her male colleagues were less than thrilled to be working alongside her. "They made remarks to me, they tried to put me down in all sorts of ways," she said of some of the men in her department.

After all, her complaints of Penn's gender discrimination had resulted in a state-sponsored investigation into gender equity at the University -- which found a case of discrimination and eventually led to Ajzenberg-Selove's appointment as a full professor.

As she describes it, part of the problem was men who are insecure working with women.

Ajzenberg-Selove said that in her department, many of the elder male faculty members took the competition of a female physicist as an assault on their masculinity.

"It's the old boys network," she said.

"[Some male faculty] feel that their manhood is degraded by a woman that is better than them," she added.

Ajzenberg-Selove was able to get beyond that and have a successful career in physics. Some of her honors and positions:
  • Chair, Division of Nuclear Physics, American Physical Society (1973-74)
  • Member, Governing Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1974-80)
  • Member, Department of Energy/National Science Foundation, Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC), (1977-80)
  • Chair, Commission on Nuclear Physics, International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (1978-81)
  • 1999 Nicholson Medal for Human Outreach, American Physical Society
More information about Fay Ajzenberg-Selove:
The nominations for the 2009 Medal of Honor are open through December 5th.

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Marimoy said...

Thank you for always posting these... it reminds me of why I need to persevere as a woman in science.