November 19, 2003: A moment with...
Photo by University of Colorado Photography Office

Deborah Jin ’90

Deborah Jin ’90 recently won a no-strings-attached MacArthur fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant,” for her work in quantum physics. In her lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, Jin and her graduate students have developed a way to super-cool fermions, one of two basic types of quantum particles, producing a new quantum gas that was designated one of the top 10 scientific advances of the year in 1999 by the magazine Science. Jin’s research could help solve a scientific mystery behind the functioning of high-temperature superconductors. Despite technical hurdles, such superconductors — materials that conduct electricity without resistance — are just beginning to be used in real-world applications, from electric power grids to complex brain-mapping. Scientists still don’t understand completely why these superconductors work the way they do, and Jin is poised to find out. She spoke to Ginny Parker ’96 for PAW.

What kind of research do you do?

It’s really just exploring how things behave. We go to extremely low temperatures and explore a gas. The temperatures are very close to absolute zero – as close as people can get.

What are the practical implications?

We’re trying to realize a new phase in the gas that would be something like a superconductor. A superconductor happens with fermions in a metal. We’re trying to do it in a gas. Because we have new ways to probe and manipulate, we might get a new understanding of superconductivity. In particular, people are interested in accomplishing this phase in a way that is similar to high-temperature superconductivity. Ironically, the physics of our system, even though it’s at much lower temperatures, is similar to that of high-temperature superconductors. It’s a real basic understanding of the under-lying physics that we’re after.

This research right now is a hot topic. It makes things exciting.

So how could this be useful in the real world?

In a superconductor, electrons flow without resistance. Electrons flowing without resistance means there is no loss of energy in a case where, say, you want to get electricity from the power plant to a house. You could do things with electricity that are just not practical if there are losses of energy.

What do you like best about your work?

I’m the kind of person who just likes playing around in the lab. I really like the research that I’ve started to work in, these ultra-cold gases, because as far as problems in physics or chemistry or physical chemistry go, these are very simple systems. You can ask seemingly simple questions that we might not know the answer to, and then you do the experiment and basically see the answer. We’re further away from applications, but on the other hand we can ask important, simple questions. It’s not quite something that you can hold in your hand, but it’s tabletop.

What’s it like being a woman at the highest level of physics?

It’s definitely an issue. You notice that there are not many women, especially at the faculty level. Most of my colleagues and I would like to see more women in physics, and people have been working really hard on how to go about improving the situation. I personally am happier in an environment where there are more women.

Did you have female mentors along the way?

My mom, actually. She was an engineer but had a master’s degree in engineering physics. All my advisers, for my senior thesis and graduate work, have been men.

How are you going to use the $500,000 that comes with your fellowship?

I’m looking into paying for an assistant, basically administrative or secretarial support. Then, I’ll probably use some of the money for research. My research is funded by the National Science Foundation, but sometimes it’s useful to have a large chunk that’s not budgeted. I think also I’ll use some of the money personally, to make life easier at home.

You have a new baby. How has that changed your work?

I have a daughter, who just turned one on October 1. Certainly, having an infant around, I don’t spend as much time at work, when possible. And gosh, when you have an infant, no other job seems as difficult! There’s so much at stake, and it’s really hard. It gives you perspective. Like physics, it’s very challenging, at least for me. I’m not a natural at it. But, like physics, it’s also very rewarding.


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