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Deborah Jin was born in Palo Alto, California, but spent most of her childhood in Indian Harbor Beach, Florida. Her father was a professor of physics at nearby Florida Institute of Technology, and her mother had a Master’s degree in engineering physics. Her parents met when her mother took a physics class where her father was a teaching assistant.
Science was simply part of the landscape in which Jin grew up. What was surprising was not that she and her brother became physicists, but that their sister studied law.
Jin didn’t know for sure that she wanted to be a physicist until she worked in a research lab during the summer after her second year at Princeton. There, for the first time, she saw the connection between physics and everyday life. She also discovered that “being in the lab is fun because you get to play with all sorts of fun toys.” After graduating from Princeton with an A. B. in physics in 1990, she spent five years at the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. in 1995 for experimental work on exotic low-temperature superconductors with Thomas Rosenbaum. During her graduate studies, Jin met and married fellow graduate student John Bohn, a theoretical physicist.
Between 1995 and 1997, Jin did postdoctoral research with Eric Cornell at JILA, where she was involved with some of the early experiments on Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs). In 1997, Jin was hired by NIST, elected a Fellow of JILA, and appointed Professor Adjoint in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado. She began studying ultracold gases of fermions, a class of particles (including electrons) that cannot share the same quantum state. In 1999, her group cooled a gas of fermions (potassium atoms) to less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero. Science magazine hailed this accomplishment as a “Science Breakthrough of the Year.”
After taking a few months off in late 2002 for the birth of her daughter Jaclyn, Jin returned to JILA. In 2003, Jin won a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. At the end of this banner year, her group made the world’s first fermionic condensate by devising a clever scheme to get the normally unneighborly fermions to dance in sync. When two fermions dance in sync, they do share the same quantum state and behave identically; consequently, they can form a condensate when the temperature gets cold enough. Jin quickly realized that if paired fermions happened to be electrons, the result would be a superconductor. The Jin group has subsequently done many experiments to shed light on the similarities between fermionic condensation and superconductivity. Jin’s accomplishments in this field led Scientific American to recognize her as the magazine’s 2004 “Research Leader of the Year.”
Since 2007, Jin has teamed up with fellow experimentalist Jun Ye and theorist John Bohn to make, then study the chemistry of gases of ultracold polar molecules of potassium and rubidium in their lowest quantum state. The researchers hope to use these new states of matter to devise models to help explain the complex quantum systems we experience in normal life.
Jin is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her other honors include the American Physical Society’s Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award, NIST’s Samuel Wesley Stratton Award, the Franklin Institute’s 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics, the Service to America Medal, and the 2009 William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement.