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Award-winning physicist Margaret Murnane began her journey to becoming a world-renowned expert on ultrafast lasers in the countryside of Midwest Ireland. Her father, an elementary school teacher, loved science and used to reward his young daughter with chocolates or a new science book from the library when she solved math puzzles. When she was 8, one of those books, with an illustration of Archimedes in the bathtub, kindled a lifelong desire to learn about the world by observing it.
She reveled in her high-school physics class, even though “it was my worst subject.” Undeterred, she attended University College Cork (Ireland), earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in physics. Her university courses were academically challenging, but fascinating. She graduated hooked on the idea of having a career in physics, even though it meant leaving Ireland to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.
Murnane did her thesis work building an ultrashort-pulse laser in Roger Falcone’s laboratory. It took her a year to build the laser, another six months to refine and characterize it, and two years to demonstrate that it could generate fast x-ray pulses. Murnane graduated in 1989 and a year later received the American Physical Society’s (APS’s) Simon Ramo Award for her thesis.
During her graduate studies, Murnane met fellow student Henry Kapteyn, who became her husband in 1988 and a life-long collaborator. In 1990, the couple moved to Washington State University, where they set up a joint laboratory dedicated to the fast-moving and competitive field of ultrafast laser science.
During their time at Washington State, Murnane and Kapteyn played key role in advancing the technology for generating ultrafast laser pulses. Their group was responsible for the design and rapid adoption of the ultrahort-pulse–mode-locked titanium-sapphire laser that is now a standard fixture in hundreds of laboratories around the world.
In 1996, Murnane and her husband left Washington State for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There they continued their laser development and began exploring the possibility of using ultrafast lasers to produce laser-like beams of x-rays. This early work at Michigan culminated in the design and development of a tabletop x-ray laser in 2009 — by the Kapteyn/Murnane (K/M) group at JILA.
The couple moved to JILA in 1999, and the following year Murnane was awarded a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. At JILA, the K/M group has continued their work on creating laser-like beams at short wavelengths. The group also pioneered the use of lasers to study such processes as electron motion inside atoms and molecules, the motion of molecules on surfaces, acoustic oscillations in materials and nanostructures, and the motion of atoms inside molecules.
In addition to her scientific work, Murnane is known for her efforts to get women involved in science and to support them once they enter an academic environment. She has been a member and/or Chair of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the Site Visit Team to Improve the Climate for Women in Physics. She strongly supported JILA’s recent efforts to recruit and retain more women faculty.
Murnane has won many awards for her cutting-edge research, including the APS Arthur Schawlow Prize in Laser Science the American Chemical Society’s Ahmed Zewail Award, and the R. W. Wood Prize, all of which she shared with her collaborator Henry Kapteyn. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Optical Society of America, and the American Physical Society.
In her spare time, Murnane finds time to enjoy the Colorado outdoors with mountain biking, hiking, and skiing.