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JILA Women in Physics

JILA is a fun and interesting place to do scientific research. It also boasts a supportive and welcoming environment for women scientists of all ages. Not surprisingly, JILA has attracted a first-class cadre of talented women physicists to its faculty. These scientists do cutting-edge research in such fields as ultrafast lasers (Margaret Murnane), the creation and chemistry of ultracold molecules (Deborah Jin), the study of cold nanomechanical oscillators (Cindy Regal), cold-molecule collisions (Heather Lewandowski), theoretical explanations of many phenomena in atomic, molecular, and optical physics (Ana Maria Rey), as well as gamma-ray bursts and neutron stars (Rosalba Perna).

Today, these six scientists make up nearly 21% of the JILA faculty, known as Fellows of JILA. More than 24% of JILA’s graduate students are female, and a quarter of its senior research associates are women. These numbers reflect recent successes in JILA’s efforts to create an institute that attracts and retains the best women in science. But, there’s still more to do in the area of gender equity. Right now, only 10% of the research associates (postdocs) at JILA are women, and JILA continues to be actively looking for talented women who would like to join our first-class research community.

JILA’s welcoming climate for women is no accident. “For some time now, we’ve been looking to balance out our faculty in terms of geography, ethnicity, gender, and the type of physics we do,” says long-time JILA Fellow Carl Lineberger. “We’ve managed to do that while maintaining the highest standards for JILA faculty.”

Women faculty are benefiting from JILA’s understanding that women scientists have special needs that often overlap with those of their male peers. For instance, nationwide the majority of women physicists are married to other scientists (mostly physicists). In hiring decisions, it makes a difference whether there are good opportunities for spouses seeking academic positions. JILA has a lot of flexibility for dealing with “two-body” problems because it can work with both its member institutions (CU-Boulder and NIST) to come up with two positions.

 “JILA has a good atmosphere for diversity and women,” Jin says. “Plus, JILA has benefitted from the flexibility developed at both CU and NIST. “ Jin joined JILA in 1997 as a NIST scientist at the same time her husband, theorist John Bohn, was hired as a research professor at CU. Having two job offers was an important reason why Jin signed on at JILA.

In 1999, CU and JILA hired the husband and wife team of Henry Kapteyn and Margaret Murnane, who won a MacArthur Fellowship the following year. Although Kapteyn and Murnane are both professors of physics, they jointly run a large and productive research lab in JILA. The two talented physicists were the first American scientist-spouses to team up on running an experimental physics laboratory at a major university.

For her part, Murnane has worked hard to get more women involved in science and to improve the academic environment for female scientists. She has served on and/or chaired the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Science and the Site Visit Team to Improve the Climate for Women in Physics.

In 2002, Jin was a trailblazer in getting JILA to recognize that it’s okay for a woman to have a family and be a scientist. A year after her daughter Jaclyn’s birth, for example, she made the world’s first condensate from ultracold fermionic atoms. And, after their daughter was born, she and her husband were happy to discover NIST’s excellent day care center, located a short distance from JILA.

JILA’s hiring of women recently picked up steam. In 2004, CU hired Rosalba Perna as an assistant professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, and JILA appointed her a Fellow. A year later, the university hired Heather Lewandowski as an assistant professor of physics, solving her two-body problem of already having a spouse employed at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Lewandowski also became a JILA Fellow.

The JILA faculty’s two most recent additions, theorist Ana Maria Rey, whose husband was a hired by CU’s applied math department (in 2008), and experimental physicist Cindy Regal, whose husband was hired at NIST (in 2010), are typical of today’s talented young women faculty members: Both have year-old sons. Together with Jin, they are proving that women can have fruitful and productive careers in science — and a family.

 “What most women want is the freedom to follow her own dreams on a fairly level playing field,” Margaret Murnane says. “We want to contribute, be creative, be part of a team — and have a family if we want to.” She thinks JILA is doing good job in its recruitment and retention of women faculty.

If you’d like to learn more about JILA’s women faculty, check out profiles on this website of Deborah Jin, Heather Lewandowski, Margaret Murnane, Rosalba Perna, Cindy Regal, and Ana Maria Rey. To appreciate how much JILA has accomplished in its push for gender equity, please read our short History of Women in Physics.