Groundbreaking physicist, private person: Her voice was in her work

Deborah Jin ’90
Dave Neligh for NIST

NOV. 15, 1968–SEPT. 15, 2016

Exploring temperatures barely above absolute zero, Deborah S. Jin ’90 nudged atoms and molecules into states of matter never observed before, experimental feats that some expected to win her a Nobel Prize one day. She died at 47 of cancer.

Her father was a physics professor; her mother had worked as an engineer. Majoring in physics, for her senior thesis Jin built special refrigerators to cool detectors for cosmic-ray observatories in Antarctica. At graduate school at the University of Chicago, she studied something else very cold: heavy fermion superconductors, an exotic variety of materials that conduct electricity without resistance.

As she completed her Ph.D. in 1995, Jin sought a position with Eric Cornell, a physicist at JILA, a joint institute of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “There was a little chutzpah to it, kind of a little sparkle,” Cornell recalls of Jin’s pitch. “I thought, I’ll give her a chance.”

Cornell hired Jin as a postdoctoral researcher for his laboratory, though she did not have the techniques and experience he needed. He and colleague Carl Wieman were attempting to coax atoms into a new state of matter existing just above absolute zero: a Bose-Einstein condensate, where individual atoms meld together and act as if they were a single particle.

On a JILA web page where friends and colleagues posted remembrances of Jin, Zheng-Tian Lu, who had been a postdoc at JILA, recalled coming across Jin and Cornell in a hallway playing with a lens. “Eric was showing Debbie how to determine the focal length by projecting ceiling lights onto the floor,” Lu wrote. Jin had to learn experimental topics from scratch, Lu explained, adding that she often tells her own students “this Debbie story, how she learned the basics and went on to make one after another fantastic breakthrough.”

Jin was not involved in the discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate, which later won Cornell and Wieman the Nobel Prize, but she performed many of the early experiments that characterized its properties. “She was extremely quiet and widely underappreciated because of that,” Wieman says. 

Within a couple of years, her work was speaking loudly for her. She set up her own laboratory at JILA, where she created what she called fermionic condensate. That eventually may help scientists develop new materials and was seen as a giant advance in condensed-matter physics. 

Jin had a deep conceptual understanding of the underlying quantum mechanical subtleties and the creativity to devise experiments to tease out those subtleties in reality. “Debbie was uniquely good at that,” Wieman says. “That was really hard. It was fun to watch.” The MacArthur Foundation thought so, too, awarding her a “genius” grant when she was only 34. 

Jin then moved beyond atoms to study ultracold molecules. To assemble the molecules, she cooled two types of atoms and then nudged them close enough to bond, taking care not to heat the atoms in the process. The ultracold molecules have provided new insights into how chemical reactions occur.

Along the way, she pushed others to do their best work. Kang-Kuen Ni, a former graduate student in Jin’s laboratory, recalls presenting her results to Jin. Jin was unimpressed, and said Ni did not understand what the data were telling her. The criticism propelled Ni to the library, where she read scientific articles that helped explain what was going on. “Instead of a bunch of data I was proud of taking, I had understanding of what the data was explaining,” says Ni, now a professor at Harvard. 

In public, Jin remained intensely private, rarely speaking about her childhood, her years in college and graduate school, or her daughter and her husband, a scientist. But after her death, colleagues shared their memories. Some wrote about Jin as a role model and a mentor, sometimes through close collaboration, other times from a distance. “She broke into the boys’ club,” Wieman says, “but she didn’t pull up the ladder after her.” 

Others shared personal moments of Jin’s quiet support. Colleague Julie Phillips recalled how Jin helped her get through cancer treatment, even while she was ill with cancer herself. “When I was scared about my third chemo infusion because of worsening neuropathy, Debbie came and sat with me through the whole thing,” Phillips wrote. “This was an astonishing act of kindness I will never forget.” 

Kenneth Chang ’87 covers science for The New York Times.


VIDEO: Deborah Jin ’90

Courtesy L'Oréal USA - For Women In Science