Students, faculty and staff at CU Boulder, JILA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shared remembrances this week of Deborah Jin, who passed away on Sept. 15, 2016 at the age of 47 after battling cancer.
Considered a pioneer in atomic physics, Jin explored the properties of gases at ultracold temperatures and developed innovative technical systems to study their behavior.
Born November 15, 1968, Jin earned her A.B. degree in physics from Princeton University in 1990 and went on to earn her doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1995. Shortly thereafter, she became a research associate at JILA, operated jointly by NIST and CU Boulder. Jin accepted a permanent position at NIST in 1997 and later became a JILA fellow and an adjoint professor of physics at CU Boulder.
News of Jin’s passing brought fond remembrances from around the world, including many from current and former students, colleagues and staff members.
“Deborah Jin was the definition of world-class faculty. The international scientific community has lost a giant, and our campus has lost a mentor to young scientists and an inspiration to female scientists. She will be deeply missed in many quarters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family,” said CU Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano.
Nobel Laureate Eric Cornell, a JILA fellow and adjoint professor at CU Boulder, served as Jin’s post-doctoral advisor upon her arrival in Boulder and would become her long-time colleague and friend.
“Debbie was a very good science communicator…she could focus on what mattered and push everything else to the periphery,” said Cornell. “She always let her data stand for itself, but explained it beautifully as a story with logic from beginning to end.”
In 1999, a JILA research team led by Jin achieved the first Fermi degenerate gas of atoms, a state of matter in which atoms behave like waves. Jin also participated in the initial experiments on Bose-Einstein condensates conducted by Cornell and Carl Wieman, co-recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.
In 2003, Jin’s group created the first ultracold fermionic condensate. Since 2004, her group has conducted detailed studies of the behavior of Fermi gases in the regime of strong interactions, or correlations.
“Debbie was one of the best at balancing detail with the bigger picture,” said longtime colleague and friend Jun Ye, a fellow at both JIILA and NIST. “She wanted to tease out the details of nature to discover its secrets, but also hold it out and examine it from a distance at the same time.”
Ye, who collaborated with Jin on the study of ultracold molecules beginning in 2004, also recalled Jin’s patience and compassion outside of science.
“I often asked her for advice, not just in the lab but in life,” said Ye. “I was very fortunate to know her.”
“Debbie was a role model for me – a hero,” said Ana Maria Rey, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and JILA associate fellow who came to Boulder in 2008 in order to work with Jin. “The talks she gave were a model of clarity…She was so famous, but still someone you could talk to very easily.”
“Debbie was an incredible scientist, outstanding mentor, valued friend, and loving spouse and mother,” said Tom O’Brian, chief of the NIST Quantum Physics Division. “Her passing leaves a void at JILA, in the worldwide scientific community, and in the hearts of her family and friends that cannot be filled. Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with Debbie’s family, and her friends and colleagues at JILA and across the world.”
Jin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 and was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007. She won numerous awards over the course of her career, most notably a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2000; a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 2003; the I.I Rabi Prize of the American Physical Society in 2005; the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics in 2008; the William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement in 2009; the Comstock Prize in Physics in 2014; and the Isaac Newton Medal from the Institute of Physics in 2014.
Colleagues and students also spoke of Jin’s remarkable ability to connect on a personal level.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer in February, Debbie reached out to me and became my friend,” said Julie Phillips, director of JILA’s Scientific Communications Office. “We took walks together and she taught me how to deal with the treatment. Her compassion and generosity were special. That’s the kind of person she was. She was looking out for me. She was such a great human being.”
“She was a tremendous influence on so many of her students and a fantastic role model,” said Margaret Murnane, a CU Boulder Distinguished Professor and a JILA fellow. “She was always opening doors and enhanced communication at JILA, not just among the scientists but the staff and custodians. She cared about everyone.”
“She taught me how to solve anything…whenever I’m tasked with a problem, I think about how Debbie would approach it,” said Catherine Klauss, a current graduate student in Jin’s lab. “She wanted everyone to understand and everyone to be involved.”
“Debbie loved working with graduate students and undergraduates,” said Cindy Regal, an associate professor of physics at CU Boulder and a JILA fellow who was once a graduate student in Jin’s lab. “She will be missed. Her good work will continue here at JILA.”
To read more remembrances of Deborah Jin or submit your own, please click here.