Reactions in slow motion

American professor Deborah Jin is the daughter of two scientists, and has been surrounded by science since the day she was born. She managed to cool molecules down to near-zero temperature, allowing her to precisely study their chemical reactions. It is a complex operation, which has numerous applications: new precision-measurement tools, new methods for computing and new materials.

Professor Deborah Jin studies what happens when molecules are cooled to near absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature. First, however, she and her team at the University of Colorado had to invent a method for performing this very difficult task. The point of cooling molecules to such low temperatures is that the colder they are, the slower they move. In fact, they slow down enough for researchers to actually see what goes on during chemical reactions.

By succeeding in cooling molecules to the point where she could observe their behavior, Professor Jin made a major discovery and solved a problem that had challenged scientists for years.

The Potential to Transform Society

As Professor Jin notes, the possible future applications for her work are legion. “Finding ways to use new knowledge coming from this field could potentially transform society. The study of ultra-cold molecules could lead to new precision-measurement tools, new methods for quantum computing and help us better understand materials that are essential to technology.”

Growing up with Science

Professor Jin’s childhood would seem tailor-made for a budding scientist. “I was surrounded by science. I grew up in Florida in an area called the ‘Space Coast’ because of its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center. And both of my parents were scientists!” Professor Jin says that, since her mother was an engineer with a Master’s degree in physics, she never saw anything unusual about a woman scientist.

Today, Deborah Jin is a Fellow of JILA (a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards & Technology) and the University of Colorado, a NIST Fellow and physicist, and a Professor Adjoint in the Physics Department of the University of Colorado (Boulder, USA).

She notes that today’s women scientists face a problem that has grown since the days when there were few women in the profession: “Being married to another scientist, one challenge is finding jobs in the same location. In my case, this was resolved by luck, as well as a willingness to make compromises. We were fortunate to find jobs at JILA, where there was a desire to address the ‘two-body problem.’

The Thrill—and the Fun—of Science

A summer spent working in a physics lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center was the tipping point for her choice of career. The experience allowed her to see the connections between physics and everyday life and, as she explains, “Being in the lab was great because you got to play with all sorts of fun toys.”

Despite all of the hard work and long hours that led to her outstanding achievements, it is easy to see that the fun is still there. “It’s so exciting when you first observe something or when things come together in the experiment and you realize that you’re on the brink of creating something really new.”

More about Professor Deborah Jin:

For Women in Science

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