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September 25, 2008 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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Fay Ajzenberg-Selove

A once-in-a-lifetime honor has come to pre-eminent scientist and researcher Professor Emeritus Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, a University of Pennsylvania physicist, who will receive the 2007 National Medal of Science from President Bush at the White House next week.

The award is in recognition of Ajzenberg-Selove's principal work: understanding light nuclei, the elements of stars. It is considered a global reference for physicists old and new, and has applications, she acknowledged, for energy generation through fusion, nuclear medicine and nuclear dating, of which carbon dating is a part.

The National Medal of Science, established by Congress in 1959, is administered by the National Science Foundation.

In addition to Ajzenberg-Selove, who received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1952, one other physicist and six other scientists will receive the award this year. It is the first time since 2001 that anyone from Penn's standing faculty has been recognized with the prestigious medal.

"This means a great deal to me. It was totally unexpected. After Walter, my husband of 53 years, also a physicist at Penn and whom I adore, it's the most important thing in my life," said Ajzenberg-Selove.

"It means everything that someone thinks I've made a contribution to my country, and that's an enormous honor. And the award demonstrates the fact that I'm an American," explained the 82-year-old Ajzenberg-Selove, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 15, with her family, in 1941.

Ajzenberg-Selove said her family left the Ukraine in 1919 to settle in Germany, where she was born in Berlin in 1926.

From there, the family immigrated to France in 1930 and, as refugees, came to New York, through Spain and Portugal, on transit visas in December 1940 to escape the war raging in Europe.

After spending about three months in Cuba because the visas didn't confer permanent U.S. status, they obtained other visas that did and eventually came to America.

"We were very lucky to have been able to leave Europe. When we came back to the U.S. in 1941 to stay, we had no money waiting for us and had just $100 when we landed; but there was an uncle in New York, so we stayed with him," she said.

Nuclear Family of Scientists

Ajzenberg-Selove arrived at Penn in 1970. Now retired -- "One has to be realistic at some point"-- she made significant advances in the field of nuclear physics for decades, becoming a pioneer in a male-dominated field.

Often the only female engineering student in her undergraduate and graduate classes, she became the first female physics student, instructor and researcher most institutions had ever seen, including the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University and Haverford College. She was a visiting researcher at Los Alamos for 18 years.

"When I first started, there was one woman for every 40 men. Later, depending on the scientific field, it became 10 women for every 40 men. I hope I was a trendsetter, who helped women. I certainly am a feminist and support the advancement of women," said Ajzenberg-Selove.

"Actually, I feel awfully comfortable around men, because of the influence of the three most important men in my life, Moses Abraham Ajzenberg, my father; Thomas Lauritsen, my research partner at Cal Tech; and my husband."

She speaks Russian, French and English, and that linguistic ability helped her to connect with others, and, in turn, helped others to connect with one another through her, she noted, especially internationally.

An engaging speaker and writer, Ajzenberg-Selove has written hundreds of scientific papers, primarily on light nuclei, and the way they absorb and emit energy. Each year, scientists worldwide write more than 1,200 scientific papers on these topics. She organized the first "Women in Physics" conference for the American Physical Society, and published an autobiography, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist, in 1994.

She has been cited more than 6,000 times by the Institute for Scientific Information. Among her numerous awards are the 2001 Distinguished Alumni Fellow Award from the University of Wisconsin; the 1999 Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service from the American Physical Society; and honorary doctorates from Haverford College in 1999, Michigan State University in 1997, and Smith College in 1995.

"I am not a political person," said Ajzenberg-Selove, "but am happy that I was of some service to my country and that my work is being recognized; and am looking forward to being in the White House -- of which I took a guided tour once -- and am thrilled that I will receive the medal from President Bush, who represents to me the United States."

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