Prominent NIST And JILA Physicist Deborah Jin Passes Away

Image Credit: Dave Neligh for NIST

Image Credit: Dave Neligh for NIST

September 21, 2016 – Physicist Deborah Jin, a world leader in exotic states of matter called ultracold quantum gases, passed away September 15, 2016, from cancer. She was 47 years old.

Jin was a 20-year employee of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and worked at JILA, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Debbie has left us far too soon. In addition to being an incredible scientist and pioneer in a challenging and important field of science, she was a warm, cheerful and giving person,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Willie E. May. “She will truly be missed.”

Jin leaves behind her husband, JILA theorist John Bohn; daughter Jackie Bohn; siblings Laural Jin O’Dowd and Craig Jin; and her mother, Shirley Jin.

During her career, Jin received multiple international scientific awards, including a 2003 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowship, the 2013 L’Oreal/UNESCO “For Women in Science” award for North America, the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics, and the 2014 Comstock Prize of the National Academy of Sciences. She was the second-youngest woman ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences (2005).

Jin’s work focused on the fundamental physics of quantum gases, unique states of matter with the potential to solve important practical problems. In these gases, the temperatures of the atoms and molecules are just millionths to billionths of a degree above absolute zero, leading to highly unusual behavior.

Jin is perhaps best known for producing and characterizing the world’s first fermionic condensate. It is similar to Nobel-prize-winning Bose-Einstein condensates, the world’s first quantum gas (for which Jin played a crucial early role) but much more challenging to produce and characterize, with very different physical behavior and applications.

Jin also co-produced and characterized the world’s first ultracold quantum gas of polar molecules, which were much more complex and difficult to make than previous quantum gases made of atoms.

In addition, Jin co-produced and characterized the world’s first chemical reactions between ultracold molecules in a quantum gas. These reactions may advance understanding of molecular processes that are important for medicine, exploration of new energy sources and “designer chemistry.”

Quantum gases can be used as model systems to better understand and predict new behaviors in other states of matter such as superconducting materials (which transmit electricity without resistance) and superfluids (which flow without resistance). These materials could have many practical applications, if they were better understood. But they are very hard to study in detail because the atoms and molecules are touching each other and interact strongly, complicating the physical processes. In contrast, the atoms and molecules in quantum gases are far apart from each other (on the atomic scale) with relatively weak interactions, and those interactions can be precisely controlled and measured. Thus, quantum gases can serve as model systems to better understand the much more complex systems.

“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 and Jin’s supervisor. “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.”