Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie - astrophysicist and civil servant

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie (July 4, 1932 – August 17, 2016) was the founding Director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and of its two immediate predecessors, the Physics Laboratory and the Center for Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, both for which she was the only Director. During her 22 years of management of these institutions, four of its scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

As a child, she was inspired by her famous aunt (and namesake), Katharine Burr Blodgett, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and went on to invent low-reflectance "invisible" glass. Almost following in her aunt's footsteps, Katharine also enrolled in Bryn Mawr, but had to transfer to MIT after he father's death.

Her future husband proposed to her, but Katharine initially turned him down saying she was going to move to London to study the stars and earn her Ph.D. Instead of seeing those as a hindrance, he completely supported her and together they moved to England.

After earning her degree in 1964, she returned to the US where she practiced "laboratory astrophysics" -- where scientists study the basic physical processes of astrophysics and perform simulations of these processes to understand how they work throughout the universe.

In 1981, she moved from the laboratory to the management side of operations, eventually accepting an appointment as Chief of the Quantum Physics Division at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). She continued to rise in the ranks of management, eventually directing several hundred employees. Her job, as she saw it, was to select the best and brightest scientists and then make sure they have everything they need to succeed. And succeed they did. She is likely the only manager to have directed four Nobel winners in her career.

She made it her goal to creating more opportunities for women and other marginalized groups in physics, and was a co-organizer of a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics bringing together more than 100 young female physics majors for encouragement and inspiration. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honors.

You can watch a short interview with her: Katharine Blodgett Gebbie: In Her Own Words

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