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Fay Ajzenberg-Selove: 2007 National Medal of Science
September 9, 2008 Volume 55, No. 3


Ajzenberg-Selove, Fay

President George W. Bush recently announced that University of Pennsylvania physicist Dr. Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, is among eight recipients of the 2007 National Medal of Science, the Nation’s highest honor for science. Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove and her fellow honorees will receive their medals at a White House ceremony on September 29.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove, professor emerita of physics, joined Penn in 1970 and made significant advances in the field of nuclear physics for decades. Her principal work on understanding light nuclei, the elements of stars, is considered a global reference for physicists old and new. Her research and experimentation continue to apply to energy fusion, carbon dating and nuclear medicine.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove’s citation will read, “For her pioneering contributions in nuclear physics that have advanced research into applications including energy generation from fusion, dating from artifacts, and nuclear medicine, her passion for outstanding teaching, and her service to her profession and her country.”

A preeminent scientist and researcher, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove arrived in the United States as a refugee during World War II and became 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. Even those institutions that appeared reluctant to hire a woman later awarded her their highest teaching honors.

“Fay Ajzenberg-Selove deserves our most heartfelt congratulations for this national honor,” said President Amy Gutmann. “As a researcher, as a teacher and as a pathbreaking woman she has touched the lives of generations and made an indelible mark on the field of physics and on American higher education.”

Born of Russian ancestry in Berlin, she and her family fled Europe during World War II, arriving in the United States when she was 15. The daughter of an engineer, she received her bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Michigan in 1946 and her doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1952.

Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove, cited more than 6,000 times by the Institute for Scientific Information, has won the Distinguished Alumni Fellow Award from the University of Wisconsin, the 1999 Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service from the American Physical Society, honorary doctorates from Haverford College, Michigan State University, and Smith College, and the Christian and Mary Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching at Penn in 1991.

Currently a professor emerita at Penn, she served as a chair of the Commission on Nuclear Physics, was a member of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee of the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, a member of the Governing Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chair of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society.

An engaging speaker and writer, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove has authored hundreds of scientific papers, primarily on light nuclei and the way it absorbs and emits energy. Each year, scientists worldwide write over 1,200 scientific papers on these topics. She organized the first ever “Women in Physics” conference for the American Physical Society and in 1994 published an autobiography, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist.

The National Medal of Science honors individuals for pioneering scientific research in a range of fields, including physical, biological, mathematical, social, behavioral, and engineering sciences, that enhances our understanding of the world and leads to innovations and technologies that give the United States its global economic edge. The National Science Foundation administers the award, which was established by Congress in 1959.

National Medal of Science Including the latest laureates, the honor has been conferred on 441 distinguished scientists and engineers, seven from Penn’s standing faculty. The first was Dr. Britton Chance, in 1974, followed by Dr. Paul Gyorgy, in 1975, Dr. Mildred Cohn, in 1982, Dr. Robert L. Schrieffer, in 1983, Dr. Ralph Hirschmann, in 2000, and Dr. Raymond Davis, Jr., in 2001.



Almanac - September 9, 2008, Volume 55, No. 3