Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove, Physics

Dr. Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, emeritus professor of physics, died on August 8, 2012, at home at age 86. She was best known in the physics community for the publication of a series of review articles on the energy levels of the light nuclei that codified the field of nuclear structure and have broad implications for diverse fields, from the origins of the universe to medicine.

In a world where there remains a dearth of women in physical science, Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove was a pioneer. She was Haverford College's first tenured woman faculty, and the second within the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught generations of undergraduates from Smith College, 1952-1953, Boston University, 1953-1957, Haverford College, 1957-1970 and Penn, 1973-2003. She also had been a role model for women students throughout the physical sciences. Her lifelong service to her country in research and education was recognized with the 2007 National Medal of Science, a Presidential award, (Almanac September 9, 2008).

She was born in Berlin, Germany; following the Great Depression, her family departed for France where they lived for ten years until the start of World War II. They began a circuitous journey through Europe, to Cuba (transiting through New York) and finally back to New York, qualifying to enter the US under the German immigration quota. Settling in New York City with her family, she attended Julia Richman High School and graduated in June 1943. She attended the University of Michigan and began to study engineering, as the only woman in a class of 100. She was drawn toward physics and graduated in 1946 with a BS in engineering (physics). Following an unsuccessful year of physics at Columbia and a brief teaching job in Chicago at the Navy Pier branch of the University of Illinois, she was accepted in the physics graduate program at the University of Wisconsin.

At Wisconsin, she went about becoming a physicist, a rare occupation for women in the 1940s. She completed her master's in her first year and received a master of science (physics) in 1949. Embarking on her PhD, she began what was to become her life's work, a study of the structure of the nucleus under the direction of Professor Hugh Richards. In 1952, she was awarded a PhD for her thesis Energy Levels of Some Light Nuclei and Their Classification.

Before completing her thesis, she contacted Tom Lauritsen at California Institute of Technology who had been performing nuclear physics experiments similar to those she had been doing for her thesis. He agreed to host her visit in the summer of 1952. This began a decades-long scientific and personal collaboration. That year she accepted a one-year teaching position at Smith College and discovered a passion for teaching.

She obtained a faculty position at Boston University. While attending a lecture by physicist Walter Selove, she, in her own words, instantly fell in love. They married in 1955 and remained devoted to each other for 55 years, until his death (Almanac September 7, 2010). In 1957, they moved to the Philadelphia area, where he became an associate professor of physics at Penn and she began more then a decade of teaching and research at Haverford College. In 1970, she left Haverford for Penn where she initially held a research professorship, 1970-1973 and, following the successful outcome of a discrimination suit, she became Penn's second tenured woman faculty in SAS. She remained a member of the faculty for 30 years and became emeritus in 2003.

Throughout her career, she was passionate about research, teaching, and service to her field and to her country. Her excellence in teaching was recognized by the 1991 Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching. She authored, first with Lauritsen (Caltech) and then for an additional 17 years on her own, nearly 5,000 published pages which served to guide an entire branch of physics on the study of the structure of the light nuclei. These served as a fundamental reference that digested and validated the vast amount of research on the structure of light nuclei. Dr. Ajzenberg-Selove conducted her own experimental research at nuclear physics laboratories and universities including CIT, MIT, Los Alamos, Brookhaven, and Lawrence Radiation Laboratory where she held various visiting appointments. Her bibliography contains more than 50 experimental papers.

She received honorary degrees from Smith College, 1955, Michigan State University, 1997, and Haverford College, 1999. She served on committees and panels for the American Physical Society (APS), the American Institute of Physics, the National Academy, and the National Research Council. She was a founding member of the Nuclear Physics Division of the American Physical Society and served as vice-chair, 1972-1973 and chair, 1973-1974. For the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, she chaired the Commission on Nuclear Physics (1978-81) and was a member of the US National Committee (1977-1981). She served on the Governing Council of the AAAS (1974-1980). She organized and chaired the first Physical Society APS session on women in physics and served on the founding APS Committee on Women in Physics.