Deborah Jin uses lasers to make atoms cold. Really cold—think temperatures below one micro Kelvin.
Jin always knew she would study science. "In college, I liked physics the best," she says. Jin graduated from Princeton University in 1990 and received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago in 1995, where she studied heavy fermion superconductors with Thomas Rosenbaum. She is now a NIST Fellow at JILA, a laboratory run jointly by NIST and the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Professor Adjoint in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Fermions, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, make up the building blocks of matter. In fact, all particles in physics are classified as either fermions or bosons; electrons, protons, and neutrons are all fermions.
"We are studying many-body physics using ultra-cold atoms as a model system, where we can control, manipulate, and probe it in new ways, as compared to other systems," says Jin.
In 1999, Jin and graduate student Brian DeMarco used lasers and magnetic traps to cool a vapor of fermions to a temperature less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero—becoming the first to create a new quantum gas in which atoms behave like waves. Their accomplishment was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough.
Since 2003 Jin and her team have been studying the BCS-BEC (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer—Bose-Einstein condensate) crossover. "We've been working on ways to probe the Fermi superfluid state. The nice thing about these ultra-cold Fermi gases is that we can manipulate them, we can make them strongly interacting and we can make them superfluid. This is physics that is also being studied theoretically, in the context of condensed matter physics and superconductors," says Jin.
Equipped with lasers and absorption imaging techniques, Jin and her team design novel experiments to probe ultra-cold Fermi gases. "In the ultra-cold atom gases, everything that we measure comes down to images. We take the gas and typically release it from the trap, and then we shine a pulse of laser light that is resonant with the atomic transition. The atoms absorb that light, and we image the shadow cast in the laser beam onto a CCD camera," explains Jin.
"Just with this imaging technique you can measure many different things. For example, if we release the gas from the trap before we take the picture, we measure the velocity of the atoms. If we don't release them from the trap we can measure their spatial distribution in the trap. We can choose which spin state we want to image, and we can perform experiments that manipulate the spin state of the atoms and then image," explains Jin.
Jin is the recipient of several awards, including the 2000 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the US government on young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers. Other awards include the Maria Goeppert-Meyer Prize from the American Physical Society in 2002, the 2002 National Academy of Sciences award for initiatives in research, the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship or "Genius Grant" in 2003, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of Physics in 2008.