NIST/JILA Fellow Debbie Jin died of cancer on Sept. 15, 2016, at the age of 47. One of the most prominent researchers at NIST, she won many science awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowship in 2003 and a L’Oreal/UNESCO “For Women in Science” Award for North America in 2013. 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.
Debbie Jin was a treasured friend and colleague for many years. I am one of many people who have learned a tremendous amount from her. Her scientific achievements are well documented and celebrated. Here I give a few examples of my personal interactions with Debbie to illustrate some of her superb qualities as a human being. I summarize them in five words: Caring, Charming, Clarifying, Confident and Courageous.
Debbie and I had traveled to a few international scientific meetings together. For quite a few years after her daughter Jackie was born, Debbie’s criterion for accepting international invitations was whether the destination city or campus is child-friendly for travelers.
In 2012 our two families went to Paris for the International Conference on Atomic Physics. My family went on a tour of the city with Debbie, her husband John, and Jackie. At dinner, we talked about what movies to watch. Upon learning that I had taken our daughter Selene (then 8 years old) to watch a PG-13 rated sci-fi movie, Debbie gave me a stern warning: “Jun, you better not do that from now on.”
On another trip together, this time to Shanghai, China, we were sitting on the same tour bus with Professor Cheng Chin from the University of Chicago. It turns out that the family names Jin and Chin came from the same Chinese character, which has the meaning “gold.” Debbie smiled at Cheng and asked: “We have the same name, how come you misspelled your family name in English?”
By the way, Debbie’s middle name in Chinese means Beautiful Orchid. She really was a Golden Beautiful Orchid.
Back in 2009, Debbie and I were for the first time using polar molecules to study ultracold chemistry. To determine the quantum nature of the molecules near absolute zero, we measured the temperature dependence of the reaction rate. Our study focused on varying the initial temperature of the molecular gas and watching the changes in the reaction rate.
We were half way through writing the paper, when Debbie insisted that we must reinvestigate the effect more carefully: Since the initial temperature we set for the gas was also changing during the reaction process, we must take into account this higher-order effect and clarify its role in the final relation we derive from the data. She then went on and rewrote the whole section devoted to this temperature effect.
I had come to respect Debbie so much that I started asking her for advice on matters outside of science. I will never forget one instance. I had a number of universities that approached me for possible relocation. I did not really consider them seriously. But one time, an institution with several colleagues whom I really respect approached me.
I went to Debbie’s office and said, “Yesterday I received calls from these colleagues…” Debbie smiled at me, with her deep dimples, and said calmly, “Well Jun, you like working with me, right?” and I said “Yes …” “But I am not moving,” Debbie said.
Throughout the entire cancer treatment, I think Debbie always thought she would overcome this challenge, just like she overcame challenges in her physics experiments. She was in tears only once, when she initially shared with me in late January that she had cancer, and that’s only because she was trying to comfort me when I started to cry.
Even on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, when I was visiting her and Jackie and John, Debbie told me, “I will find out if the current treatment is working in a month, and we will decide what to do then.” Then I gave her brief updates from the lab. That weekend she was rushed to the emergency room, and most of the time after that she remained asleep. It’s my sincere hope that Debbie went on to her new journey with these positive thoughts in her mind, in the same way as she had lived her life on this earth.