Correction to This Article
The sixth paragraph of this story has been changed. The original text stated that atomic clocks had improved techniques for mammography. There isn't a connection between atomic clocks and improved mammography, according to NIST.
This Week's Federal Player

NIST's Gebbie: Creating a Climate for Cutting-Edge Research

(Sam Kittner)
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From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, November 9, 2009; 5:21 AM

Katharine Gebbie has built a world-class physics laboratory, fostering creativity and risk-taking that has led to cutting-edge scientific discoveries.

A major force within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gebbie presides over a team that includes three Nobel Prize winners, among other scientists recognized worldwide.

"The key thing is that she creates an environment in which this kind of work can thrive. If you are a member of the physics lab, one of the things that is expected from you is that you are going to be a creative innovator," William Phillips, a physicist and 1997 Nobel Prize winner, said.

Gebbie, an astrophysicist, joined NIST in 1968. By 1991, she was asked to establish NIST's Physics Laboratory, the facility she manages today.

Part of the Commerce department, NIST's tasked to promote innovation and industrial competitiveness. The Physics Laboratory provides measurement services and research for electronic, optical and radiation technologies, with a focus on atomic, molecular, optical and radiation physics.

In recent years, Gebbie has overseen the creation of the world's best atomic clocks, standards to ensure the quality of mammograms, advances in nanotechnology, and research on new forms of ultra-cold matter that could help scientists develop better superconductors and improve magnetic data storage, according to NIST.

Gebbie, 79, continues to focus not only on promoting innovative research, but recruiting talented people for government service, giving them the resources they need and the freedom to explore their ideas.

"The biggest challenge is and has always been to attract the best and the brightest scientists and people who support them," Gebbie said. "For me, the best measure of any laboratory or agency is the quality of the young people it can attract."

"While we can't top universities in salary, I'm thrilled that we are still able to compete in hiring world-class young scientists, and in keeping most of the more senior ones," Gebbie said.

The laboratory has a broad mission with many demands on its resources, according to Gebbie. She said that maintaining "a balanced portfolio of programs that span the full range from those that address the immediate needs of industry, government and the scientific community to the longer-term research that anticipates the future needs" is key to the government's success.

Currently, the NIST lab is working on quantum communication -- a state-of-the-art technique to encrypt sensitive information. She said this technology will be available not only to the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies, but to financial institutions seeking to secure their data cyber criminals.

Gebbie takes a hands-off approach to management. She does not run any particular project, leaving the details to well-trained scientists.

"I guide and support scientists in developing and implementing their programs so they can perform world-class research," Gebbie said. "I also interact with leaders in professional societies, who make it their goal to advance and diffuse the knowledge of science."

Phillips said Gebbie believes solving tomorrow's problems requires research today.

"She's thinking ahead and she wants to foster creativity for things that are going to be useful to our country," Phillips said. "When I leave for the night, she's always still working away in her office. We know that she is spending every moment that she can to try to make sure that we're able to do the things we're trying to do."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.


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