Dr. Katharine Gebbie’s 34-year public service career has been distinguished by innovation and effective leadership. She has been a pioneer in bringing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) into the 21st century as director of its Physics Laboratory. Her leadership has fostered a culture of excellence that has made NIST one of the world’s preeminent research institutions: since 1997, two of its scientists have won the Nobel Prize, the only federal employees so honored for scientific work done in the line of their official duties.
Gebbie began her NIST career as a research astrophysicist. Her greatest accomplishments revolve around her establishment and management of the NIST Physics Laboratory that has undertaken such important projects as the development of a space-based atomic clock that could be 10 times more accurate than atomic clocks on Earth, improving techniques for mammography, and studying Bose-Einstein condensation, which has emerged since the mid-1990s as one of the most cutting-edge themes of contemporary physics.
Created in 1991, the laboratory merged elements of five predecessor facilities based in Maryland and Colorado. NIST’s thriving culture of excellence is, in large part, directly attributable to Dr. Gebbie. She has provided guidance that has maintained a consistent focus on careful measurement, standards and service. These objectives are complemented by the sense of empowerment that Gebbie instills in her staff.
For example, Bose-Einstein condensation, a program created under Gebbie’s leadership, has become a new subfield of physics. This is due to the development of powerful experimental techniques involving ultracold quantum gases, many of which were pioneered at NIST. Its recognition by the 2001 Nobel Prize, only five years after its discovery, underlines the groundbreaking changes it has caused in science.
Gebbie’s belief in employing emerging technologies to improve society has indeed benefited the scientific community and the nation at large. For example, she was a pioneer in employing the internet to share scientific information. Her initiation of web access to the lab’s reference databases in 1993 was far ahead of the national curve. The success of this endeavor prompted early adoption of internet technology throughout NIST. The Institute is now one of the federal government’s most prolific providers of information via the internet, and its online internet Time Service provides atomic time to over 700 million queries daily.
Gebbie has long taken the lead in encouraging diversity, vitality and expertise in her staff. As one of the few women ever to serve as an NIST Laboratory Director, she has been devoted to enhancing scientific career opportunities and research experience for women and minorities through her Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. This first-of-its-kind program has been so successful that it has been emulated throughout the institute.
The cumulative effect of Gebbie’s monumental contributions is clear. The laboratory she leads is an integral and heralded part of the national and global scientific community. Her diligence and aptitude are responsible for not only scientific advancement but also for the institutionalization of excellence at NIST. Her combination of talents is truly remarkable, and so is impact of her life’s work.