The American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, is the nation’s oldest learned society. In May, it welcomed to its fold Barbara Jacak (pronounced yacht-sock), a faculty senior scientist and former director of the Nuclear Science Division.
Sitting in her backyard with her German Shepherd, Barbara recently spoke with Elements about the honor and about her career as a nuclear scientist.
A Bay Area native, Barbara was intrigued by nuclear science at a young age. As a student at Alameda High School, she took a tour of the Lab’s Super Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator (Super HILAC for short), one of the first particle accelerators that could accelerate heavier elements to “atom-smashing” speeds. (The HILAC has since been replaced by much more powerful accelerators at the Lab.) It was love at first sight, and the young Barbara put her mind to learning all she could about accelerators. “I still think it’s super cool,” she said.
Barbara completed her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley and served in the late 1970s as an undergraduate research assistant at Berkeley Lab, where her advisor was Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg. She completed her Ph.D. in Chemical Physics at Michigan State University.
Her research interests over the years have mainly focused on fundamental studies of hot, dense nuclear matter. What makes matter work? How do nuclei emerge out of quarks and gluons? What happens when you heat nuclei up to four trillion degrees? She helped lead the team that discovered the quark gluon plasma and its strongly coupled, liquid-like behavior.
Her scientific career was not without its challenges, however. Being a woman scientist back then meant that many people didn’t take her seriously. “All physicists have to prove themselves, because they’ve chosen a hard path, and women have an additional hurdle,” she noted. While in graduate school at Michigan State University, for example, she was giving a talk about data acquisition at the school’s open house for a new superconducting cyclotron. A visitor was surprised to see a woman physicist and remarked, “But you look perfectly normal!”
“Things have improved since then,” said Barbara. In fact, this year is the first that women admitted to the American Philosophical Society outnumbered men.
Barbara is excited to attend her first American Philosophical Society meeting this November. Said Mina Bissell, a senior advisor to Lab leadership on biology issues and former head of Life Sciences at Berkeley Lab, who is also a member, “I congratulate Barbara for getting this honor. The American Philosophical Society is a very old society that dates back to Abraham Lincoln, who asked Benjamin Franklin to found a society of thoughtful people. And I’m glad that women are getting this honor. It is important that young people, especially women, are not afraid of science, especially now. We need scientific capability badly to address the many challenges in the world, from diseases to ransomware.”
Membership in the American Philosophical Society is just the latest in a string of recognition that Barbara has received. She received the American Physical Society’s Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics for 2019. She is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences.
When asked about the most important skills for success in science, Barbara responded, “I would list two skills. First, it’s important to have a quantitative answer to the scientific question you are asking. Putting a number to your answer allows you to have a basis for discussion with your colleagues, and allows you to make a case.”
“Second, and I think this is something that most grad students don’t think about early in their careers, is communicating and working well with people,” she added. “When you do big science, that is, science with more than 500 or 1000 people, developing people skills are really important. To participate in large collaborations and to hold leadership positions, you need to be able to communicate and build relationships, along with having people respect your scientific judgment and expertise.”
Science has been a dream career for Barbara. “Doing science for a living is a whole lot of fun. It’s interesting and exciting, and you get to work with brilliant people,” she said. She loves the discovery aspect of science, which she described as an adventure.
“There is an exciting time in research when you’re the only person on the planet who knows something new. Your first reaction is, `Wow.’ Your second is, `Boy, I hope it’s right. How do I check it?’ and finally, you can say, `I know it’s right. Now I get to tell my friends.’ ”