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National Science Foundation

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove (1926 )

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove
Fay Ajzenberg-Selove with President George W. Bush.
Credit: Sandy Schaeffer for the National Science Foundation

National Medal of Science recipient in 2007 "for her pioneering contributions in nuclear physics that have advanced research into many applications, including energy generation from fusion, dating of artifacts, and nuclear medicine; her passion for teaching; and her outstanding service to her profession."

"I have been stubborn, competitive and, above all, lucky."

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1926, and moved from city to city as the Nazis spread across Europe. Though she feared for the safety of her family, Ajzenberg-Selove clung to her dream of becoming the next Amelia Earhart and resolved to "live a life that I would not regret as I lay dying." When her family eventually reached the United States, Ajzenberg-Selove began to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan and discovered a love for physics. Despite receiving low grades in her physics classes, Ajzenberg-Selove received her Ph.D. in 1952 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and built a large, professional network through her use of particle accelerators at various research institutions.

She battled blatant sexism throughout her career, facing job rejections, pay cuts and working nights at Princeton University to avoid being caught in a building where women were not permitted. Ajzenberg-Selove cites Marie Curie and other women who came before her as inspirations and, ultimately, was a champion for female scientists herself, helping to organize a meeting of the American Physical Society on "Women in Physics" in 1971.

"I have been stubborn, competitive and, above all, lucky."

--Fay Ajzenberg-Selove

Having survived three cancer diagnoses, a motorcycle collision and bouts with anxiety, Ajzenberg-Selove finally stopped conducting research in 1989 when the work became too physically challenging. She wrote a moving autobiography, "A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist," in which she described her life's adventures and struggles.

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