Dr. Nora Berrah, professor of physics, is an active scientist and researcher who has attracted nearly $5.6 million in research funding since 1992. An internationally recognized scholar who uses her research to inform her teaching, Berrah studies the interaction of light and matter to better understand and control the properties of matter.
With more than 155 publications to her credit and 147 invited presentations at national and international meetings as well as at universities and national laboratories, Berrah combines her teaching and research efforts at WMU with her national and international research at the University of California’s Berkeley National Laboratory; at the free electron laser in Hamburg, Germany; and with her efforts at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center, one of the world’s leading research laboratories.
“I became an international researcher because I always believed in international collaboration and cooperation to make significant impact,” said Berrah, who earned her Ph.D. in physics in 1987 at the University of Virginia. “This is true obviously not just in research in physics where I think that one should use the best tools and go to the best places to do the best research. It also helps that I like to travel the world, discover new cultures and meet people from different countries. Thus my international collaborations keep expanding.”
In 1990, Berrah started to use synchrotrons which are accelerators of electrons that produce photons (light if they are in the visible domain but also UV and X-rays) as tools for her research. In the summer of 1991, she was invited and was financed by the Universite d'Orsay in the suburbs of Paris, France to start a collaboration with a French team led by Dr. Francois Wuilleumier
“The invitation was a great opportunity since they had one of the best synchrotrons in the world, as well as experimental techniques I wanted to learn to build my own experimental system,” Berrah said. “I was then awarded in the fall of 1991 a Humboldt Fellowship to spend one year in Berlin, Germany to collaborate with the group led by Dr. Uwe Becker from the Max Planck Society. That invitation and award allowed me to learn how German scientists conducted their research. My two extensive visits in Europe allowed me to grow scientifically and gave me the added abilities to start my own research program as an assistant professor at WMU.”
Since 1994, Berrah has had the opportunity to reciprocate the invitation to the French and German teams to come and use the U.S. Advanced Light Source facility (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.), which she said offers one of the best light sources in the world. The French and German collaborations have led to many publications in leading scientific journals.
The German collaboration has also allowed Berrah over the past 14 years to host three young Germans (Drs. Burkhard Langer, Daniel Rolles and Matthias Hoener) graduating with a doctoral in physics in Germany and seeking further experience in the U.S. These postdoctoral researchers have been working in Berrah’s research group as part of the Feodor Lynen Fellow program of the German Humboldt Foundation. These collaborations have led to even new collaborations in Germany. Her team has also started a collaboration with a group in Japan led by Professor Kyoshi Ueda from Sendai University and the young collaboration has already led to two articles in Physical Review Letters, one of the best journals in physics.
Berrah is especially excited about her latest efforts at Stanford using the Linac Coherent Light Source free electron laser—FEL.
“This x-ray FEL light, the first of its kind in the world, promises to have a huge scientific impact,” says Berrah, who is the co-team leader for the Atomic and Molecular Physics community using the facility.
According to the Stanford center, the applications for this x-ray free science are limitless: medicine, electronics, biology, solid-state physics, nanotechnology, energy production, and as yet undiscovered areas of application.
The Department of Energy funds over $400 million for the ultra-small and ultra-fast laser LCLS light at Stanford, including a suite of instruments, that offers the promise to use time-resolved measurements on all form of matter: from atoms to molecules to aggregates, including biological specimens such as proteins and viruses all the way to the solids. Berrah is involved in the design of the AMO instrumentations.
For her students, especially at the graduate level, Berrah’s involvement with these technologically advanced labs means the latest in atomic and molecular physics makes its way into their WMU classrooms and labs.
“Presently I am collaborating with a German and a Japanese team,” she said. “We have an experiment planned for April 2009 in Hamburg, Germany to use the first free electron laser in the UV to carry out research on nanosystems.”
Her passion for science, for teaching physics and for research in atomic and molecular physics is contagious. It is matched only by her willingness to serve her profession. Now she is using her international reputation to focus attention on the nation’s need to recruit and retain female scientists in academe.
Understanding Berrah’s commitment to women scientists
Berrah is at the forefront of an effort by the scientific community to assess the current status of women in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM disciplines. She’s a proponent of doubling the number of women in physics in the next 15 years. Berrah’s passion and commitment to the goal of increasing the number of women in the hard sciences stem from her own experiences. She says they helped shape her vision for the next generation of women scientists.
Berrah recalls as a child having an innate curiosity. She always wanted to understand how things worked, especially things of a biological nature.
“I read science books and religiously watched science documentaries,” recalls Berrah. “To me, it was like a puzzle to crack.”
While the books and documentaries started her on her journey into science, it was a visit to a university setting that cemented her interest in science.
“When I was in middle school, I visited my brother-in-law, a physicist, at his lab. My observations of his work impacted me,” says Berrah. “I was attracted to it all—the big computer in a separate room—and saw it all as fascinating. I also realized that studying physics was a way to understand the world.”
Because she earned excellent grades in math, physics, and chemistry, her teachers assigned her to the science track in high school. After receiving her baccalaureate in the hard sciences, Berrah segued into physics with hopes to do research. Berrah describes her personal experiences as a female physicist as mostly positive.
“I have heard different stories from other women,” she says. Some of those stories still come to her today as she mentors to younger women in the physics field.
The culture of an academic life in the sciences, especially physics, is competitive and can be demanding and aggressive, she notes. Physics is a man’s club, and the work calls for 12- to 16-hour workdays. This is the culture that must change, she says. Women add to the diversity of the sciences, but the need to incorporate their needs for work and family are real issues that, if not adequately addressed, will continue to undermine the number of women actively pursuing the hard sciences as career choices.
Asked why she is a leading advocate to increase the number of women in physics, Berrah responds by saying, “Today, I am in a position where I feel I can tackle effectively this important issue. Gender inequity in the hard sciences, not just in physics, needs to change.”
“It is a service to the physics community, to the community at large and to society,” she adds, “since I hope that our national activities will allow middle school girls to not be inhibited and to not have the barriers that many of us had to jump. They should be part of the next generation of scientists.”
National workshop fuels gender equity efforts
To that end, Berray worked with a colleague from Stanford University, Dr. Arthur Bienenstock, to co-chair a national workshop in 2007, held at the American Physical Society headquarters in Maryland. The Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, led by Berrah, as well as members of the broader scientific community, assisted in the planning and organization of the national event. Click here to learn more about Berrah's work on related committees.
The title of the event was the “National Workshop on Gender Inequity: Strengthening the Physics Enterprise in Physics Departments and National Laboratories.” Its purpose was to address and examine the underlying reasons for the small pool of female physicists, which impacts adversely the national scientific workforce. Department chairs of 50 top research-oriented physics departments in the nation attended the event, along with 14 managers of physics-related divisions of national laboratories.
“I have always been frustrated at the low number of women in physics, especially in the U.S. but I have been too busy with my teaching duties, research and service to the national and international communities in physics to do anything about it,” Berrah said. “The American Physical Society asked me to serve as a committee member on the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP). I decided in 2006 to take on the task and "to do something about the issue of gender equity". I was elected chair of that committee and worked at getting grants from the NSF and the DOE to organize with the steering committee and my Co-Chair, Professor Bienenstock from Stanford University, the national workshop.”
The recommendations from the workshop focus on how to change the culture and how to change the infrastructure to affect the current national figures that shows only eight percent of physicists at major research institutions and only 13 percent of physicists nationally are women. A diverse and increased pool of talent is important for the scientific workforce development, notes Berrah, since the U.S. is on the verge of slipping behind Europe and Asia in workforce development and in the number of scientific breakthroughs.
Berrah has challenged herself and other researchers in her field to doubling the number of women in physics by 2022. She is the lead author of a report culled from data collected at the national workshop that presents strategies to achieve the goal in physics; however, she said it is a general report whose guidance can be used for all STEM fields. The full report can be found at http://www.aps.org/programs/women/workshops/gender-equity/index.cfm.
“It is now all up to administrators of all universities and national laboratories, from presidents, to provosts, deans and chairs to ensure that women in the STEM fields are attracted, retained, promoted and encouraged at all levels to work in the STEM fields,” she said. “We all need to do all we can to spark the curiosity of school girls, encourage them and welcome them to the exciting fields of math, physics and chemistry.”
Funding for the workshop was secured through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, with awards to Berrah of about $200,000. Supporting the workshop were representatives from a number of federal funding agencies. They included Tony Chan, assistant director of the NSF Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Patricia Dehmer, associate director of Science for Basic Energy Sciences and acting deputy for programs at DOE’s Office of Science, who participated in the discussions, panels and presentations.
“Now, with recommendations already on the APS website, and included in the report sent out in 2008 to every physics department in the U.S., chairs and managers will have specific recommendations to follow,” says Berrah. “They can be agents of change and many of them are willing to do the right thing.”
Dr. Berrah’s Web site 1
Dr. Berrah's Web site 2
This story is an update of a story that appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of WMU Magazine.