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Gebbie Wins Service to America Medal

The following is an excerpt from the awards ceremony program for the Service to America Medals. The awards are a joint program of Government Executive, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly and the Partnership for Public Service.

Service to America Medals—Winning Spirit

With stories of justice, bravery, and compassion, this year's medalists inspire pride in government careers.

Career Achievement Medal

"Star Power"

by Katherine McIntire Peters

Katharine Gebbie didn't want to spend her life studying stars she'd never see. So she created a world-class laboratory and nurtured her own star scientists.

At first, Katharine Gebbie might remind you of a favorite great aunt, or your high school English teacher. She is thin, almost frail looking, with golden-gray hair pulled into a neat bun. Her graceful manner and perfect posture are matched by speech so soft and precise you mourn the fact that so few people really know how to use language anymore. But then she starts talking about planetary nebulae and thermodynamic equilibrium and modeling stellar atmospheres. That's when you realize Katharine Gebbie is like no one you've ever met.

Gebbie is an astrophysicist by training, but that only begins to explain who she is. She was born on the 4th of July in 1932. Her father was a Boston lawyer and her mother was a homemaker. In an era when few women continued their education after high school, she followed in the footsteps of her mother and two aunts and went to Bryn Mawr College. She majored in physics—the path taken by one of her aunts and namesake, Katharine Blodgett, the first woman to receive a degree in physics from Cambridge University and a pioneer in film technology.

She studied astronomy and earned her Ph.D. in physics from the University College London. Along the way she married a Scots physicist. While her career took her back and forth between London and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), a cooperative enterprise between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado in Boulder, she still managed to take time out for hiking trips to Nepal, Turkey, and Kashmir. In her spare time, she explored North America, piloting her mother's airplane.

"I couldn't see spending the rest of my life modeling stars that you might never see," she says. As NIST began to focus more on providing support to industry, she realized astrophysics wasn't going to be a high priority for the organization, so she moved to NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., to work on the director's staff. She had a ball.

After a stint as chief of the Quantum Physics Division in Boulder, she again returned to Gaithersburg to help with a major reorganization of the agency. In 1991, she became chief of NIST's new Physics Laboratory, where she's created a world-class organization. Among the laboratory's many accomplishments, it has produced two Nobel Prize winners for breakthroughs in physics.

"I've been accused of supporting stars," Gebbie says. "It's paid off."

"She creates a tremendously positive work environment," says Donald Sullivan, chief of the Laboratory's Boulder-based Time and Frequency Division. Employees and colleagues describe her as fearless and committed to excellence.

"She's one of the gutsiest managers I've worked for, in the sense that she eliminated an entire division and combined divisions, and there were big egos involved," Sullivan says.

Her gutsiness comes naturally, perhaps. In her senior year of college, Gebbie's father went missing in a small plane in Costa Rica. He had taken up flying at the age of 50, so that he might never grow old, she says. While fainter-hearted souls might have sworn off flying after such a tragedy, Gebbie became an avid pilot. Perhaps that too is in her blood. Her mother stopped flying only after she turned 74. Gebbie is only 70.

Released November 14, 2002, Updated January 23, 2023