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Katharine Gebbie's Leadership and Lasting Impact

By William Ott

Katharine Gebbie giving a speech
Not one. Not two. Not three. But four!

Four Nobel Prizes in Physics for a single organization in a 15 year time span, from 1997 to 2012, is an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure. But when all four are from a particular unit within NIST, one has to wonder why. No doubt there were many factors, acting at different times. But one thing was constant during that period: Katharine Blodgett Gebbie's leadership of the NIST Physics Laboratory (PL) from 1990 to 2011, and of its successor, the Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML) from 2011 through 2012. 

Those years saw continuous progress in measurement science, including scores of landmark experiments and novel techniques, along with dramatic expansion of measurement services and release of authoritative standards and procedures – all under the direction of a scientist-administrator who has now been at NIST for more than 45 years.

Katharine Gebbie is an astrophysicist by training. She was named after her aunt, Katharine Blodgett, a world-class scientist, a long-time colleague of Irving Langmuir at General Electric, and the co-discoverer of Langmuir-Blodgett thin films. Gebbie received her Ph.D. at University College (London) under the late Michael Seaton, a distinguished atomic and upper atmosphere physicist, and was happily married to Alastair Gebbie, a pioneer in Fourier Transform Spectroscopy, until his recent death. 

She began her NIST career as a postdoctoral researcher at JILA in Boulder, CO, working with the late astrophysicist Dick Thomas, a co-founder of JILA with Lewis Branscomb and John Jefferies in 1962. She became a staff member in the Quantum Physics Division in 1968.

Her movement into management ranks began in 1981 as a scientific assistant in the National Measurement Laboratory. In 1983 she worked for the NIST director, Ernest Ambler, and his deputy, Ray Kammer, as a program analyst. She was the first person from the Boulder labs to work in either the NML office or in the Director's office.

Katharine Gebbie in 1966
Katharine Gebbie at JILA in 1966
Ambler appointed Gebbie chief of the Quantum Physics Division at JILA in Boulder in 1985, and in 1989 she was asked to return to Gaithersburg to become the Director of the new Center for Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics. A year later, following Ambler's retirement, new NIST Director John Lyons appointed her founding Director of the Physics Laboratory – essentially a merger of the Center for Radiation Research and the Center for AMO Physics.

For the next 22 years, she reported to six different NIST Directors and three Acting Directors and contributed a truly unique brand of leadership to the organization. 

Re-imagining Organizations

Her first challenge as PL Lab Director was to figure out what to do when reductions in the Strategic Defense Program resulted in termination of its major support for a free electron laser at NIST. The laser was based upon a demonstration project funded by another agency, a continuous-wave race-track microtron electron source designed by the Radiation Source and Instrumentation Division. After considering all options and conferring with staff, panel members, and the director's office, Gebbie's eventual decision was to terminate the Division and the associated Nuclear Physics Group in order to focus resources on the fledgling Laboratory's research in support of measurement science and services.

This policy worked well for Gebbie in managing two other consolidations in ensuing years: the merger of the Quantum Metrology Division and the Atomic Physics Division; and the merger of the Molecular Physics Division and the Optical Technology Division. Each reorganization resulted in stronger, more diversified divisions that stimulated new ideas and opportunities for contributing to nationally important programs.

In the most recent reorganization in 2010, Gebbie was asked to lead the newly created PML, a combination of PL and several sections from other NIST Laboratories. Within a year she managed to merge 13 Divisions that had formed the basis for PML into eight large Divisions focused on measurement science and services, and to set up her new management team.

Empowering Others

Those are major accomplishments. But Katharine Gebbie may be remembered most for her empowering management style. In a word, perhaps more than anyone at NIST, she put others first. She decreased, so others might increase. Her management philosophy from the beginning was that the Laboratory office was there to serve the technical staff, and not the other way around. She literally loved the people in the Laboratory and treated them like family members. 

Case in point: Whereas many federal managers have in their offices pictures of themselves with famous people or a wall full of plaques illustrating their awards and honors, Gebbie had a wall filled with pictures of her scientists and their awards – much like parents have pictures of their children's exploits on the refrigerator door – and routinely worked long hours and weekends on their behalf.

On National Secretary's Day, Gebbie would host, at her own expense, a catered assembly in the Lab conference room for all the secretaries in the Lab. She would give each secretary a personal, wrapped gift and ask the individual's division chief or group leader to say a few words. She did the same for periodic length-of-service awards for the staff. And she would celebrate the announcement of major NIST and Department of Commerce (DoC) awards, as well as external awards, with a personally catered reception in her office for the awardees, their supervisors, and their closest colleagues. These events, far from being scripted or formalized, served as opportunities for informal conversation, relaxed discussion, and just getting to know one other better. 

Another important element of her style was to retain her identity as a scientist while still fulfilling her administrative responsibilities. She continued to think like a scientist and learn like one. Her favorite place to be was with scientists. She loved going on lab tours and talking with them. She frequently dropped in on local division seminars, reminiscent of an early Lewis Branscomb (NIST Director, 1969-1972) or a young Edward Condon (NIST Director, 1945-1951).

She regularly attended American Physical Society technical meetings and international meetings, and networked eagerly with scientists and organizational leaders. Gebbie made herself available to everyone. She felt that, if you are to understand, motivate, and lead scientists, you have to be one of them. 

Encouraging Prize-Winning Science

That attitude helps explain the remarkable roster of four Nobel Prizes. One could reasonably argue that the hardest prize to get is the first one, when the organization's research capabilities are not broadly known. And, indeed, once Bill Phillips won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, NIST was no longer (as some had called it) "the best kept secret in Washington." Its scientific programs and staff took on new visibility and credibility. Far less visible was Gebbie's early and continuing support for Phillips' research.

One of her first acts as Laboratory Director in 1990-91 was to move the Phillips atom-cooling labs from the wooden "non-magnetic building" out in a former cow pasture to a suite of contiguous, custom-refurbished laboratories directly across the hall from the Laboratory office. This more than tripled Phillips' lab space.

She also doubled his funding and twice successfully championed his proposals to the NIST Director. It is likely that her enthusiastic support of the Phillips group – including sabbaticals to work with colleagues at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris (one of whom, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, was to share the Nobel Prize) – was one reason that Phillips stayed at NIST after receiving the prize, despite lucrative offers from other places. 

So what about the other Nobel Prizes? Again, Gebbie's attention and support long preceded the prize. Her number-one priority for competence funding* in 1992 was "Beyond Quantum Limits," an ambitious proposal led by John L. "Jan" Hall. One of the specified milestones of that proposal was to achieve Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC)!

Eric Cornell, fresh off a postdoc assignment with Carl Weiman at University of Colorado/JILA, was hired in the NIST Quantum Physics Division to lead the project. Three years later came the announcement of the first BEC, and in 2001 the second Nobel Prize for PL, shared by Cornell, Wieman, and Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT. 

Meanwhile, Jan Hall himself, in pursuit of ultimate measurement limits in laser-based precision spectroscopy, was discovering frequency combs, leading to PL's third Nobel Prize in 2005. And finally, after many years of strong PL support, David Wineland of the Time and Frequency Division – who had already received the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2007 – was selected to receive the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering research in ion cooling, trapping, and quantum information science.

Gebbie's contributions to the success of those and other nationally known Boulder programs extended well beyond financial support. Her personal interest in the morale of the Boulder scientists and the health of their programs was critical. Perhaps more than anyone in Gaithersburg, including NIST Directors, she understood the Boulder and JILA culture. After regular office hours, when most people in Gaithersburg would be going home, Gebbie was on the telephone working with her Boulder Division Chiefs, or consulting with the scientists about their projects, their proposals, their award write-ups, and other concerns. It was only 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. in Boulder.

Katharine Gebbie visits radiation laboratory
Katharine Gebbie is briefed on research at PML's Radiation Physics facility.

Making Decisions, Identifying Winners

Gebbie's priorities, of course, resulted in more than prizes. Her strong support of Bob Celotta's Electron Physics Group within PL, and its pioneering work in high-resolution magnetic microscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy, led the way to that group forming the nucleus for the new NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology [LINK], which Celotta now directs. Similarly, her enthusiasm and appreciation for neutron measurement technology led to the development of PL/PML's large footprint at NIST's National Center for Neutron Research and its world-class neutron interferometry, neutron physics, and neutron imaging programs. 

Her support of the Ionizing Radiation Division's response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the subsequent appearance of anthrax in the targeted mail, led to the detailing of Division Chief Bert Coursey to the newly formed Department of Homeland security, while NIST developed a vastly expanded program in nuclear security, environmental radiation measurements, and radiation processing.

Gebbie's longstanding interest in atom and ion cooling and quantum information science led to the formation of the Joint Quantum Institute, a joint research partnership between NIST and the University of Maryland, in 2006.

the Precision Measurement Laboratory
The new Precision Measurement Laboratory on the Boulder campus is only one of many state-of-the-art facilities and capabilities acquired during Gebbie's tenure as Director.
Not just science, but also the quality and intensity of measurement services increased under Gebbie's leadership. She was especially proud of the "vertical integration" that she achieved in PL, whereby even scientists engaged in fundamental research were encouraged to – and did – contribute directly to measurement science, standards development, or calibration services.

Major innovations were made in optical measurement technology, EUV and ionizing radiation technology, biomolecular measurement methods, medical imaging standards, atomic clocks, and time and frequency dissemination services, often resulting in landmark publications. In addition, PL was the first Laboratory at NIST to provide critically evaluated digital data on the Internet when the Laboratory Office initiated its Electronic Commerce in Scientific and Engineering Data program in 1994.  

Less widely known, but highly influential, was Gebbie's decision to institute the "Surfing the Physics Laboratory" program directed at providing hands-on research experience and Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) for under-represented minorities. Originally the idea of David King, then a senior scientist in the Molecular Physics Division, the program kicked off in 1993 with 20 college students fully funded by the Laboratory Office.

The program has now expanded to every Laboratory at NIST and is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation, with about 190 students expected in 2013. 

Over decades of service, Gebbie has accumulated an impressive list of honors recognizing her work and impact. They include two DoC Gold Medals, a DoC Distinguished Rank Award, the NIST Equal Employment Opportunity award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the professional society Women in Science and Engineering, the Washington Academy of Science's Physical Science Award, a special award from the American Physical Society for her leadership role in fostering excellence in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical science, and the 2002 Service to America Award from the Partnership for Public Service – the first of such recognitions given to anyone at NIST. She is also a Fellow of the Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physical Society. She was Vice-President of the International Committee on Weights and Measures (CIPM) from 1993 to1999.

But you won't find any of these recognitions on her wall. As Laboratory Director, she cared only about nurturing and cherishing her scientists and empowering them to be all that they could be. For this, most of all, she will long be remembered with affection and respect.

* NIST regularly considers competitive proposals to develop specific areas of core competence, and funds the most promising.

Created May 14, 2013, Updated August 25, 2016