Argonne physicist receives 2011 Innovator Award

By Eleanor TaylorJune 14, 2011

Often when we hear of someone winning an award for beauty and charm we think of a pageant, but in this case, it is for groundbreaking work in physics. Charm and beauty are properties of quarks, the fundamental constituents of ordinary matter. Kawtar Hafidi of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory studies their interactions, enabling a deeper insight into particles and forces that build our universe; she has been named this year's annual Innovator Award winner by the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS).

"We had an outstanding group of nominees this year," said Joy Ramos, AWIS-Chicago president. "What really stood out was Kawtar's innovative work in nuclei research, in addition to her strong commitment to mentoring and service, especially to women in science."

Hafidi is an experimental nuclear physicist, working in the medium energy physics group at Argonne. Her work focuses on how quarks are formed, how they combine and how they interact to better understand the structure and interactions of protons and neutrons, the basic building blocks of everyday matter.

"The nucleus is my lab," said Hafidi. "I am fascinated by subatomic particles and the forces that hold them together."

She and her colleagues have discovered new evidence of color transparency, a phenomena in which a hadron—a bound state of quarks such as a proton or neutron—forms an exotic, very short-lived state that is invisible to other matter.

While more measurements are necessary to fully understand these exotic states of matter, Hafidi is excited about the discovery and its implications for the formation of matter.

Advances in nuclear physics have led to many useful technologies, from smoke detectors to advanced medical imaging and treatment such as PET, MRI scans and proton radiation therapy.

Hafidi also leads Argonne's Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program. The WIST program provides leadership and resources to help advance the success of women, encourages professional growth and development and works to promote diversity at all levels within Argonne to create a premier institution for research and development.

"Today's technology-driven world offers a nearly endless list of amazing opportunities for women everywhere," added Hafidi. "We are working to promote the success of women today while inspiring young women to become our next generation of scientists and engineers."

WIST also initiates activities to engage young women and students to consider careers in science and technology. Argonne's Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Science Careers in Search of Women Conference provide an opportunity for middle school and high school students to explore and experience the many aspects of science and engineering in a fun and interactive way.

Hafidi is a working mother who was born in Morocco, where she completed her bachelor's degree in theoretical physics at Mohammed V. University. She earned her master's degree in nuclear physics and a Ph.D. in physics from the prestigious Paris Sud University in Orsay before coming to Argonne as a postdoctoral appointee. She was promoted to staff scientist in 2002 and has since become chair of the American Physical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and has been awarded the U.S. DOE Office of Science Outstanding Mentor award.

"If I do my job well, we will have more scientists, better scientists." Hafidi added.

Hafidi will be presented with the award at a dinner on June 23, 2011 at Reza's Restaurant in Chicago. As the fifth annual recipient of the award, she is also the second Argonne scientist to receive it.

The Association for Women in Science was founded in 1971 and is the premiere leadership organization advocating the interests of women in science and technology. The Chicago chapter was one of the first AWIS chapters and it continues to strengthen Chicago's network of scientists by organizing career development, leadership, social, and outreach programs in partnership with other institutions in the community. The Annual AWIS Chicago Innovator Award recognizes achievements in science in the Chicagoland area.