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“This career gives you a lot of freedom”

Last week Prof. Tanya Zelevinsky spent her first research stay as Mildred Dresselhaus Junior Awardee 2017 in Hamburg. Zelevinsky is an associate professor of atomic, molecular and optical physics at Columbia University, New York, USA. During her stay in Hamburg, she gave a talk on “High-precision physics and chemistry with ultracold molecules” at the Center for Optical Quantum Technologies, met colleagues from her research field – and gave insights into her life as a girl in Siberia and a young researcher in the US.

Prof. Tanya Zelevinsky started a new field at Columbia University in New York to put the university on the map for this kind of research. Credit: UHH/CUI, Adler

A trip to New Mexico changed a lot for Tanya Zelevinsky. She was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, when she got a chance to attend a summer school on atomic physics in Los Alamos. “I really enjoyed the fact that only two or three investigators work on the experiments and that one can experience and understand the whole project,” Zelevinsky recalls this important point of her career.

At that moment in life, Zelevinsky had already mastered a rather long journey. She grew up in Siberia in a quiet place surrounded by nature, very much focused on science and exposed to how scientists live. As a physicist and an engineer, her parents were both part of this community. “You absorb the family culture and your perception of science is positive. I didn’t understand the details then, but it helped not to be intimidated,” she explains.

Stubbornness became part of her work ethic

When the family moved to the US, life became more difficult for a couple of years. Tanya had to find her place in an American high school and adjust to the culture. She already knew, however, that she wanted to focus on a precise science like maths and jubilated when she was accepted at MIT: “I was really glad to get there and be surrounded by people who are passionate about science.” After graduating in maths and physics, she enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard University. The experiment was not along her advisor’s main interests so she had to figure out a lot on her own, which was very challenging but it made her stronger in the long run. “Realizing that the project depended mainly on me was quite daunting,” she remembers. Stubbornness then became part of her work ethic.

At the age of 26, Tanya Zelevinsky moved on to Boulder, Colorado. She enjoyed the beautiful and intellectually stimulating environment. It was there that she learned the value of working in a larger group – and the value of scientific risk taking. “If you are creative enough, a few ideas will always come out. But this works only in an environment where you feel free enough to take the risk,” she thinks.

Trained to cope with challenges

After finishing her postdoc, Tanya Zelevinsky left Boulder to start a new field at Columbia University in New York. The same year her son was born, but by then she was trained to cope with challenges. There was no program in atomic physics at Columbia and it was her job to put the university on the map for this kind of research. While taking care of a baby, Zelevinsky built the first lab and hired students. There was no colleague to talk to and expectations were very high. In 2012, her daughter was born.  “I had to take it one day at a time and go slowly. Now it’s getting where I wanted it to be,” she says happily. The prospect of hiring new colleagues clearly improved her environment.

Today, Tanya Zelevinsky is satisfied with what she and her team have accomplished so far. Thinking about the future, she hopes that they will still have opportunities to try new directions. Her research field is testing the fundamental laws of nature using atomic and molecular physics. Zelevinsky: “This career gives you a lot of freedom.”

Text: CUI, Ingeborg Adler