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Chicago Business Features Argonne Woman in Nuclear Physics

January 9, 2012 - 4:08pm


Kawtar Hafidi is an experimental nuclear physicist, working in the medium energy physics group at Argonne. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Kawtar Hafidi is an experimental nuclear physicist, working in the medium energy physics group at Argonne. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Chicago Business has the scoop about Kawtar Hafidi, an Argonne National Laboratory nuclear physicist who just snagged the Association for Women in Science's 2011 Innovator Award for her research in the field of the color of quarks. Hafidi is one of many women in science who's changing the equation to accomplish the Department's mission. At Argonne, she leads their Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program, providing mentorship and resources for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at Argonne.

Check out Chicago Business' coverage below, and learn more about Argonne National Laboratory's WIST program here.

Searching for What God is Made of, Nuclear Physicist Finds the Color of Quarks. Danny Ecker, Chicago Business. January 9, 2012

If there exists a point where religion and science intersect, Kawtar Hafidi may have found it.

Raised a devout Muslim in Morocco's capital, Rabat, Ms. Hafidi showed an early curiosity of the theoretical. “When I was little,” she says, “I used to tell my dad, ‘I want to learn what God is made of. I believe in him, but I don't see him.' “

Now a nuclear physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, Ms. Hafidi, 39, is getting closer to her goal. For the last 11 years, she has worked to advance the study of quantum chromodynamics, which describes how quarks—the most fundamental pieces of the universe—form protons, neutrons and other particles.

Her research, which earned her the 2011 Innovator Award from the Assn. for Women in Science, addresses the “color” of quarks, which essentially indicates how they are “charged.” She and her team of postdoctoral students use data derived from a particle accelerator at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Lab in Newport News, Va., which costs an estimated $9,500 an hour to operate.

Specifically, Ms. Hafidi seeks to capture the moment when quarks become free, or transparent. Adjusting the accelerator's speed and intensity, her team found conclusive evidence of an exotic, short-lived state in which quarks are so small they become invisible to other matter, enabling them to pass through a nuclear medium without interaction.

It seems worlds away from the practical advances in nuclear physics that have led to technologies like smoke detectors, MRI scans and radiation therapy, but it helps answer the basic question of how we came to be.

“We should never forget that the origin of human thinking is curiosity,” she says. “We have brains; we can invent. I'm sure we can even surprise God sometimes.”

Ms. Hafidi negotiated an obstacle-laden path to get this far. Her father, a middle-class bureaucrat in the Moroccan government, didn't have the money to send her to college. Luckily, her grandmother and aunts—the youngest of whom is a physician—came up with the funds, in some cases by selling jewelry. “They would say, ‘We cannot let you waste your talent here,' “ she says.

After earning an undergraduate degree, she left Rabat to pursue a doctorate in physics at France's University Paris-Sud before joining Argonne as a postdoctoral appointee in 2000.

Ms. Hafidi dramatically disrupts stereotypes about Muslim women outside science, too. Her husband, Brahim, also an Argonne physicist, is the primary caregiver of their 6-year-old son, Omar. She was a member of the original Moroccan national women's soccer team, in 1992, and has a brown belt in mixed martial-arts fighting.

“There's a common misconception about scientists being these old white men in lab coats,” says Joy Ramos, president of the Chicago chapter of AWIS. “She epitomizes the Renaissance woman.”

© 2012 by Crain Communications Inc. See original post at Chicago Business.