Longtime WMU physics professor Nora Berrah is reveling in the fact that the international team of researchers she leads has observed and recorded what was once only a theoretical concept.
Their groundbreaking work will help scientists differentiate between two similar chemical systems and could lead to a rebirth of electron spectroscopy for chemical analysis. The team made its discovery by tapping the potential of the world’s most powerful x-ray laser at Stanford University’s National Laboratory.
Berrah was the lead author on the published results gathered by the team of top researchers from Finland, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
An atomic physicist and WMU faculty member since 1991, Berrah maintains a rigorous dual role at WMU as both a researcher and classroom instructor.
“I am both a teacher and a researcher,” she says. “Teaching and research go hand in hand.”
In addition to mentoring graduate students, she likes to teach entry-level college physics so she can be on the lookout for students with the potential to carve out their own careers as researchers. Introductory physics also forces her to reduce complicated work to its simplest components.
“If you can't explain what you do, simply,” she says, “it may mean that you don’t understand what you’re doing. You have to be able to bring a simple picture to students in that setting so they will understand it.”
Berrah is also a strong advocate for increasing the number of women in her discipline. In the nation’s 760 degree-granting physics programs, less than 15 percent of the faculty are women. Berrah has been co-leader of an effort by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy to promote fundamental changes in culture, policy and funding that will attract and retain more women in physics.
“This is an important issue,” says Berrah, “not only for the present generation of women with hopes to work happily in physics, but also for the next generation. Anyone who has a niece, daughter, sister, mother or wife would want them to succeed without the road blocks and the longstanding gender biases in physics and related fields.”