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K-State Today

April 4, 2012

Doctoral student in physics gets opportunity to learn from Nobel Laureates at summer conference in Germany

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Nora Johnson

If, as it is said, that great minds think alike, Kansas State University's Nora Johnson should be in good company this summer as a participant at the 62nd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. The meeting is dedicated to physics.

Johnson, a doctoral student in physics from Dell Rapids, S.D., was selected for the July 1-6 meeting by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, which with the National Science Foundation, Oak Ridge Associated Universities and Mars Inc., is sponsoring the U.S. delegation to the meeting. The trip is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Since 1951, Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and physiology/medicine convene annually in Lindau to have open and informal meetings with students and young researchers. The laureates lecture on the topic of their choice in the mornings and participate in less formal, small group discussions with the students in the afternoons and some evenings.

"Nobel prize winners have come up with brilliant ideas while facing many doubts and challenges, yet they prevailed and have made significant advances in our understanding of the physical world we live in," Johnson said. "It is going to be a great honor to meet them and to gain some insight on how they became successful. I hope to also draw some motivation from them for conducting my own research."

Johnson was nominated for the honor by her adviser, Itzik Ben-Itzhak, professor of physics and director of the university's J.R. Macdonald Laboratory. She works with Ben-Itzhak's group, doing research in atomic, molecular and optical physics, specifically studying the reaction dynamics of intense laser light interacting with atoms and molecules. She also has been conducting the same research at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, where she has been a research assistant for two and one-half years. Johnson's study at the institute began with a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany she earned in 2009.

"Nora is becoming an expert in several experimental areas and has demonstrated the ability to lead her own projects, as well as to be a valuable research team member in a project led by more senior investigators," Ben-Itzhak said. "She is a dedicated, prolific researcher as indicated by her long and rapidly growing list of publications, some of which are in very prestigious journals like Nature Communications and Physical Review Letters."

Ben-Itzhak also said that Johnson's work has been recognized with the Yong-Ki Kim Graduate Award for Research Excellence in 2009. It was given for her presentation of her master's thesis work at an international conference.

"It's an impressive accomplishment given that the other finalists were senior doctoral students," he said. "In addition, Nora has helped mentor undergraduate and graduate students at K-State and at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics."

More than 30 Nobel laureates are scheduled to attend the meeting and Johnson hopes to meet two who are in her own field of physics: John Hall and Theodor Haensch, who won in 2005 for their development of laser-based spectroscopy. For a list of the Nobel laureates attending and more information on the Lindau Meetings, go to http://bit.ly/xZEaW6.

Johnson earned a bachelor's in chemistry and mathematics from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. Her junior year of college, she took part in a summer research experience at Kansas State University with Eric Wells and started conducting experiments at the Macdonald Laboratory.

"It was this exposure to the research opportunities at K-State that got me interested in the university and is what ultimately brought me here," she said. Johnson earned her master's in physics from the university in 2010.

"Nora has shown a lot of initiative and originality in research. This opportunity to visit with Nobel laureates would significantly help her in shaping her scientific vision beyond the localized focus one must take to be successful as a graduate researcher, said Amit Chakrabarti, William and Joan Porter professor and head of the department of physics.

"This is also a great opportunity for the Kansas State University physics department for enhancing the visibility of our strong research enterprise," he said. "Our atomic, molecular and optical physics program is ranked 13th nationally by U.S. News and World Report. Nora will be our ambassador to the great minds and will raise the profile of K-State physics. I am very excited for her and for the department."

Johnson is the daughter of Lawrence and Diane Johnson, Dell Rapids, S.D.