Rutgers physicist Noemie Koller to receive prestigious Nicholson Medal
As a daughter of Viennese intellectuals forced to flee Europe when Hitler came to power in 1933, as the first female professor at what was then Rutgers College, and as a woman in a field – physics – long dominated by men, Noemie Benczer Koller is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in.
And among the issues she believes in most fervently is the human rights of scientists, especially those threatened by unfriendly regimes.
Whether it’s reaching out behind the scenes to ambassadors – or even presidents – to plead the case of an imprisoned foreign colleague, or encouraging visiting lecturers to ask publically about the welfare of a jailed academic, Koller, an emerita professor in the Rutgers Physics Department, has devoted much of a five-decade career to international advocacy.
Now she will have a medal to show for it.
This April, Koller will travel to Anaheim, California, to receive the 2010 Nicholson Medal for Human Outreach, which recognizes her efforts on behalf of human rights and her leadership in creating equal opportunities for women in the sciences.
The American Physical Society (APS) established the medal in 1994 to honor a physicist whose teaching, research, or science-related activity has made an impact on the world of physics and beyond.
From her vantage point as a nuclear physicist, and as chair or member of the APS Committee for the International Freedom of Scientists, the Committee for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the New York Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights, Koller has devoted herself to fostering international scientific and educational cooperation and collaboration.
“My goal has been to advance the concerns and the support mechanisms for scientists at risk for their political opinions,” Koller says. “I have also worked to support the freedom of scientists to travel without political restraints.
“The physics community has always been aware of problems in human rights, going back to the refuseniks in Russia,” says Koller, referring to a group of activists denied permission to leave the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Many refuseniks lost their jobs and were thrown into prison on trumped up charges for trying to immigrate.
Koller herself is no stranger to upheaval.
After leaving Vienna for France, Cuba, and then Mexico, her family sent the young scholar to a French school in Mexico City where she honed her skills in mathematics and the sciences. Later, she would begin her lifelong love affair with physics at Barnard, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1953. A master’s degree and a doctorate from Columbia soon followed.
Koller arrived in New Brunswick in 1960, when the college still had an all-male student body and the only women at official social events were wives and waitresses. Yet her department was solidly behind her from day one, the physicist says, and she encountered no resistance because of her gender.
Rutgers was once of the first universities to have five or more women on its physics faculties, and remains among the top 20 universities nationally in terms of female representation on those faculties, Koller points out. Still, she’s troubled by what she sees as a general under-representation of women and minorities in the sciences, and would love to see women such as Rosalyn Yalow, Rosalind Franklin, and Jocelyn Bell receive the same high visibility as their male counterparts.
“Young girls need that kind of role model, the kind I found only in Marie Curie and the kind I’ve been here at Rutgers,” Koller says. “Furthermore, the orientation has to start young, in the home and in the elementary schools, with inspired math and science teachers offering both boys and girls the widest possible options.”
At Rutgers and in the physics community at large, Koller has provided mentoring and advice to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as junior faculty. She also has served on grievance committees which provided recommendations to alleviate salary inequities and discrimination against women in the workplace.
Koller served on the first Rutgers University Gender Equality Committee in 1965 and on the first APS Committee on Women in Physics in 1971. More recently, she chaired the Rutgers Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on the Status of Women in 2000.
Although she retired from teaching in July, she continues to come to her Busch Campus office every day to conduct research, predominantly on the magnetic components of the force that holds neutrons and protons together in an atom’s nucleus.
“Integrating science and outreach has always been a driving force in my life and in my career,” Koller says.