Latifa Elouadrhiri has spent her career pursuing a passion for experimental physics, investing nearly three decades in work at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. She has also devoted herself to passing on her love of science to other women and underrepresented groups, including conferences that encourage undergraduate women to pursue physics degrees and careers.
Such efforts and her numerous professional successes haven’t gone unnoticed. Elouadrhiri was just presented with the 2021 Jesse W. Beams Research Award, which recognizes especially significant or meritorious research in physics that has earned the critical acclaim of peers from around the world. The award was established by the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society (SESAPS) in 1973. Elouadrhiri is only the second woman to receive it.
“This is just a great honor for me and for the science we do,” Elouadrhiri said. “Not just me — this award is also a recognition of the team of scientists, including the technical staff and the students, that started at Christopher Newport University and continues at Jefferson Lab.”
Elouadrhiri first arrived at the lab in 1994 in a joint position with CNU. She joined the experimental hall staff in 2001, and today is senior staff scientist in Hall B.
Elouadrhiri and other experimentalists use the lab’s powerful Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) to probe ever deeper into the proton that sits inside the atomic nucleus. CEBAF is a DOE user facility built to support research in nuclear physics.
In 2018, the CEBAF completed an upgrade that doubled its top design energy to 12 billion electron-volts, or 12 GeV, providing unequaled access to the mysterious elements of subatomic matter. The upgrade also enabled the experimental program in Hall B to be restructured with a novel detector called CLAS12. Elouadrhiri oversaw the full lifecycle of CLAS12 construction and commissioning.
That same year, Elouadrhiri and her team were lauded for achieving the first measurement of the pressure distribution inside the proton — a finding that the quarks that make up the proton are subject to a crushing pressure 10 times that in the heart of a neutron star. Their results were published in the journal Nature and opened up an entirely new direction of exploration in nuclear and particle physics.
In announcing the Beams award, the SESAPS selection committee cited Elouadrhiri’s “fundamental and lasting contributions to the development of experimental equipment in forefront nuclear science.”
‘I followed my heart’
Elouadrhiri’s journey to Jefferson Lab was an unlikely one. She was born in Morocco, the sixth of eight children, to a mother who could neither read nor write but who believed in the power of education.
“She had never been to school, but she had a vision,” said Elouadrhiri. “She could see far into the future and created the right environment for us, making education — particularly for women — as central. She understood the importance of educating girls and finding our way, and supported us in anything we did.”
Of the eight siblings, seven would go to college and such careers as diplomat, physician, college professor, computer engineer, artist and economist.
Elouadrhiri took her first physics class in high school and was “just fascinated by the topic. It combines mathematics, science and also some philosophy — how the world works.”
At age 15, at a local flea market, she acquired her first physics book: a work by Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist and 1932 Nobel laureate responsible for the namesake Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.
“And I was hooked,” Elouadrhiri said. Since then, she said, that book travels with her everywhere.
She earned her undergraduate degree and then a master’s in theoretical physics at Mohammed V University of Rabat. She moved to France to continue her studies toward a Ph.D., conducting experiments at the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre and also the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland. She was accepted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for her first postdoctoral position.
It was during an American Physical Society meeting that her work caught the attention of Nathan Isgur, then chief scientist at Jefferson Lab when it was still known simply as CEBAF. Isgur invited her to give a seminar on her research, then suggested she apply for the joint JLab/CNU position.
She was offered that position at the same time another offer for a permanent position came from the prestigious French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
“I just followed my heart,” Elouadrhiri said. “My heart told me that I should stay here.”
The Beams award, she said, “is a big recognition for the science that we do. It really inspires me and motivates me to further develop experimental techniques toward understanding the way protons and neutrons, which are the building blocks of all atomic nuclei, are held together by the strong force. And with the CLAS12 science program we will be building a deeper understanding of these forces.
“Personally, this award now helps in sharing my love of scientific learning with women throughout the world, and also continuing my work in broadening scientific participation across genders, ethnicities, religions, cultures and geographies. I’m very excited.”
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By Tamara Dietrich
Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.
DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.