Honoring a Legacy While Supporting the Future
In September of 1941, late nuclear physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yalow arrived at the University of Illinois to receive her PhD in nuclear physics. A graduate student during the World War II era, Yalow was the only woman among a campus-wide faculty of 400 when she accepted her teaching assistantship in 1941 and became the second woman to receive a PhD in Physics in University history.
100 years after her birth, The Grainger College of Engineering alumna and Nobel Prize Laureate will be honored for her legacy as a pioneer for women in STEM, thanks to funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation. This professorship is the first in the college’s history to be named in honor of a female alumna.
The Rosalyn S. Yalow Professorship is the first award in the college’s history to be named in honor of a female alumna. This prestigious, inaugural appointment has been awarded to Dr. Nadya Mason, physics professor, award-winning physicist, and champion for diversity in STEM.
Dr. Mason said she admires Yalow for the strength she possessed to “push through” the hardships she faced as the only woman in her graduating class, then to earn her degree and later be awarded the Nobel Prize.
“Women are often underrecognized for their contributions in the work that they've done,” Dr. Mason said. “So it's an honor to be able to celebrate Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and the things that she did through this award, and also to just have and share the professorship that is named after a woman and recognize that although this is the first, hopefully it won’t be the last.”
“It means a lot on many different levels,” Dr. Mason said. “For me personally, it’s really wonderful to be recognized for the work that I’ve done and the contributions I’ve made to the department and the field. I very much appreciate this as a recognition by the University and by my department.”
Matthias Grosse Perdekamp, department head of physics, said Dr. Mason was the top choice for the professorship among the college’s faculty awards committee.
“I am hoping that holding the professorship will [enhance] her ability to acquire the resources and the talent that she needs to succeed in her research, and by giving her this professorship, I think we put her in a stronger position to do so,” Grosse Perdekamp said.
When the United States entered World War II, the University of Illinois experienced a significant decline in enrollment when the male students were drafted into the military. In a manner that was “almost overnight,” the once predominantly male student body’s men-women ratio changed from 3-1 to 1-4. As women entered the workforce to sustain the country during the war, female students at the University also assumed greater roles in student organizations and academic studies.
After graduating from the University in 1945, she worked as an assistant engineer at the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory, a consultant at New York City’s Bronx VA, and as a professor at Hunter College, a constituent college of the City University of New York. As a consultant, Rosalyn collaborated with Dr. Bernard Roswit to develop the radioisotope service, which can be used for radiation therapy and imaging tests.
In 1959, Rosalyn worked with Dr. Solomon A Berson, to discover radioimmunoassay (RIA), a technique which measures antibodies using radioactive material. RIA enables doctors to provide quicker diagnoses, safer blood transfusions, and easier detection of gestational complications during pregnancy. For this discovery, she became the first American woman to earn the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ten years later, she received the National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Benjamin, computer scientist and Rosalyn’s son, remembers his mother as someone who encouraged personal advancement and was also a great role model for the next generations of women to know they could become scientists, he said.
“The key thing to her was everybody could become a scientist if you work hard and were smart and worked hard,” Benjamin said. “Smart helps, working hard is vital.”
Elanna Yalow, the daughter of Rosalyn and the chief academic officer of KinderCare Education, said she benefitted from her mother’s “incredible drive and commitment, and will to accomplish despite all odds.”
“I think having such an impressive representative of that, and then that tie-in with my mom's legacy can help create and inspire people to believe in themselves and to know what they are capable of if they give it their all and use their skill,” she said. “Education and the next generation were so important to her, and I think seeing a woman step into the role is such an honor and inspiration, and I hope it does so for others.”
“For all the honors that have been bestowed and the recognition that has been bestowed on my mom, something like this has a special place because it is not only a recognition of the work that she has done but an opportunity to inspire future generations,” Elanna said.” I just truly feel honored that this opportunity was created in my mom's name. I'm very, very proud of her and grateful for the recognition.”
Nadya Mason: A Career Devoted to Diversity
Dr. Mason is the founding director of the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (I-MRSEC). She joined the University of Illinois System in 2005 and has been ranked an Excellent and Outstanding Teacher for her instruction as a physics professor. She has been awarded the Denice Denton Emerging Leader Award (2009), the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award from the American Physical Society (2012), and the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research (2013), among many other titles.
Her current research focuses on mesoscopic physics and using superconductivity to better understand new materials. In 2005, she established the Mason Research Group, a cohort of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students who conduct research projects related to transport in nanoscale and mesoscopic systems.
“[Dr. Mason] is a wonderful example of exactly what you want [for this professorship],” Benjamin said. “She’s a brilliant instructor and a brilliant scientist, and that combination is exactly what you’re looking for in every way.”
An alum of Stanford University (PhD ’01 Physics) and Harvard University (BS’ 95 Physics), she was a Harvard Society of Fellows Member, where she collaborated with Microsoft principal Professor Charles Marcus and physicist Michael Tinkham to conduct research on carbon nanotubes and nanostructured superconductors. She was named to Essence Magazine’s “Woke 100” list in 2019 for her contribution to the field of physics and was invited to speak for “a TED talk sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the Simons foundation, where she gave a TED talk on “how to spark your curiosity, scientifically.”
“Being awarded a professorship is a big motivation in terms of demonstration and recognizing that all of this work is valuable, both the research and the other work that I do,” Dr. Mason said. “It's a motivation to keep doing the different work I do, from leading a center to working with my students, to organizing webinars about inclusivity.”
The financial support from the professorship, Dr. Mason said, will be used flexibly, such as to fund a collaborative idea or new research.
“I'm an experimental physicist, and sometimes we just run out of money because it’s expensive to support our students, equipment, and our consumables,” she said. “Knowing that there is financial support available that I can use to hire a student for a new project or to continue an experiment without having to modify something or stop in the middle of, is really important.”
Throughout her career, she has worked to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in STEM “in every way, both within the Illinois community and broader.”
While Chairman of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Minorities, she spearheaded a program for every underrepresented physics major to be assigned a mentor. In February, she organized a webinar on inclusion and diversity for the American Physical Society’s Annual Leadership Meeting.
Last summer, Dr. Mason said I-MRSEC participated in #ShutDownSTEM, an initiative coordinated in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The center also continued an anti-racism study group, and hosts programs with a focus on diversity in local elementary schools.
“Our students are most creative when they're able to just focus their thoughts on physics and the science itself; not on the sense of whether they belong and not on things people might say to them
Dr. Mason is currently “very focused” on I-MRSEC, through which she said the faculty and students have been able to accomplish a lot “locally and more broadly”. She said she is “incredibly grateful” to spend most of her career at Illinois, which she describes as a “collaborative and fun place to work.”
“Our goal is that we have these great minds like Rosalyn Sussman Yalow who have the same genius, but hopefully without that same struggle,” she said.