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Science Alumni Profile: Senior Physicist Dr. Marion Marshall White '74

posted on 04/13/2010

by Mary Ellen Collins

Dr. Marion Marshall White '74 was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Eckerd College in May 2006. She is also the 2007 recipient of the McArthur Alumni Award.

Senior physicist Marion White grew up in Melbourne, Florida, where proximity to the Space Center influenced her career dreams.

"I wanted to be an astronaut from the very core of my being, but my vision was too poor," she explains. "By the time I was in high school, I had the key to the science lab and used to do biology and chemistry experiments late at night with other nerds."

The science-minded student wasn't focused on a specific discipline when she applied to Eckerd, so she found the design-your-own-program option very appealing.

"I started out as pre-med, but decided I wouldn't be able to deal with it if someone died. I switched to chemistry and then physics, but realized I also loved biology and languages." A summer internship at Chicago's Argonne National Lab set her on a new path.

"I got absolutely addicted to high energy physics. There was an entire world of stuff going on that explained a lot about how the universe is put together. I found it absolutely fascinating, and I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and do that."

After graduating with a B.S. in physics, biology, and languages from Eckerd, Marion began work on a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics at M.I.T., one of only three women in her class. She missed a period of school due to a death in the family, and was then too late to participate in the research experiment that would have been her thesis, so she had to find another project. Samuel Ting, a Nobel Laureate in high energy physics, offered her the opportunity to work with him in Germany at DESY, a research center for particle physics. White earned her Ph.D. in 1981, but continued working at DESY and CERN, a particle physics lab in Geneva, until 1991.

She then returned home to begin a 19-year career with Argonne National Lab. Her accomplishments include serving as the senior scientific advisor for construction of the linear accelerator system of the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the world's highest power superconducting linear accelerator. Most recently, she has taken a leading role in developing the undulator system for the world's first X-ray free electron laser, which produces shorter, brighter light pulses that will enable new experiments in new fields of sciences.

In addition to receiving an honorary doctorate degree and the McArthur Alumni Award from Eckerd, Dr. White's career achievements have been recognized by the University of Chicago, which presented her with their Distinguished Performance Award; and the Dupage County, Illinois YWCA, which named her an Outstanding Woman Leader in Science, Technology and Medicine.

Dr. White, who was the only female physics major when she was at Eckerd, is currently working on a project with two other women for the first time and says, "It's refreshing. You get completely used to being the only woman in the room." She thinks the dearth of women in her profession is a tremendous problem and participates in Argonne's outreach efforts to get young women interested in scientific careers. She has also been active with the American Physical Society's Committee on the Status of Women, which sends teams to evaluate other labs on how supportive their climate is for women.

"I take the opportunity when I can to prod my non-U.S. colleagues about women's issues. I'll walk into a conference and say, 'There aren't any women speakers here,' and people will look up and see that I'm right. You have to be a little activist."

From an initial desire to travel beyond our planet, Dr. White now focuses on the highest energy particles on the planet in order to understand the basic laws of nature, and she's continually motivated by the potential and practical applications of her work.

"The better tools we have, the better chance we have to understand things. Once you understand structure, you can understand its function. I've had a lot of fun contributing to things that might actually solve problems."

This feature is the eleventh in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Jane A. Petro '68
Olester Benson '74
Rebecca Helm '07
Michael Depledge
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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