Karen Hallberg: understanding the physics of quantum matter
Karen Hallberg is an expert in quantum condensed matter physics, the study of the structure and behaviour of matter, who has developed cutting-edge computational approaches that allow scientists to understand the physics of quantum matter. Her innovative and creative techniques represent a major contribution to understanding nanoscopic systems and new materials. In recognition of her research, she will receive the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for Latin America.
“Studying this complex behaviour allows us to understand the basic mechanisms behind, for example, high temperature superconductivity or colossal magneto resistance,” she says. “In short, we expect to contribute to the understanding of one of the most complex problems in physics: interacting many-body quantum behaviour.”
Superconductors are materials in which resistivity completely disappears under a certain temperature, the current range lying below approximately -160°C. Without resistivity, it is possible to create very strong magnetic fields or to transport electricity for long distances without heat loss. Superconducting materials are used in diverse applications including medical equipment (such as magnetic resonance imaging scanners), digital circuits, and energy storage and generation. Today, there is a quest among the scientific community to create new materials that become superconductors at room temperature. To succeed in this endeavour, researchers, including Prof. Karen Hallberg, are seeking to deepen their understanding of what takes place at the atomic and electronic scales.
Prof. Karen Hallberg’s scientific journey began early in life, when as a child, she continuously asked questions about the world, earning her the nickname of “Señorita por qué” (“Miss why”), and formed an all-girl science club with her friends.
Her enthusiasm and the joy of discovery have stayed with her throughout her career. While calculating the precise densities of states, she was recently fascinated to identify a new particle, a quasiparticle, and elaborated a theory to explain it. In the future, she would be interested to understand the microscopic origin of high temperature superconductivity, and how scientists might be able to build materials atom by atom, giving them predetermined properties for new and important applications. Beyond her immediate field, she dreams of leveraging physics to understand consciousness, the behaviour of the human brain, and even the emergence of life.
Prof. Karen Hallberg contributes to developing international scientific policy, as a council member of the Pugwash Conferences for Science and World affairs. She is also committed to supporting minorities and women in science. “Physics, for example, is among the scientific careers that, regrettably, has the lowest participation of women,” she explains. She believes more action is needed to support women scientists throughout their careers, particularly when it comes to balancing motherhood with the productivity levels and international travel that are vital to progressing and gaining recognition.
Prof. Karen Hallberg believes the L’Oréal- UNESCO For Women in Science Award plays an instrumental role in promoting collaboration between leading women scientists and helping women in science achieve greater visibility. “I can’t think of any other global initiative on gender issues in science with a broader impact,” she says.
Each year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards honours five outstanding women scientists, from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America). The Fondation L’Oréal and UNESCO have worked together for more than 20 years to help empower more women scientists to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the great challenges facing humanity. Together they have celebrated more than 3,000 women scientists in 117 countries, and awarded 107 laureates.
The 2019 Laureates’ achievements will be celebrated alongside those of 15 promising young women scientists from around the world at an awards ceremony on 14 March at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.