Award-winning physicist Margaret Murnane began her journey to becoming a world-renowned expert on ultrafast lasers in the countryside of Midwest Ireland. Her father, an elementary school teacher, loved science and used to reward his young daughter with chocolates or a new science book from the library when she solved math puzzles. When she was 8, one of those books, with an illustration of Archimedes in the bathtub, kindled a lifelong desire to learn about the world by observing it.
She reveled in her high-school physics class, even though “it was my worst subject.” Undeterred, she attended University College Cork (Ireland), earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in physics. Her university courses were academically challenging, but fascinating. She graduated hooked on the idea of having a career in physics, even though it meant leaving Ireland to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.
Murnane did her thesis work building an ultrashort-pulse laser in Roger Falcone’s laboratory. It took her a year to build the laser, another six months to refine and characterize it, and two years to demonstrate that it could generate fast x-ray pulses. Murnane graduated in 1989 and a year later received the American Physical Society’s (APS’s) Simon Ramo Award for her thesis.
During her graduate studies, Murnane met fellow student Henry Kapteyn, who became her husband in 1988 and a life-long collaborator. In 1990, the couple moved to Washington State University, where they set up a joint laboratory dedicated to the fast-moving and competitive field of ultrafast laser science.
During their time at Washington State, Murnane and Kapteyn played key role in advancing the technology for generating ultrafast laser pulses. Their group was responsible for the design and rapid adoption of the ultrahort-pulse–mode-locked titanium-sapphire laser that is now a standard fixture in hundreds of laboratories around the world. Murnane received a Sloan Research Fellowship in 1992.
In 1996, Murnane and her husband left Washington State for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Murnane was awarded the American Physical Society's Maria Goeppert Mayer Award in 1997. At Michigan, Murnane and Kapteyn continued their laser development and began exploring the possibility of using ultrafast lasers to produce laser-like beams of x-rays. This early work at Michigan culminated in the design and development of a tabletop x-ray laser in 2009 — by the Kapteyn/Murnane (K/M) group at JILA.
The couple moved to JILA in 1999. At JILA, the K/M group has continued their work on creating laser-like beams at short wavelengths. The group also pioneered the use of lasers to study such processes as electron motion inside atoms and molecules, the motion of molecules on surfaces, acoustic oscillations in materials and nanostructures, and the motion of atoms inside molecules.
Murnane has won many awards for her cutting-edge research in JILA. In 2000, she was awarded a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. In 2008, she and Kapteyn received the American Chemical Society's Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology. The same year, Murnane was named a University of Colorado Professor of Distinction. Murnane and Kapteyn jointly won the American Physical Society's Arthur Schawlow Prize and the Optical Society of America's R. W. Wood Prize in 2010. She won the RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal in 2011. In 2013, Murnane was elected an honorary member if the Royal Irish Academy. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, the Association for Women in Science, and the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to her scientific work, Murnane is known for her efforts to get women involved in science and to support them once they enter an academic environment. She has been a member and/or Chair of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the Site Visit Team to Improve the Climate for Women in Physics. She strongly supported JILA’s recent efforts to recruit and retain more women faculty.
In her spare time, Murnane finds time to enjoy the Colorado outdoors with mountain biking, hiking, and skiing.