Laser physicist receives award for her research
Stellenbosch University (SU) laser physicist Dr Christine Steenkamp has been honoured with the prestigious Silver Medal of the South African Institute for Physics (SAIP), which recognizes the achievements of researchers younger than 35 years old.
The award recognises her outstanding contribution to experimental laser spectroscopy in South Africa in a field that she has largely developed herself.
Techniques that she has developed to investigate super cooled carbon monoxide (CO) molecules have since provided data that can be used by the astrophysics community to interpret results obtained from space station observations of interstellar space.
Dr Steenkamp, part of the Laser Research Institute in the SU Department of Physics, is only the second South African woman to be honoured with the SAIP Silver Medal since its inception in 1981.
She follows in the footsteps of Stellenbosch physicists and research leaders such as Prof Frederik Scholtz, director of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITHeP), Prof Hendrik Geyer, director of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), and Prof Kristian Müller-Nedebock, Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in the SU Department of Physics, who are all recipients of this award.
The very high standard of Dr Steenkamp’s scientific output is made all the more remarkable since no research infrastructure was available locally in her field of experimental physics when she started off with her master’s degree studies at Stellenbosch University in the 1990s. She had to design and construct most of the apparatus which she has since used in her investigations.
This includes a unique adjustable vacuum ultra violet laser source to investigate super cooled CO molecules.
“These facilities simply did not exist, and are still not commercially available elsewhere in the world,” says departmental chair Prof Erich Rohwer, who praised her pioneering spirit and ability to do excellent experimental science with meagre resources.
Her methods have made it possible to study rotationally resolved spectra of electronic excitations from the ground state, and to measure the spectra of the rare CO isotopomers for the first time.
In 2003 she won a South African Women in Science Fellowship, which allowed her to travel to the USA the following year for an extended research period in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Prof Carl Wieman.
Her collaboration with him led to a new experimental initiative, supported by the African Laser Centre, whereby she started a project aimed at laser cooling of atoms.
In awarding the Silver Medal to Dr Steenkamp, SAIP not only praised her research ability and output, but also her inspirational mentorship of an aspiring new generation of young physicists at Stellenbosch University where she serves as lecturer. She has also made valuable contributions to initiatives such as the African Laser Centre and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) that aim to establish and improve research in Africa.