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An interview with Kim, an experimental physicist with big plans for APS.
By Taryn MacKinney | January 11, 2024
For Young-Kee Kim, physics has always transcended borders.
“Global collaboration isn’t only a necessity,” she says. “There’s also beauty in it.”
Kim is the 2024 APS President and an experimental particle physicist, whose field is known for projects of grandiose scale, with thousands of scientists around the world working in tandem on decades-long projects.
“There are so many wonderful outcomes, because we have so many people from diverse backgrounds,” she says.
Kim herself is a walking example of global science: Originally from South Korea, she has worked on experiments in Japan, Switzerland, and the U.S.
Kim earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Korea University and her doctorate from the University of Rochester, and worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow. After several years at the University of California, Berkeley, she moved to the University of Chicago in 2003, where she is the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of physics.
For decades, she has sought to understand the nature of fundamental particles. “I'm interested in how they acquired mass and how their mass values were determined,” she says.
Kim spoke with APS News about her background and the opportunities ahead during her year as APS President. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What first got you into physics?
I always enjoyed math. When I got to college, I thought I’d major in math. But I became closer to friends interested in physics, and it looked exciting. I thought, “If I don’t like physics, I can always come back to math.” It was like a trial.
Then, in my junior year, I had an amazing professor who gave lectures on quantum mechanics and modern physics. That's when I thought, “Wow, this is really something I like.” I decided to stick to physics.
What big questions are you most hoping physicists can answer in the coming years?
In my own field, particle physics, and in cosmology, there have been many extraordinary developments — for example, the discovery of the Higgs boson and new evidence of dark matter. We’ve learned so much about neutrino masses, too.
These discoveries have helped us answer questions, but they’ve also led to a new set of questions. What’s the nature of the Higgs boson, and of dark matter? What’s driving the acceleration of cosmic expansion?
These questions deal with the nature of the universe at its two extremes, the very large and the very small. They’re grand questions, and that’s exciting.
You’ve long been involved in initiatives that support international engagement in physics. Why are you interested in this?
When I was a graduate student, I worked on an experiment at KEK in Japan with about 60 collaborators from four countries. For my second experiment at Fermilab in the U.S., I started with 200 or 300 collaborators and ended up with 600 or 700 collaborators from 15 countries. Now I'm working on an experiment at CERN in Europe that started with 1,000 collaborators, but now has 3,000 collaborators from over 40 countries.
So my own research has helped me realize the importance of collaboration and coordination internationally. Yes, that’s the case in physics — in particle physics, for example, we have to work together to build big accelerators and detectors. But the world is facing other big challenges that we need global partnerships to solve, like climate change.
What role should physicists play in tackling a global challenge like climate change?
Physicists, for their part, can hone our understanding of physical processes behind climate change. Physicists can also develop technologies to tackle it, with integrity and ethical research. And physicists can do what they’ve always done — work with scientists across fields to solve problems.
But we won’t succeed without excellent communication with the public. We can’t lecture or be arrogant; they’re as smart as we are. We have to speak truthfully and respectfully about the science we do.
You’ve been involved for many years in initiatives that support physics education for young people, especially those underrepresented in physics, like women and people of color. Why is this important to you? What is APS doing in this space?
We have a lot of work left to do to make physics more diverse and inclusive, and reaching young people is an important step. I’ve been involved in Expanding Your Horizon, a program for middle-school girls. APS has excellent programs, like PhysicsQuest.
We need great teachers, too. There’s a shortage of high school physics teachers, and a lot of teachers who teach physics don’t have physics backgrounds. The PhysTEC program, which APS co-leads, is working to solve this. We’re asking, “How can we help physics majors or graduate students understand the career path to becoming high school teachers?”
And students need to know what they can do with physics. Not everybody teaches physics at a university; many more physics majors end up in industry, in the private sector. We should work hard to include that sector in the Society.
What are your priorities for your year as APS president?
One of my priorities is to strengthen our partnerships with physics societies, both nationally and internationally. Nationally, I’m thinking of societies like the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), for example. I have a lot to learn from them. That will be my first step.
Internationally, we plan to have summit meetings through the winter and spring with physics societies in the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It’s important that these sister societies are equal partners with APS — that we’re all working together to address challenges in physics.
To me, the value of these partnerships reflects the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s not just that DEI is the right thing to do; it’s also good for physics. We need new perspectives. We need the next generation of physicists from around the world, from every background and community, to feel like they belong.
What else will APS leadership focus on?
The last APS Strategic Plan came out in 2019. In the last year, while I’ve been president-elect, I’ve been working with a group of APS members and staff to refresh that strategy and our vision, mission, and core values. We’re going to roll this out in May, on the day of APS’s 125th anniversary. It’s exciting.
Taryn MacKinney is the Editor of APS News.
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Editor: Taryn MacKinney