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Mentor, Advocate & Leader in the Field

Honoring the Life & Legacy of Ann Nelson

Story by
Lindsay Bailey
September 2019
Ann Nelson, backpacking

Ann Nelson was an avid hiker, backpacker and 25-year member of the Mountaineers community. Media credit: Courtesy of Ann's Family

Professor Ann Nelson, who held the Kenneth K. Young Chair of Physics and was a tireless advocate for diversity in the field, died from a fall while backpacking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on August 4, 2019.

Professor Nelson was a brilliant theoretical physicist who specialized in particle physics and cosmology and had been at the University of Washington since 1994. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a recipient of the J.J. Sakurai prize for theoretical particle physics from the American Physical Society.

In addition to being celebrated for her many scientific contributions, including to theories of the origin of matter in the Universe, the nature of dark matter, and extensions of the Standard Model, Ann leaves behind a legacy of dedicated mentorship and advocacy for diversity and inclusion in science. In her 2017 article on the subject appearing in Physics Today, she wrote:

Ann Nelson

“Let me be clear. If your career is established and you are not making an explicit and continual effort to encourage, mentor, and support all young physicists, to create a welcoming climate in your department, and to promote the hiring of diverse faculty members, you are part of the problem.  This is a critical issue of civil rights in our field. Albert Einstein, an activist on the issue of racism, is an excellent example that no matter how great a physicist you might be or what obstacles you have overcome, you have not earned the privilege of ignoring our diversity problem.”

Ann spent her own phenomenally successful career as a mentor, researcher and professor, committed to helping others find opportunities and navigate pitfalls, and making the field of physics a welcoming place for those long underrepresented.

She is survived by her husband, UW Physics Professor David B. Kaplan, and their two children, as well as siblings and other family. She will be fondly remembered and greatly missed by both family and the many students, postdocs and collaborators throughout the world who were impacted by her life.

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Read more about Dr. Ann Nelson’s life and work:

Physics Today - Commentary: Diversity in physics: Are you part of the problem?

Physics Today - Ann Nelson (1958-2019) 

Quanta Magazine - Ann Nelson Took On the Biggest Problems in Physics 

The New York Times - Ann Nelson, Expert on Particle Physics, Is Dead at 61