Pioneering York physicist honoured with memorial fund

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York University science alumni Itay and Mina Yavin have donated $200,000 to the Department of Physics & Astronomy in honour of late Professor Helen Freedhoff, a pioneering theoretical physicist, to create a memorial fund supporting students in the department.

Itay Yavin
Itay Yavin, the York alumn whose gift donation led to the creation of the Helen Freedhoff Memorial Fund. To his left is an image of Helen Freedhoff.

The gift will create the the Helen Freedhoff Memorial Fund, with a focus on supporting student mentorship and research at the undergraduate level. Specifically, it will further enable research in the lab of Professor Anantharaman Kumarakrishnan’s Atomic Physics Research Group.

It will also establish the Helen Freedhoff First Year Award for select entering domestic and international undergraduate students admitted into the Department of Physics & Astronomy with high academic achievement and a passion for science.

“We are thrilled to give back to York University, where we spent formative years, and to collaborate with the Faculty of Science to memorialize Professor Freedhoff’s life and work,” said Itay Yavin, who was personally mentored and supervised by Freedhoff. “We hope the funds will foster excellence in students’ research at the physics and astronomy department. We are excited that the funds will also support the lab of Professor Kumarakrishnan, whose devotion to students’ research and development over the past two decades truly exemplifies Professor Freedhoff’s legacy.”  

When she joined York University in 1967, Freedhoff was the first woman physics faculty member on a Canadian University campus. She worked to develop a new theory to describe novel physical phenomena in strongly coupled light-plus-atom systems. Her research focused on the areas of co-operative atomic effects, intense field resonance fluorescence and two-photon transitions. These remain important contributions to the field today.

The donation was celebrated on Monday, Jan. 15 with a plaque-unveiling ceremony and a dedication of the Helen Freedhoff Meeting Room in the Petrie Science & Engineering Building. The ceremony was attended by Freedhoff’s family, the donors and their family, members of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and other science community members. The ceremony was followed by a tour of Kumarakrishnan’s lab.

“It’s so wonderful to see this relationship come full circle, where the student and mentee is now giving back so much to our Faculty, just as his mentor did,” said Rui Wang, dean, Faculty of Science. “I’m so pleased that Professor Freedhoff’s legacy – her important research contributions, her trailblazing career as a woman physicist, and her attention to and care for her students – has been memorialized with this donation that will benefit so many science students, current and future. This donation exemplifies the spirit of the Faculty of Science, working collaboratively and solving challenges head on in innovative ways that will benefit our community and beyond.”