Pupa Gilbert is a professor of physics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison). Her research in biophysics aims to reveal the formation mechanisms of seashells.
Nacre, or mother-of-pearl, is the iridescent inner lining of many mollusk shells. The microscopic structure of nacre may depend on the water temperature at the time the nacre was deposited. During her Radcliffe fellowship, Gilbert is conducting experiments to test this hypothesis. If successful, this discovery will enable measuring water temperatures as old as 450 million years, using nacre-containing shells from the fossil record. If validated in modern and ancient shells, this discovery will expand our knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Gilbert has published more than 130 scientific articles and wrote a book for the general public, titled Physics in the Arts (Elsevier, 2008), with W. Haeberli. She was knighted in 2001 by the president of Italy for spectromicroscopy methods she developed. Gilbert has also won awards for her research in biophysics, including an American Physical Society Fellowship and an American Competitiveness and Innovation Fellowship from the Division of Materials Research of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and for her teaching, she won the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award from UW–Madison. Gilbert was also a first-place and people’s choice winner of Science and the NSF’s 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. She earned her doctoral degree in physics from Sapienza University of Rome.