Scientific research is like running a marathon, said Gloria Jacobovitz: The hours are long and the work is hard, but a discovery is like crossing the finish line.
"It's a rush when you discover something," she said. "When you find out something you were looking for, oh, gosh, it's so exciting."
Jacobovitz would know — she's done both.
The program director at the Howard County Economic Development Authority's Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship has run several marathons. And, research she did as a physicist in 1987, long before she entered the business world, was recently cited in the work of Serge Haroche and David Wineland, which won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics awarded last month by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
"This is what happens in basic research," Jacobovitz said. "Things you did 20 years ago, it's maybe now ready for prime time."
The prime time of having her work cited by Nobel winners came as a surprise for Jacobovitz. She left her work as a researcher 12 years ago to become a businesswoman, and in February joined the HCEDA, working to help local start-ups succeed in the marketplace.
But 20 years ago, Jacobovitz was studying at the La Sapienza University of Rome, where her research was in cavity quantum electrodynamics. Jacobovitz, and others on her research team, were looking at the behavior of an atom inside a tiny cavity. They set up two mirrors, separated by only nanometers — so close that even a wavelength of light could not fit between.
"When an atom bumped with a laser, it goes into a higher stage of energy, and then falls down, emits spontaneously," Jacobovitz said.
But within such a small space, the atom couldn't "fall down" anywhere.
"Imagine you're in a tree," Jacobovitz said. "You are going to jump down after so long because you're not comfortable, and you can't stay that way forever. It's the same thing with an atom. When they're excited, they're going to come down. ... But (with this experiment) you basically forbid the atom to do that. You trap it."
Because it was trapped, the atom took much longer to decay, and an "on-off" switch was created with quantum computing, Jacobovitz said. In the world of binary language in computers, electricity is needed to write the language, she said, but with light — as in her experiment — it can be done much faster, and in a much smaller space.
"Science is fascinating," Jacobovitz said. "It's always new, it's always different. ... Now, here at the incubator, I'm still around technology all day long."
Jacobovitz, who was born in Brazil, worked at what was then known as AT&T Bell Laboratories ("A Nobel prize-winning machine," she called it) for eight years and got her MBA in business through the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
"I wanted to do something different," said Jacobovitz, 53, who now lives in Clarksville. "Research is a very secluded life — you're locked in your lab for whole days. It's a lot of fun, you have million-dollar toys to play with, but I was always interested in business, too."
After leaving science, she started or co-founded several technology-based start-ups, and worked in senior management for biotechnology, biofuels and telecommunication companies. She also received a master's in biotechnology from the Johns Hopkins University.
"When we talk about attracting the best and brightest workforce to Howard County, I am pleased that (HCEDA) can also make that claim," said Laura Neuman, CEO of HCEDA. "We are so proud of Dr. Jacobovitz and pleased to call her our own."
At HCEDA, Jacobovitz lends her expertise as a physicist and entrepreneur to small or start-up companies in Howard County. She can tell what makes for a good project in business, and in research.
"A good start-up is this — a good team, a good market, and a good idea, but in this order," she said. "If you don't have a good team to make it happen, or a good market to sell to, you'll fail.
"In research, the invention is the most important thing, and the problem is they don't consider that just having a perfect product is not enough."