Miriam Levin Melkonian grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Hunter College with a degree in music, she briefly worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, before she found work at Columbia University during the Manhattan Project. She helped operate the cyclotron in the basement of Pupin Hall.
From 1946-1956, she served as chief cyclotron operator. The press dubbed her the “girl atom splitter.” When asked about the possibility of radiation exposure from her work, she later commented, “They rely on the dosimetry badge. If it reached a level that was high, we would be sent on vacation, but that never happened.”
She was credited with coming up with the “hairpin” improvement to the cyclotron, which involved using a smaller, hairpin-shaped filament that greatly improved the cyclotron’s intensity. “She almost always made repairs in a conventional way,” a 1965 Columbia announcement of the cyclotron’s dismantlement noted, “but she admitted that once or twice she kicked it to get it going again.”
Levin Melkonian was married to fellow Manhattan Project veteran Edward Melkonian, whom she met while he was doing research on the cyclotron. She later pursued a career in teaching, receiving a master’s degree in special education from Teachers College.
Information contributed by Karen Melkonian, Miriam Levin Melkonian’s daughter.