She was born Fay Ajzenberg in Berlin, Germany to a Jewish family from Russia. Her father, Mojzesz Ajzenberg, was a mining engineer who studied at the St. Petersburg School of Mines and her mother, Olga Naiditch Ajzenberg, was a pianist and mezzo-soprano who studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Music. In 1919, they fled the Russian Revolution and settled in Germany, where her father became a wealthy investment banker. They were bankrupted by the Great Depression, so the family moved to France and her father worked as a chemical engineer in a sugar beet factory in Lieusaint, France owned by her uncle Isaac Naiditch. Ajzenberg attended the Lycée Victor Duruy and Le Collège Sévigné. In 1940, the family fled Paris prior to the Nazi invasion of France. They took a torturous route through Spain, Portugal, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba before they settled in New York City in April 1941.
Ajzenberg graduated from Julia Richman High School in 1943. She attended the University of Michigan, where she dated the later notorious "Papa Doc" and graduated in 1946 with a BS in engineering and the only woman in a class of 100. After briefly doing graduate work at Columbia University and teaching at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, she began doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In graduate school she found a method of creating 6Li targets by converting the sulphate to a chloride and electroplating it to the target. She also demonstrated that the excited states of the 10B nucleus were not evenly spaced as previously thought. She graduated in 1952 with a PhD in physics.
She did postdoctoral work with Thomas Lauritsen at the California Institute of Technology. Together they would publish Energy Levels of Light Nuclei, a compilation of the field's best yearly research regarding nuclear structure and decay of nuclei with an atomic number of 20 or less. Since 1973 Ajzenberg published them herself. Eventually Ajzenberg would publish 26 of these papers, primarily in the journal Nuclear Physics, until 1990. They have been called "the nuclear scientists' bible."
Following graduation, Ajzenberg was a lecturer at Smith College and a visiting fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was hired as an assistant professor of physics at Boston University, but the dean lowered her salary 15 percent when he learned Ajzenberg was a woman. Ajzenberg refused the position until the initial salary was restored.
While at Boston College, she met Harvard University physicist Walter Selove and they married in December 1955. In 1962, using the bubble chamber at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, he discovered a meson he named the fayon (f2) after her. He died in 2010.
In the 1960s, she worked at Haverford College, where she was the first full-time female faculty member. In 1970, Ajzenberg-Selove began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where Selove had taught since 1957. In 1972, she applied for one of three tenured positions there. She was not hired; the reasons cited were age and "inadequate research publications". Ajzenberg-Selove was only 46, had a citation count higher than everyone in the physics department except for Nobel laureate J. Robert Schrieffer, and was Nuclear Physics Section chair of the American Physical Society. She filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and in 1973 the University of Pennsylvania was ordered to give her a tenured professorship. She became only the second female professor in the university's School of Arts and Sciences.
In 1994, she published a memoir, A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist.
- McLane, Victoria (1993). "Fay Ajzenberg-Selove". In Grinstein, Louise S.; Rose, Rose K.; Rafailovich, Miriam H. Women in Chemistry and Physics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. Greenwood Press. pp. 1–8.
- "Penn Physicist Fay Ajzenberg-Selove Among Eight Scientists to Receive the 2007 National Medal of Science | Penn News". Upenn.edu. 2008-08-26. Retrieved 2012-09-08.
- "Physics professor Ajzenberg-Selove; honored by U.S. - Philly.com". Articles.philly.com. Retrieved 2012-09-08.
- Shalvi, Alice. "Fay Ajzenberg-Selove." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved July 5, 2011
- Hagopian, Vasken; Hagopian, Sharon; Kononenko, Walter (April 2011). "Walter Selove". Physics Today 64 (4): 72.
- University of Pennsylvania bio
- Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics
- Jewish Women's Archive
- 2008 interview