News Release

Stephen Mackwell Named AIP Deputy Executive Officer

Share This

Share/Save

Experienced science administrator and expert in materials and planetary sciences to join the institute in February. 

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has hired New Zealand native Stephen Mackwell as its Deputy Executive Officer, a position he will occupy beginning Feb. 1, 2019. 

A seasoned science administrator and expert in materials research, Mackwell is also a planetary astronomer -- a community he found himself thrust into 25 years ago quite by accident.

Early on, he had studied astronomy. After finishing undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in New Zealand, he finished a master's degree in astronomy there, measuring excitation temperatures for late-type stars.

But then he left the field and his country, decamping to complete a doctorate in geophysics at the Australian National University in Canberra in 1985 and then a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

His work wasn't focused on objects in space at all, but conditions deep within the Earth. By exploring how the mechanical or chemical properties of minerals like quartz and olivine change under extremely high temperatures and pressures in the laboratory, he and his colleagues could divine nonlinear equations to describe what one might expect if those same materials were deeply buried in the crust or mantle.

Today, this approach has become a straightforward way of building models that predict the behavior, movement and state of materials in the interior of the Earth, but in the 1980s, geophysicists were still using much more simplified models. 

"When I started doing this for my Ph.D., there wasn't quite the same level of interest," Mackwell said. "There's a lot of interest now."

A Fateful NASA Mission

After completing his postdoctoral research, Mackwell took a tenure-track position at Pennsylvania State University. It was there that he fell back into astrophysics. 

Around the time AIP and its neighbors, the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), were preparing to move into a new building outside Washington, D.C., planetary scientists were unpacking data from NASA's Magellan spacecraft. The craft orbited Venus from 1990 to 1994, using radar to peer through its thick, noxious clouds and shaking the planetary astronomy community in the process.

All the models had predicted a pingpong ball, pancakelike planet -- its landscape leveled by 500 degrees Celsius temperatures over geological time scales into a unremarkable, flat geological relief. Instead, what the Magellan satellite revealed were craggy mountains, hidden wonders and a topography similar to Earth's.

"Folks from the Venus community came to us and said, 'Look, we don't understand what's going on,'" Mackwell said. But experiments he and others in the materials science community performed helped explain why things were so unexpected. 

The secret was in the moisture. 

"Venus is stinking hot," Mackwell said. "But it's also bone-dry." Replicating those conditions in the laboratory helped show how the rocky face of Venus would be less susceptible to heat-driven erosion than was assumed.

Careers and Workforce

Following a sabbatical in 1996, Mackwell was offered a professorship at the Bayerisches Geoinstitut in Bayreuth, Germany, and he worked at the institute for two years as a professor and then for three more years as its director. He left Bayerisches in 2002, becoming director of the USRA Lunar & Planetary Institute in Houston and an adjunct professor at Rice University. 

USRA is an independent, nonprofit research organization founded in 1969 by retired NASA administrator James Webb and Rockefeller University president (and former AIP board chair) Frederick Seitz. The organization does research, runs meetings, maintains extensive websites for the NASA community and conducts education and public outreach programs -- particularly focused on the challenge of keeping young people on track to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In his years at USRA, Mackwell focused much of his attention on those education and outreach pieces. "Mostly because I felt that that was where I needed to build some strength, bring some innovation -- be fairly creative about the programs we were running," he said. "There are far too few kids going into STEM careers."

One of the programs had USRA employees haul a portable, inflatable astronomical dome around. They blew it up on the grounds of schools in the greater Houston area. Inside the dome, a Native American storyteller would tell mythological stories related to the coyote and other objects in the nighttime sky, and that would be followed by an astronaut or a scientist who would talk about the science behind those same celestial objects.

Mackwell also oversaw a $15 million-a-year NASA internship program, the oversight of which was contracted to USRA along with an $18 million-a-year NASA Postdoctoral Fellow program and a $3 million-a-year internship program for the U.S. Air Force. He also ran separate outreach programs, including the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Lego League Jr. -- robotics competitions aimed at groups of K-12 students. 

"It's really, really neat to see these kids get engaged in these programs and really get hooked," Mackwell said. 

The same enthusiasm for outreach and education programs has often been echoed in the halls of AIP, which is one of the reasons why many are looking forward to his arrival. "I’m excited to welcome Steve,” said AIP CEO Michael Moloney. 

A Focus on Diversity

Mackwell said one of the highlights of the U.S. Air Force internships was that his team was successful in diversifying the applicant pool. He identified diversity as one of the key issues he will focus on in his tenure at AIP.

"We are always trying to put Band-Aids on the question of diversity," he said, rather than looking at the systemic problem and addressing those big questions. How do we get all young people to take advantage of the opportunities available to them through the school system, and how do we evolve the system to accommodate people of different perspectives, he asked?

He developed an appreciation for the systemic challenges in the 1970s, back in Christchurch, New Zealand. After his undergraduate years, he attended Christchurch Teachers College and completed a diploma of education, the equivalent of an American teaching certification. 

That experience showed him firsthand how the New Zealand education system failed a large segment of the population because it was geared toward one demographic and not another -- serving well the white population but creating a huge educational disparity with the native Maori population in New Zealand. That experience still shapes his outlook today. 

"He is joining us at an exciting time at AIP when we are working with our Board of Directors and Member Societies to chart the institute’s future direction," Moloney said.

Mackwell is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union and the Mineralogical Society of America. Among AIP Member Societies, he is a member of the American Astronomical Society and is active in its Division of Planetary Sciences. In 2016, the International Astronomical Union recognized his contributions by naming Asteroid 5292 Mackwell in his honor.