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Two Northwestern Faculty Members Receive National Medal of Science

May 30, 2007 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Two Northwestern University faculty members have been awarded the 2005 National Medal of Science. They are the first Northwestern recipients of the nation's highest award for lifetime achievement in fields of scientific research.

They are Jan D. Achenbach, Walter P. Murphy Professor and Distinguished McCormick School Professor of the Departments of Mechanical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, and Tobin J. Marks, Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of materials science and engineering.

Achenbach was honored for his seminal contributions to engineering research and education in the area of wave propagation in solids and for pioneering the field of quantitative non-destructive evaluation. Marks was honored for his pioneering research in the areas of homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, organo-f-element chemistry, new electronic and photonic materials, and diverse areas of coordination and solid state chemistry.

The awards were announced yesterday (May 29) by President Bush. Achenbach, Marks and six other researchers will receive the medal at a White House ceremony later this year.

The National Medal of Science honors individuals for pioneering scientific research in a range of fields, including physical, biological, mathematical, social, behavioral and engineering sciences, that enhances our understanding of the world and leads to innovations and technologies that give the United States its global economic edge. The National Science Foundation administers the award, which was established by the Congress in 1959.

Achenbach, who joined Northwestern in 1963, is a preeminent researcher in solid mechanics and quantitative non-destructive evaluation. He has made major contributions in the field of propagation of mechanical disturbances in solids. He has achieved important results in quantitative non-destructive evaluation of materials, damage mechanisms in composites, and vibrations of complex structures.

He has developed methods for flaw detection and characterization by ultrasonic scattering methods. Achenbach's work has been both analytical and experimental. He also has achieved valuable results on earthquake mechanisms, on the mechanical behavior of composite materials under dynamic loading conditions, and on the vibrations of solid propellant rockets.

Achenbach is founder of Northwestern's Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, a state-of-art laboratory for quality control in structural mechanics, with profound impact on the aircraft industry, particularly the monitoring of aging aircraft.

Achenbach was awarded the 2003 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor for technological innovation. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1982, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. In 1999 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. He is also an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a fellow of ASME, ASA, SES, AMA and AAAS. His awards include the Timoshenko Medal and the William Prager Medal.

Marks' research focuses on the design, synthesis and in-depth characterization of new substances having important chemical, physical and/or biological properties. His work is credited with having major impact on contemporary catalysis with seminal research in the areas of organo-f-element homogeneous catalysis, metal-ligand bonding energetics, supported organometallic catalysis and metallocene polymerization catalysis.

Marks, who joined Northwestern in 1970, is a leader in the development and understanding of single-site olefin polymerization catalysis (now a multibillion dollar industry) as well as in the study of new materials having remarkable electrical, mechanical, interfacial and photonic properties.

He designed a co-catalyst that led to what is now a standard process for producing better polyolefins, including polyethylene and polypropylene. Found in everything from sandwich wrap to long underwear, these versatile and inexpensive plastics are lighter in weight and more recyclable than previous plastics.

In his molecular optoelectronics work, Marks designs arrays of “smart” molecules that will self-assemble into, or spontaneously form, structures that can conduct electricity, switch light on and off, detect light and turn sunlight into electricity. These structures could lead to the world's most versatile and stable light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and to flexible “plastic” transistors.

During his career, Marks has received numerous awards, including some of the most prestigious national and international awards in the fields of inorganic, catalytic, materials and organometallic chemistry. Recent honors include the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the John C. Bailar Medal from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Sir Edward Frankland Prize Lectureship of the British Royal Society of Chemistry and the Karl Ziegler Prize of the German Chemical Society.

Marks also is recipient of three American Chemical Society (ACS) national awards and the ACS Chicago Section’s 2001 Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal, regarded by many as the highest award given to chemists next to the Nobel Prize. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993 and to the Leopoldina, the German Academy of Natural Scientists, in 2005.