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Zuber wins faculty’s Killian Award

Planetary trailblazer recognized for ‘extraordinary skills and talent.’
Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Photo: Donna Coveney

Maria Zuber, a pioneer in space exploration who has made seminal breakthroughs in understanding solar system planets and their evolution, is the recipient of MIT’s James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award for 2012-13.

The announcement was made at a meeting of the MIT faculty earlier this month. The award, established in 1971 to honor the Institute’s 10th president, recognizes extraordinary professional achievements by an MIT faculty member. Each year, candidates for the award are nominated by their peers, and a winner is chosen by a faculty committee.

Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), has spent much of her career charting new territory in planetary science, spearheading missions to map planetary bodies within the solar system in unprecedented detail. Such maps have revealed new information about the composition and atmosphere of Mercury, Mars, and the moon.

Robert Gibbons, chair of the award selection committee and Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management, read the award citation, which describes Zuber as “a true MIT success story.” Zuber was born in Pennsylvania, where she grew up in a family of coal miners. She was the first in her family to earn a college degree, and the first graduate of her high school to receive a PhD, according to the award citation. Zuber completed her doctoral work at Brown University, and went on to serve as a research scientist at NASA and a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University before joining the MIT faculty in 1995.

Zuber’s “breakthrough moment” came with her involvement in the Clementine space project — a mission to launch a spacecraft to observe the moon and surrounding asteroids. She led the analysis of data from the mission, and generated the first reliable topographic map of the moon. Her work established a new way to quantitatively analyze geophysical data, which has since become the standard in planetary mapping throughout the world.

Zuber will soon generate even more detailed maps of the moon with GRAIL, the Gravity and Interior Laboratory, a mission she conceived and leads. On Sept. 10, 2011, the mission’s twin probes, named Ebb and Flow, launched to the moon, and have since been orbiting and mapping the moon’s gravitational field in unprecedented detail. The maps generated by the probes will enable scientists to determine the moon’s interior composition and its thermal history. The mission will also play a key role in enabling safe lunar landings in the future.

“[Zuber’s] inspired leadership of a huge team over many years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory brought this multi-hundred-million-dollar mission to success — within budget and on schedule,” the citation read. “This rare feat is widely recognized in NASA circles as a tour de force.”

In addition to her significant contributions to planetary science, Zuber has also had a strong influence within MIT. As EAPS department head, she was an enthusiastic mentor; the number of women faculty within the department more than doubled during her tenure.  

“I'd have to say that the Killian Award is the most meaningful honor I've ever received because it comes from my colleagues, and they have extraordinarily high standards,” Zuber says. “It is beyond humbling to be singled out. I view the award as a celebration of the large teams of collaborators and students with whom I've worked throughout my career.”

Zuber’s work has earned numerous other honors and distinctions, including the G.K. Gilbert Award of the Geological Society of America, the Carl Sagan Memorial Award presented by the American Astronautical Society and the Planetary Society, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. 

“Professor Zuber’s leadership and dedication have resulted in a change to scientists’ basic understanding of the interior structure, thermal evolution and geologic history of Mars, the moon and asteroids,” the citation read.  One of Zuber’s nominators writes, “Her towering stature as a fundamental scientist, an expert in the technology of the instrumentation, and a keen and efficient manager have made her a NASA legend in her own time.”

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