Markus Zahn, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering (Emeritus) within the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), died on March 13. He was 75 years old.
Zahn was born in Bergen Belsen, Germany, in 1946, to Maria (Fischer) Zahn and Irving Zahn, each the sole survivor of their respective families during the Holocaust. The small family emigrated to the United States in 1949, settling in New York City, where Markus attended the Bronx High School of Science and Lakewood High School before earning his BS, MS, and ScD from MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering between 1964 and 1970.
Alan Grodzinsky, professor of biological, electrical, and mechanical engineering and director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Engineering, who was also in the graduate program at the time, recalls Zahn’s outgoing nature and gift for teaching: “When Markus and I were both grad students in the lab of Professor James Melcher, working on our various thesis projects, Markus was just ‘Mark’ to all of us! It was already incredibly clear how tremendously enthusiastic Mark was regarding his research and, more broadly, teaching electromechanics and E&M to undergrads and fellow (younger) grad students.”
Upon earning his ScD, Zahn accepted a position at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he worked for the next 10 years before returning to MIT EECS. He would work at MIT for the remainder of his career.
A member of the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems and the High Voltage Research Laboratory, Zahn conducted research on electromagnetic field interactions with materials and devices, particularly electro-optical field and charge mapping measurements; high-voltage charge transport and breakdown phenomena in dielectrics; flow electrification phenomena in electric power apparatus; and development of capacitive and inductive sensors for measuring profiles of dielectric, conduction, and magnetic properties of media.
His work had multiple applications to measurements of physical properties (including moisture diffusion into transformer oil and pressboard insulation; detection of buried dielectric, magnetic, and conducting devices such as land mines; and electrohydrodynamic, electrokinetic, and ferrohydrodynamic interactions with charged, polarizable, and magnetic fluids). The high applicability of Zahn’s research to multiple industry functions is indicated both by his number of discrete patents (more than 20) and by his impressive slate of consultancies for companies ranging from Ford to Texas Instruments to Dow Chemicals.
An alum of the VI-A Internship program, Zahn later became the director and champion of the program, developing a tuition scholarship award for it — additionally, he authored the well-regarded textbook “Electromagnetic Field Theory: A Problem Solving Approach,” first published in 1979 by John Wiley & Sons, and republished by Krieger Publishing in 1987 and 2003. A dedicated curriculum developer, Zahn partnered with James Melcher to create a set of educational videos on “Demonstrations of Electromagnetic Fields and Energy” for enriched teaching of electromagnetism. “I clearly remember Mark's teaching of 6.013, 6.014 (and related E&M subjects), which was well-loved by many undergrad classes at MIT, along with his dedicated continuation and further elaboration of the graduate courses on Continuum Electromechanics started by Jim Melcher,” says Grodzinsky. “His enthusiasm progressed and … culminated in Mark's terrific 1979 textbook, which I still have on my bookshelf to this day!”
During the course of his career, Zahn received numerous awards for excellence in teaching, including the Graduate Student Teaching Council award and the 1999 Frank E. Perkins Award for Outstanding Advising of Graduate Students; additionally, he was recognized as a fellow of the IEEE for “contributions to the understanding of the effects of space charge and flow electrification on the conduction and breakdown properties of dielectrics.” In 2000, Zahn had a sabbatical at the Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chemise Industrielles de la Ville de Paris (ESPCI); in the same year, he was awarded the Paris Science Scholar ESPCI Medal.
A particularly conscientious advisor, Zahn was broadly lauded for his dedication to his students. George Verghese, the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering post-tenure, who shared an office suite with Zahn, says, “I remember being impressed by his patient devotion to his students. Passing by his office, the odds were high that you'd see him seated at table with a student, the two of them poring over experimental results or paper drafts. I will remember the enthusiasm with which he approached his work, and his kind manner, his friendly smile.”
As all his collaborators would go on to attest, Zahn was notable not only for his careful stewardship of his graduate students, but for his equally conscientious attention to the broader social impacts of his research. John Kassakian, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, remembers, “Mark was a warm and generous colleague, always willing to give of his time to answer questions or solve someone else’s problem, whether they be students or faculty. His concern for social contributions of his extensive theoretical work is exemplified by the application to land-mine detection of his techniques for sensing, measuring, and interpreting magnetic and dielectric properties of medium.”
“Mark was one of the most warm, selfless and caring individuals you could hope to meet. He would help anyone at any time. He had a love of all things electromagnetic, but I suspect he was more guided by 'family first,'” says Jeffrey Lang, the Vitesse Professor in Electrical Engineering, of his friend, who valued quality time spent with his family, including Linda, his wife of 52 years; his daughter Laura Zahn (Alex Richter); his son Daniel Zahn (Marie O'Neill); his son Jeffrey Zahn (Lisa Muchnicki), and his daughter Amy Terrell (David Terrell); seven grandchildren, Sophia Zahn, Audrey Zahn, Nicholas Zahn, Elliot Richter, Juliana Zahn, Ryan Terrell, and Logan Terrell; niece Emily Halpern; and nephew Simon Halpern.
“I will always remember Mark as an enthusiastic and fun-loving member of the MIT EECS family,” says Grodzinsky. The extended members of that family, who number in the tens of thousands, share this memory as well.
Donations in Professor Zahn’s name can be made to the Graduate Alumni Fellowship Fund at MIT.