An inspirational leader

Martin H. Israel has excelled as a researcher, teacher and University administrator

First there was HEAO, then SOFIE, then CRIS and now TIGER. For an astrophysicist whose major research projects over the past 36 years have had these acronyms, it is only fitting that Martin H. Israel, Ph.D., drives a car with license plates that read “COSMC” — as in cosmic rays.

Martin H. Israel, Ph.D. (left), professor of physics in Arts & Sciences, and Lauren Scott, a doctoral student in physics, review data from TIGER (Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder), the University and NASA's balloon-borne experiment that recently completed a second flight over Antarctica to collect rare celestial atomic particles called cosmic rays.
Martin H. Israel, Ph.D. (left), professor of physics in Arts & Sciences, and Lauren Scott, a doctoral student in physics, review data from TIGER (Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder), the University and NASA’s balloon-borne experiment that recently completed a second flight over Antarctica to collect rare celestial atomic particles called cosmic rays. “I am continually amazed by Marty’s ability to juggle his teaching and research responsibilities,” Scott says.

Since he arrived at the University in 1968, Israel, professor of physics in Arts & Sciences, has been involved in some of the world’s most successful studies of the composition of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), highly energized atomic nuclei that shoot through space at nearly the speed of light and originate from outside our solar system.

Israel and his colleagues in the Department of Physics and the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, also in Arts & Sciences, have developed innovative instruments that have been sent aloft in spacecraft and on high-altitude balloons to measure the composition and energy of heavy cosmic rays.

Israel says the study of GCRs will lead to a better understanding of their origin and the explosive processes in our galaxy that are responsible for giving the nuclei such enormous energy.

“A person looking out at the night sky usually sees a quiet and peaceful panorama, but in fact there are dynamic, explosive events going on throughout our galaxy and beyond,” Israel says. “The GCRs carry signatures of these energetic processes.”

His interest in things galactic dates back to his childhood growing up in Chicago. Although living in a big city with big city lights didn’t lend itself to great stargazing, he enjoyed visiting the renowned Adler Planetarium on Lake Shore Drive. And he remembers gravitating toward astronomy books from the time he started reading.

In between high school and college, Israel worked at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and one day he met Dan Posen, a well-known physicist in Chicago with a science show on the local PBS station.

Posen, a museum adviser, started asking Israel about his scientific interests and plans. Israel recalls Posen emphatically interjecting after a few minutes: “No, you don’t want to be an engineer. You really need to be a physicist.”

Four years later, in 1962, Israel graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in physics. His interest in cosmic ray research was piqued there while working in a lab with John Simpson, “a giant in the field of cosmic ray work.”

It was solidified when Israel got to the California Institute of Technology to begin his doctoral studies and soon discovered a burgeoning cosmic ray group there.

While a graduate student at Caltech, Israel helped build one of the early electronic cosmic ray detectors, an improvement over the previous technique of using nuclear emulsions — similar to photographic film — to record the cosmic rays tracks.

One major advantage was that the data could be transmitted to Earth, permitting data recovery from instruments on spacecraft that never returned to the ground.

When he joined the Washington University faculty in 1968 as assistant professor of physics, he was welcomed into a cosmic ray research group — led by physics professors Michael W. Friedlander, Ph.D., and Joseph Klarmann, Ph.D. — which was just starting to develop electronic detectors.

Within two years — encouraged by Robert M. Walker, Ph.D., the McDonnell Professor of physics who had invented plastic track detectors for cosmic rays — the research team had developed the first electronic detector for looking at particles heavier than iron.

In collaboration with the Caltech research group, one at the University of Minnesota and W. Robert Binns, Ph.D., then a staff scientist at the McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory and now research professor of physics at Washington University, Israel’s team sent a similar instrument on HEAO-3, NASA’s third High Energy Astronomy Observatory satellite.

Martin Israel with his wife, Margaret, and son, Sam, at a gala fund-raiser in Pittsburgh to benefit research on Fragile X Syndrome.
Martin Israel with his wife, Margaret, and son, Sam, at a gala fund-raiser in Pittsburgh to benefit research on Fragile X Syndrome.

Among the data gleaned from the HEAO-3 experiment were the first measurements of the composition of cosmic rays from iron up to uranium, creating the standard set of data on abundances of these heavy elements.

“The data have provided some serious constraints on the models about where cosmic rays come from and how they are accelerated,” Israel says. “But they left some serious questions, and that’s why we are still working on this.”

The “we” is something that Israel stresses. While he has been the principal investigator on a number of studies, he is adamant about sharing credit with fellow faculty, technical staff and graduate students.

Like a proud father, Israel rattles off the names of students who have worked on the various experiments, such as SOFIE (Scintillating Optical Fiber Isotope Experiment), CRIS (Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer) and TIGER (Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder).

Lauren Scott, a physics doctoral student who has worked on CRIS and TIGER, is grateful for the experience and guidance he’s received from Israel.

“His abilities as a teacher, both in the classroom and when working one-on-one with a student, are unparalleled,” Scott says. “I find that not only do I learn a great deal in meetings with Marty, but that he helps me to acquire the skills necessary to tackle new and difficult problems by myself.

“In this way, Marty is one of the most inspirational figures on my journey to become a teacher.”

Tackling new and difficult problems is something that Israel is adept at, too. When the dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences abruptly resigned in 1987, then-Chancellor William H. Danforth asked Israel, who was associate director of the McDonnell Center, to step in as acting dean. Two days later, he did.

Martin H. Israel

Titles: Professor of physics; fellow, McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences

Degrees: B.S., physics, University of Chicago, 1962; Ph.D., physics, California Institute of Technology, 1969

Family: Wife, Margaret; daughter, Elisa, 31, who earned a master’s degree in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences from the University in 1996 and works at the St. Louis Science Center; son, Sam, 28, works in Saint Louis Galleria’s Food Court

Married: 38 years; they met at a dance mixer while he was at Caltech and she an Italian major (B.A., M.A.) at the University of California, Los Angeles

Interests: Theater, symphony, swimming at the Athletic Complex three times a week

After a nationwide search, Israel was named dean in July 1988. “I guess as acting dean they thought I was a good actor,” he jokes.

As the chief administrative officer of the largest academic division on the Hilltop Campus, Israel engaged in extensive planning, achieved fiscal stability, improved physical facilities and helped develop faculty and departments.

“In a time of need, Washington University depended on Martin Israel’s outstanding character, his energy, his intelligence, his hard work, his good will and his devotion to the best in academic life,” Danforth recalls. “He immediately inspired trust in us all and led the faculty of Arts & Sciences from a period of financial confusion and pessimism back to stability and forward motion.

“It was a turning point in the University’s history.”

Danforth appointed Israel a vice chancellor in July 1994 with special responsibility for the Research Office and various other aspects of advanced planning.

He returned to full-time teaching and research in July 1997, having missed the interaction with graduate students in the lab and undergraduates in the classroom.

And he took on an additional teaching assignment, outside of physics, that held great personal meaning.

From 1999-2002, he was a guest lecturer in “Principles of Biology II,” taught by Sarah C.R. Elgin, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences. The course focused on molecular genetics for some 450 prospective biology majors and premed students. This semester, Israel is a guest lecturer in her new “DNA Workshop” for nonscience majors.

What can an astrophysicist contribute to a discussion on genetics and DNA? Plenty when the subject is Fragile X Syndrome, the most common inherited form of mental retardation. Israel’s son, Sam, is mildly retarded as a result of Fragile X.

Since Sam was diagnosed in 1981, Israel has kept up with the scientific literature. Israel’s wife, Margaret, is co-founder and president of the Fragile X Resource Center of Missouri, a parents’ support and educational outreach group.

“While not a geneticist, I’m in a position to talk about the genetics of Fragile X at a fairly detailed technical level,” Israel says. “And at the same time, I can put a personal face on it and talk about our son and how he succeeds, what was involved in getting him diagnosed and what that implies.”

“Dr. Israel’s lecture was always one of the most popular lectures in the course, and one that students remembered long after they had forgotten much of the rest,” Elgin says. “The immediacy of the presentation — ‘this is my family’ — had a gripping effect, and made the world of genetic disabilities real for the students.”

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