WUSTL’s McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences names new director

Ramanath Cowsik becomes only third director since center's establishment in 1975

One of the world’s pre-eminent astrophysicists has been named director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ramanath Cowsik, Ph.D., professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, will take over as director July 1, announced Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences.

Cowsik succeeds Roger J. Phillips, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, who is stepping down after seven years as director.

Ramanath Cowsik
Ramanath Cowsik

Cowsik becomes only the third director of the center since it was established in 1975 by a gift from aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell. The late Robert M. Walker, Ph.D., the McDonnell Professor of Physics, was its inaugural director.

The center is a consortium of WUSTL faculty, research staff and students coming primarily from the Arts & Sciences departments of Earth & Planetary Sciences and Physics and from the School of Engineering & Applied Science who are working on the cutting edge of space research.

“The McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences has benefited from a strong tradition of excellence begun by founder Bob Walker,” Macias said. “It has continued to prosper under Roger Phillips, who has very capably led the center since 1999.”

Under Phillips’ direction, collaborative research continued in such fields as astrophysics, extraterrestrial materials, planetary geophysics/geochemistry and planetary imagery.

“Ram Cowsik will build on this great legacy, and we are fortunate to claim his leadership,” Macias continued. “He is a highly respected physicist who will work to help strengthen international relationships within the space science community.”

Father of astroparticle physics

Cowsik has been compared to Enrico Fermi — the Nobel Prize-winning physicist considered one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists — for his ability to bridge the gap between theoretical and experimental physics.

Cowsik’s been called the father of “astroparticle physics” — a marriage of astrophysics and cosmology (the sciences of the incredibly huge) with particle physics (the science of the inconceivably small).

His paper describing the role of neutrinos and other weakly interacting particles in cosmology as dark matter was chosen by the American Physical Society as one of the “Papers of the Century.”

He has made several seminal and lasting contributions to neutrino physics, gravitation and almost every aspect of high-energy astrophysics. He has contributed to the understanding of particle physics, cosmic-ray physics, cosmology, and gamma and X-ray astronomy.

Cowsik, whose relationship with WUSTL began in 1975 when Walker invited him to serve as a distinguished visiting professor at the McDonnell Center, joined the physics faculty in 2002 as a professor.

At the age of 17, Cowsik earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics, with minors in English and Sanskrit, at the University of Mysore in India in 1958. He earned a master’s degree in physics at India’s Karnatak University in 1960 and then a doctorate in physics in 1968 from the University of Bombay while working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

He taught and did research for more than 40 years at the Tata Institute, where he served as director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) for 11 years. While the IIA’s director, he was instrumental in building the world’s highest ground-based observatory in Hanle, Ladakh, in the Himalayas.

Researchers at the McDonnell Center and at the IIA are setting up two telescopes, one in Hanle and the other in Arizona — nearly 180 degrees apart in longitude — for round-the-clock monitoring of active galactic nuclei.

Cowsik, who was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, has received numerous awards and honors, including India’s Padma Shri Award, equivalent to the National Medal of Science; Vikram Sarabhai Award in Space Sciences; and S.S. Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences, India’s most prestigious science prize.

Current director

Phillips came to Washington University in 1992 after holding a variety of positions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; serving as director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston; and holding the Matthews Professorship of Geophysics at Southern Methodist University.

His service to NASA dates to Apollo 17 in 1972, when he served as team leader of the Apollo Lunar Sounder experiment. He is deputy team leader for the SHARAD Sounding Radar Investigation on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

Phillips plans to retire from WUSTL at the end of 2007. He and his wife, Rosanna Ridings, will make their home in Boulder, Colo., where he will continue his research activities in affiliation with the Southwest Research Institute.