Polymer Science and Engineering Professor William MacKnigh Named to Barrett Chair at UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass. - William MacKnight, Distinguished University Professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts, has been appointed to the Wilmer D. Barrett Chair in Polymer Science and Engineering. MacKnight was appointed by University President William M. Bulger following approval of the Board of Trustees. The chair, named for a 1934 alumnus, was established in 1992.

"The polymer science and engineering department ranks among the best in the world," said Chancellor David K. Scott. "It owes its status in no small part to the vision and energy of Professor MacKnight. Through his research, his leadership, and his successful links with industry, Professor MacKnight has helped the University to pursue its land-grant mission of being of service to society as a whole."

"Over the course of his 33-year career here, Professor MacKnight has distinguished himself as an outstanding researcher, administrator, and educator," said Cora B. Marrett, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We are, indeed, fortunate to have him on our faculty." MacKnight is an expert in the characteristics of polymers and polymer blends. He studies how the material properties of polymers - hardness, fibrousness, or elasticity, for instance - relate to their basic underlying molecular structure. He specializes in combining polymers to produce useful properties, a procedure he compares with combining metals to create a metal alloy. "By doing this in the right way, you can develop a material with new and desirable properties not had by either original polymer," said MacKnight. "For instance, by combining a polymer that is brittle with one that is rubbery, we can produce a material that has great impact-resistance and strength, and is useful, for example, as automobile bumpers." Polymer blends are becoming increasingly important in industry, he added. In addition to MacKnight’s scientific expertise, he is an accomplished violinist, having studied music at the Eastman School of Music and Princeton University.

MacKnight joined the UMass faculty in 1965 as a member of the chemistry department, and became part of a small group of faculty responsible for creating the polymer science and engineering program in 1966. The program received department status in 1974. He served two separate terms as head of the polymer science and engineering department, from 1976-85, and 1988-95. As department head, he shepherded his area’s research budget from a little over $1 million to nearly $7 million a year, creating a national model for industry-university cooperation. He has also advised scores of successful Ph.D. candidates.

He was instrumental in securing funding for the $50 million Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research on campus, which was formally dedicated in 1996. He has published more than 300 scientific papers and co-authored two books including "Introduction to Polymer Viscoelasticity," a popular textbook used widely throughout the world.

His recent research has generated significant funding, including an award from the Keck Foundation for the Keck Electron Microscopy Laboratory. Along with colleagues, MacKnight recently helped to bring nearly $7 million to the University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. His colleagues credit him with the reorganization and revitalization of the department’s Industrial Liaison Program.

"In addition to being a wonderful individual, Bill is an outstanding research scientist. A lot of the credit for the planning of this building (the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research) goes to him," said Richard Farris, head of the department of polymer science and engineering. "I can’t think of a person more worthy of the Barrett chair."

MacKnight has received numerous prestigious awards, including membership in the National Academy of Engineering. He has also received the American Chemical Society Award in Polymer Chemistry, the UMass Faculty Fellowship Award, and the Ford Prize in High Polymer Physics, which he was awarded jointly with faculty colleague Frank Karasz. He has also been named a Distinguished University Professor and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow. He is a Fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He did his undergraduate work at the University of Rochester, then spent three years as a Navy officer. MacKnight received his doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University, where he also conducted postdoctoral research.