AMHERST, Mass. - William MacKnight, professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is the seventh University professor, and the second in his department, to receive the honor. The others are: James M. Douglas, chemical engineering; Vladimir Haensel, chemical engineering; Richard S. Stein, chemistry (professor emeritus); Frank E. Karasz, polymer science and engineering; Robert E. McIntosh, electrical and computer engineering; and Bernard B. Berger, civil engineering (professor emeritus).
MacKnight is one of 84 engineers elected to membership in the academy this year, along with seven elected as foreign associates. Election to the academy is among the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer. Membership honors those who have made "important contributions to engineering theory and practice" and those who have demonstrated "unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology."
"Professor MacKnight clearly merits this honor based on the quality of his research," said University Provost Cora B. Marrett. "We at the University regard this as yet another signal of the leadership provided by the department of polymer science and engineering." In the fall of 1995, in its decade comparison of materials science and polymer science programs, the National Research Council ranked UMass second in the nation for the quality of its graduate students, and seventh in the overall quality of the department.
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, which evolved into a department in 1974. He served two separate terms as head of the polymer science and engineering department, for a total of 16 years. MacKnight stepped down to return to the ranks of the faculty in 1995. During his tenure as department head, he advised scores of successful Ph.D. candidates, and 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 was instrumental in securing funding for the recently constructed $50 million Silvio O. Conte National Polymer Research Center on campus. He has published more than 300 scientific papers and two books.
"The ’70s were a period of rapid change in industry as new materials were needed to make more durable and energy-efficient products," MacKnight said in a 1995 interview. "We were the right people, doing the right thing, at the right time. Our students became very popular with industry."
Fast replacing steel, aluminum, and other conventional metals in the 1970s, polymers became the materials of choice for everything from spacecraft to sneakers, and in the 1980s, the biotechnology and computer industries also came to rely on advanced polymer materials.
MacKnight is being honored for his pioneering research in relating the properties of polymers and polymer blends to their chemical and physical structure. He has received a slate of prestigious awards, including 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. MacKnight is an accomplished violinist, having studied music at the Eastman School of Music and Princeton University.
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.