Jacqueline Hewitt To Step Down As Director Of The MIT Kavli Institute

Thursday, November 29, 2018
by Julia C. Keller | School of Science

Jacqueline Hewitt, the Julius A. Stratton Professor in Electrical Engineering and Physics, will step down as director of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, effective Jan. 16, 2019. 

“In her more than 15 years in charge of Kavli, Jackie has demonstrated superlative leadership, offered sage advice, and provided tireless service to the institute, the school, MIT, and the entire astrophysics community,” Dean of the School of Science Michael Sipser says. “On behalf of us all, I thank her for her service and for her stellar career as director of Kavli.” 

With Hewitt at the helm, the MIT Kavli Institute saw its first major private foundation investment. Working with Robert Silbey, former dean of the School of Science, and Marc Kastner, former head of the Department of Physics, Hewitt developed a successful proposal to the Kavli Foundation that brought resources and an intellectual focus to the astrophysics faculty and research staff at MIT. 

As a result of the gift, the Center for Space Research (CSR) was renamed the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) and established an endowment for the new institute. With additional funding from the Kavli Foundation and matching gifts from the Heising–Simons Foundation and others, MKI now has an endowment that can support long-range basic research projects as well as risky, high-payoff research areas that are difficult to support in other ways. 

“With her extraordinary talent for integrating the ideas of faculty into a coherent vision, Jackie enabled a high-profile, world-class research program at Kavli that spanned fundamental physics, astrophysics and extrasolar planets,” says Maria Zuber, vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics.

During the past five years, Hewitt has led a large expansion in MIT’s program in exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than our sun. With George Ricker acting as principal investigator and Professor Sara Seager as MIT science lead, Kavli successfully proposed a satellite mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), to NASA. Significant investment in CCD detectors and optical instrumentation enabled TESS to succeed in the NASA competition, eventually bringing $100 million in research funding to MIT that supported mission development on campus and at Lincoln Laboratory. 

“TESS was launched this past April, and the exoplanet science program at MIT is thriving as the data from TESS’s four cameras pour in,” says Hewitt. 

Collaboration between Kavli and Lincoln Laboratory was critical to the success of TESS, and strengthening this partnership was one of Hewitt’s important initiatives while director. 

“Jackie was an amazing leader of MKI,” says Professor Peter Fisher, head of the MIT Department of Physics. “Her role in TESS was critical and it may not have happened without her.”

Although the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the advanced LIGO project was well underway before Hewitt took up her post, she worked with Professor Edmund Bertschinger and Fisher to fund and put in place laboratories and other infrastructure that helped to attract and retain critical faculty and research staff, and that helped LIGO achieve the sensitivity required for its scientific success. 

The detection of gravitational waves — a project 50 years in the making with contributions from more than 1,000 scientists within Kavli and around the world working within the LIGO Scientific Collaboration — earned Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss a 2017 Nobel Prize.

Working to provide advice to the federal agencies that fund astrophysics research in the United States, Hewitt has made significant contributions to the process of setting priorities for the astrophysics community. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ panel on particle astrophysics and gravitation for the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey. In 2015 and 2016, she chaired the NAS’s midterm review of the funding agencies’ progress toward implementing the priorities of that decadal survey. 

Most recently, Hewitt has worked to develop Kavli’s program in studies of a milestone in the history of the universe: the birth of the first stars, known as the “cosmic dawn”, nearly 13 billion years ago. Major grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the National Science Foundation — coupled with support provided by the School of Science dean’s office and Maria Zuber, vice president for research — are enabling instruments at radio wavelengths and optical-infrared wavelengths to probe the conditions of the cosmic dawn 13 billion years ago, and chart the growth of structure and the chemical enrichment of the cosmos.

“I have truly enjoyed my time as MKI director, and have deeply appreciated the camaraderie of my fellow astrophysicists here at MIT and my research partners around the world,” says Hewitt, who begins her sabbatical in spring 2019. “I look forward to returning to my research full-time.”

Hewitt first joined MIT as a graduate student. She earned her PhD in 1986, completing the first large systematic survey of gravitational lenses for her doctoral thesis. The study of gravitational lenses, bends in light emitted from bright, distant objects created by massive objects, allowed scientists to better measure mass distribution at greater distances in space. After completing her PhD, MIT Haystack Observatory hired her as a postdoc in the Very Long Baseline Interferometry group. In 1989, after a brief stint at Princeton University, she joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of physics, where she continued to work on gravitational lenses, cosmology, and surveys of transient astronomical radio emission.

Former CSR Director Claude Canizares is chairing a search committee to advise Dean Sipser in selecting Hewitt’s successor as the next MKI director.

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