Paul Cassak, an associate professor of physics and astronomy in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University, has received the prestigious 2015 James B. Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union in recognition of his scientific contributions.

“To have been chosen for this recognition across the entire membership of scientists from so many different fields is a great honor,” said Cassak, 39, who joined medalists this year from the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California-Santa Barbara and Stanford University.

“It is a reflection of the great mentorship I have received at WVU and elsewhere, and a testament to the outstanding students I have had the pleasure to work with at WVU,” he said. Cassak is the first WVU faculty member to be awarded the medal and the first space physicist to be honored with the award since 2006.

In addition to receiving the Macelwane Medal, winners are named fellows of the AGU.

Every year, the organization confers fellowship to members who it says “have made exceptional scientific contributions and attained acknowledged eminence in the fields of Earth and space sciences.” No more than 0.1 percent of the total membership is recognized annually for this honor.

“The Macelwane Award is important because it lifts up pioneering young scientists who are advancing the world of geophysics and inspiring the next generation of researchers,” Provost Joyce McConnell said. “This is an extremely selective award that places Dr. Cassak and WVU in elite company. It demonstrates the high caliber of faculty at WVU and the supportive environment that we provide for our faculty to succeed.”

The American Geophysical Union is the largest single organization dedicated to geophysics, encompassing a membership of atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic, space and planetary scientists. Its 60,000 members reside in 139 countries.

Established in 1961, the AGU’s Macelwane Medal is given annually to three to five scientists in recognition of their depth and breadth of research, impact, creativity, novelty, service, outreach and diversity in the geophysical sciences within the first 10 years of their careers.

The early-career award is named in honor of the organization’s former president James B. Macelwane, who helped to establish the field of seismology and was passionate about teaching and encouraging young scientists.

A plasma physicist, Cassak’s research focuses on magnetic reconnection, a phenomenon in which magnetic fields break apart and immediately reconnect to another broken magnetic field, ricocheting particles into the space environment, similar to the snapping of a taut rubber band.

Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental process that occurs many places in our universe – around the sun and other stars, and in the magnetic fields of many planets, black holes and neutron stars.

Cassak has made important contributions to understanding why reconnection begins abruptly during solar flares and how reconnection works in Earth’s magnetic field. For the latter, a result has been named after him and a colleague.

Cassak has won both the Outstanding Teacher and Outstanding Researcher Award in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and is a National Science Foundation CAREER award winner. His outreach activities include designing and constructing an exhibit on space weather at the Children’s Discovery Museum of West Virginia.

In addition, Cassak is part of a NASA team that launched the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS, a multiple spacecraft mission dedicated to studying the mystery of magnetic reconnection.

“Dr. Cassak is an exceptional researcher who is also an exceptional teacher and contributor to outreach programs in physics,” Department of Physics and Astronomy Chair Earl Scime said. “That’s not hyperbole, he really excels in every aspect of the university mission. The Department of Physics and Astronomy is quite fortunate to have a colleague of his caliber.

“The Macelwane award is a really big deal. Past winners from space physics have all continued to have a major scientific impact in their fields. I have no doubt Dr. Cassak will maintain that tradition. We are very proud of his accomplishments and the recognition they have brought to WVU.”

Cassak developed a keen interest in mathematics at a young age and eventually expanded his studies into physics in college. He completed his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Maryland and later went on to be a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware.

In 2007, he became an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU. He was promoted to associate professor in 2013.

Cassak and the four other medalists will be honored in December at the AGU annual meeting in San Francisco. The meeting is attended by 25,000 scientists from across the world.



CONTACT: Devon Copeland; Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

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