In memoriam: James Mayer, an exemplary life of achievement
James Mayer, considered a “giant” of materials science and engineering, who was on the faculty of Arizona State University during the latter years of a research and teaching career spanning almost five decades, passed away June 14.
Mayer began making his mark in the field as a doctoral student at Purdue University – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in physics – when he helped make significant advances in materials analysis.
He would go on to contribute to further advances in the materials that have enabled computers and other electronic devices to be made more compact and to operate rapidly.
Mayer was also widely recognized for contributions to solid-state engineering, particularly research on solid-state detectors, ion implantation and ion-beam spectrometry. He developed ion-implanted silicon that became a key element in a breakthrough processing technique used in semiconductor manufacturing.
In 1981, Mayer won the Von Hippel Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Materials Research Society, and three years later was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Most important to Mayer, according to a statement from family members announcing his passing, was his role in guiding more than 40 graduate students through their doctoral and post-doctoral studies, and remaining a long-time career mentor to many.
One of those students-turned-colleagues is Terry Alford, an ASU professor of materials science and engineering, who had known and worked with Mayer for almost 30 years.
Alford was interested in ion implantation at the time he was considering where to pursue his doctoral degree. He visited Cornell University because that was where Mayer was teaching.
“He was the world-famous James Mayer, the guru of ion implantation,” Alford recalls. Even though Mayer told him he wasn’t taking additional graduate students under his wing at the time, Alford persisted.
“I started hanging around his lab,” Alford says, until he was allowed to work there. Eventually, Mayer became his doctoral studies advisor.
Helped make others successful
Years later, Mayer got Alford – who was working at Texas Instruments – to visit ASU and speak to students. During the visit, Mayer took him to meet a vice provost and the engineering dean. A couple of months later Alford left his job to teach at ASU.
Alford says he was among many graduate students and engineering colleagues who over the years were drawn to the places where they could study under, or work with Mayer.
“My exemplar as a mentor was Jim Mayer,” says Alford, who is among winners of the ASU Graduate College Mentor of the Year award. “One of his great impacts was through his mentoring of undergraduates, graduate students and young faculty members. He always wanted to help make people successful.”
“Jim’s many accomplishments as a scholar speak for themselves,” says Kyle Squires, director of ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. “As a mentor, he was creative, enthusiastic and dedicated to exciting students at all levels about materials science and engineering.”
Mayer made an impact on K-12 engineering and science education in Arizona, says colleague Vincent Pizziconi, an ASU associate professor of biomedical engineering. Mayer created a popular Patterns in Nature course (called PIN for short) to instruct K-12 teachers on engineering and science education methods, and he taught the course for many years.
He also created an ASU PIN Van, a “science laboratory on wheels,” Pizziconi says, that housed state-of-the-art microscopes. It was driven door to-door to K-12 schools throughout the state to provide young students an introduction to materials science and engineering.
“Not only did he bring the excitement of materials science and engineering into the classroom for majors and non-majors alike, but he was a consummate builder of multidisciplinary teams,” Pizziconi says. “He reached out to faculty from diverse disciplines across the university to create longstanding research collaborations.”
Alford says that among highlights of his career are his travels with Mayer to participate in professional conferences and work on research collaborations throughout Europe and Africa. During one trip, Alford says he learned that “Jim was not just one of the giants of materials science. He was also a giant as a humanitarian.”
In South Africa one morning with Mayer, Alford remembers, “I thought we were driving to a lab as usual, but Jim stopped at a squatters’ camp and he delivered some books to the local school. I found out Jim’s family had been supporting this school and had even funded construction of a playground.”
It was one of many charitable efforts Mayer and his family quietly supported over the years.
Mayer was an engineer for the U.S. Army early in his career. He then worked for Hughes Research Laboratories before joining the faculty at the California Institute of Technology, and then Cornell.
He came to ASU in 1992, where he became director of the Center for Solid State Science. He was made a Regents’ Professor, the highest recognition for faculty at Arizona’s state universities, in 1994. He retired in 2007 from his position as a professor with ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
During his career, Mayer was granted 12 patents related to his research and development work. He authored or co-authored more than 750 research papers and 12 books. His articles and books have led to more than 17,000 citations of his work by other engineers and scientists.
His family notes that outside his extensive commitments to research, teaching and student mentoring, Mayer still found time to become a scuba-diving instructor and an aficionado of art, books and cinema. He co-authored two books on the science behind creating works of art.
Pizziconi recalls that Mayer lectured to art conservators at the famous Louvre museum in Paris about ion-beam analysis of paint pigments and the ink in rare books.
“Jim Mayer was a quintessential research Renaissance man of the arts and sciences,” Pizziconi says.
“Jim was truly unique. Anyone who met Jim, even if only for a few minutes, would remember him for their lifetime,” says Paul Johnson, dean of the Fulton Schools of Engineering.
“He was an out-of-the box thinker who reveled in being out of the box. He had immense curiosity, was not afraid to ask questions that others didn't think of or wouldn't ask, and was incredibly supportive of his fellow faculty,” Johnson recalls. “Students loved his courses and he was easily approachable and always fun to talk with.”
According to his family, Mayer considered all of his career achievements a family affair, largely because of the support of his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth (Betty) Billmire Mayer.
He is survived by his wife, four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.