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Maria Zuber ScM’83, PhD’86, P’11 selected for top science position in Biden administration

Maria Zuber ScM’83, PhD’86, P’11 appointed as first woman to co-chair President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Maria T. Zuber ScM’83, PhD’86, P’11 is no stranger to accomplishing “firsts” in science. She is the first woman to lead a NASA planetary mission and the first woman to lead a science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she will be one of the first women to chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for the Biden-Harris Administration, along with Co-Chair Frances Arnold, according to a Jan. 15 press release

In addition to being a University alum and parent, Zuber is also a trustee on the University’s Corporation.

PCAST is an advisory group of individuals, each distinguished in their respective field, that directly advises the president on science, technology, education and innovation policy by providing vital “scientific and technical information,” according to its website. Zuber, vice president for research at MIT and the E.A. Griswold professor of geophysics in MIT’s department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, and Arnold, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, will be the first two women to serve as external co-chairs of the committee.

When President Biden introduced Zuber as co-chair on Jan. 16, she spoke about being proud to advise the Biden administration after serving the previous three administrations in other science-related advisory roles.

During her speech, Zuber said that she is “thrilled with the challenge and the opportunity to work together with the scientific leadership of this administration to restore trust in science and pursue breakthroughs that benefit all people.” She added that she is excited “to deploy science to help breathe new life into … so many communities, large and small, that are hurting today.”

In her new role as co-chair, Zuber plans to tackle a “full suite of challenges ahead,” including transitioning to a zero-carbon energy system and fighting climate change, while bolstering employment in the process. Bold scientific leadership is critical for “guarding our health and safety, helping spark new clean industries and keeping America competitive in the race for those well-paying jobs of the future,” she said.

Zuber concluded her speech by reiterating that she is “honored to be a part of this effort” and that she “can’t wait to get to work.”

From College Hill to NASA: Zuber’s education and research career

Growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, Zuber spent clear nights observing the sky, leading her to pursue science as a career: “I just couldn’t deal with not knowing what was up there,” she said in her Jan. 16 speech.

As a graduate student at Brown, Zuber became interested in how geophysics can inform scientists about Earth and other planets, her thesis advisor, E.M. Parmentier, professor emeritus of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, told The Herald. For her thesis, Zuber researched how planetary surfaces deform and change over time.

Zuber is “one of the best students” that Parmentier has ever worked with, he said. “She was always very thoughtful, very intelligent, very motivated.”

Since her time on College Hill, Zuber has worked at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as a research scientist and has held leadership roles relating to ten NASA missions

She served as the principal investigator of the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission that began work in 2008. In that role, Zuber developed a new method for mapping the lunar gravity field with unprecedented and “sensational” levels of resolution and accuracy, Parmentier said. These gravity data would help answer long-standing questions about the moon’s formation, evolution and composition.

Zuber has been an MIT faculty member since 1995 and the vice president for research since 2013. She continues to research the intersection of planetary geophysics and robotic space exploration. 

Additionally, Zuber is in charge of MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. Zuber will continue working at MIT in the same capacity as vice president for research during her tenure as PCAST co-chair.

Science as a public service

While Zuber loves “mapping the solar system for a living” and leading “a life of discovery,” she said that she also “began to appreciate another dimension of science, to see (science) as a way to help people and advance our country.”

This element of service called to Zuber “just as powerfully as the night sky had” in her youth.

As a result, Zuber has worked as a science advisor for many years. According to her CV, she served as a member on the National Science Board from 2013 through 2020 under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and served as chair of the Board from 2016 to 2018. Under former President George W. Bush, she also served on the Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. By serving the Biden administration as co-chair of PCAST, Zuber will have been a national science advisor for four administrations.

In her speech, she said that she looks forward to “continuing to advocate for science in a non-partisan manner in this new role.”

Zuber is motivated to “play a very important administrative, guiding role in science,” which she has done both through her role as MIT’s vice president for research and through her public policy advice, Parmentier said. “Her real goal here is to try to figure out how to do science in ways that can benefit people.”

Parmentier believes that Zuber is “absolutely” qualified to be PCAST’s co-chair. “You need a combination of things if you’re going to be a really good science advisor,” he said, citing the importance of having an exceptional understanding of science, as well as the ability to articulate that science in lay terms. According to Parmentier, Zuber’s scientific knowledge and articulate nature will set her up for success as co-chair.

For Parmentier, Zuber’s selection as one of the Biden administration's top science advisors is “an indication that they are really going to listen to and take into account the results of scientific investigation.”

Even through this difficult chapter in history, “science and scientists are part of the solution,” Zuber said. “And when the country needs us, we will be there.”


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