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What Do Diane Sawyer’s Hair and Moon Rocks Have in Common?

Published March 9, 2017 in News

By: Fariss Samarrai | University Communications

Welcome to the Macko Museum of Natural History.

It’s not particularly well-catalogued; in fact, it could be described as controlled chaos, though its namesake curator can readily identify and find all of its curiosities – dinosaur bones (and fossilized feces), meteorite fragments, whale bones, really old Earth rocks, nautilus shells, turtle shells, corals and the like – all buried as treasure among stacks of books and papers on his desk, the floor and shelves. The books cover a range of topics on natural and human history.

The “museum” is the informal collection of a lifetime of work of a very active and curious-minded researcher and teacher who has been around the world many times, and even to the bottom of some of the deeper locations in the ocean.

Stephen Macko is a geochemist in the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and the museum is his office. He charges a “very nominal fee for admission” (free), although the price is likely to include long, free-ranging discussions about the very topics that have kept him fascinated since he first discovered the wondrous workings of the natural world as a child in Texas.

“I’ve always been curious,” he said. “I built my first chemistry set from old light bulbs and battery acid when I was still quite young. Fortunately, I had very tolerant parents.” He never blew up anything, but he did make perfume.

As a college freshman, Macko learned glassblowing, as well as metalworking and woodworking so he could build devices for use in experiments of his own design. He still remembers the professor who guided him, Dr. Fugassi, and the schoolteachers who originally inspired him: Mrs. Hess, Mr. Horne and Mr. Bonekemper. “They encouraged me to do things, which is how people learn,” he said.

“There’s actually a family tree of chemists in America that can be traced back to our country’s early history,” Macko said. “It branches out, and I’m part of that, as a researcher and a teacher. It has been passed on to me, and I try to pass that heritage on to my students. Teaching and research are intimately linked.”

The recipient of an All-University Teaching Award, Macko has taught thousands of undergraduate students during his 27 years at UVA. He also has inspired more than 65 graduate students to earn master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, and mentored many more researchers as undergraduates in his lab or as postdoctoral fellows. Each day he carries his long research experience into the classroom and lab to challenge his students’ curiosity.

“Steve is a world-class researcher and also a dedicated teacher,” said former graduate student Lixin Wang, now an assistant professor of earth sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. “Steve shows great passion, and he is optimistic and humorous. Besides laying out solid foundations through classroom teaching, Steve encourages and inspires his students to do better in the lab every day. I have wonderful memories of working with him.”

Wang attributes his own success as a researcher – dozens of published papers, some when he was a graduate student under Macko, and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award – to the “roots” he grew in Macko’s lab.

The lab is devoted to mass spectrometry, a tool and a science that Macko uses to investigate the molecular structures of objects, from moon rocks to ancient human artifacts. Over the years he has analyzed the hair of George Washington, ancient mummies of Egypt and Chile, Jamestown colonial residents, and most famously, the hair from the 5,200 year-old “Ice Man” found in the Oetztal Alps. He has even analyzed his students’ hair, which reveals the contents of their diets.

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