Earthquake Engineering Expert Stephen Mahin Dies at 71

Stephen A. Mahin, a world-renowned expert in earthquake engineering, passed away on February 10, 2018.

Mahin was born in Lodi, Calif., on October 16, 1946. Upon graduating from high school, he spent more than five decades at the University of California (UC), Berkeley—first as a student and then as faculty. He received three civil engineering degrees at UC Berkeley—a BS (Honors), an MS and a PhD—served as an assistant research engineer from 1974 to 1977 and then joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1977. Over his UC Berkeley career, he served as the chair of the Structural Engineering, Mechanics and Materials (SEMM) Program from 1990 to 1993 and was the director of PEER (Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center) from 2009 to 2015. Most recently, he was the school’s Byron L. and Elvira E. Nishkian Professor Emeritus of Structural Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Mahin published hundreds of journal articles, papers and reports, and the range of topics reflects the comprehensive and broad expanse of his research engagement. AISC honored him with its Special Educator Achievement Award in 2001 for leadership in improving steel structures subjected to earthquakes, and its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 for sustained contributions to the profession, industry and academia. He served as program manager for the six-year FEMA-sponsored SAC Steel Project, which developed guidelines for the design of steel moment frame structures following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The SAC guidelines and supporting documents led directly to major changes to the AISC seismic design standards used in the U.S. and worldwide.

“Steve’s impacts on improving seismic design and the structural engineering profession went far beyond the SAC project, but this was certainly an important of his and many of our careers,” said James O. Malley, SE, PE, group director and senior principal with Degenkolb Engineers in San Francisco. “He was a man of never-ending ideas and energy, and one that was instrumental in supporting and fostering the careers of many, many people within our industry.”

In 2016, Mahin became the founding director of the Computational Modeling and Simulation Center (SimCenter) of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure, funded by the National Science Foundation. Under his leadership, the SimCenter assembled a talented multi-university team of researchers to advance simulation methods to reduce the effects of natural hazards on the built environment, with the ultimate goal of improving community resilience to earthquakes, storms and other extreme hazards.

Mahin’s research focused on improving the understanding of seismic behavior of systems by integrating high-performance numerical and experimental simulation methods. He pioneered the development of hybrid simulation theories and methods that integrated large-scale physical tests with computer simulations, thereby enabling study of complete structural systems under realistic loading. He recognized the value of seismic isolation and protective systems, and he conceived and developed these technologies with the goal of reducing cost and enhancing seismic performance.

“He gave his life's work for the safety of society in severe earthquakes, and he certainly made important new discoveries,” said Ted Galambos, PhD, professor emeritus with the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering at the University of Minnesota. “He was indeed a great leader in his field.”

In 1983, Mahin was awarded the ASCE Walter Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize for his practical application of rigorous theory to complex engineering problems. In 1987, he was awarded the Norman Medal by ASCE for his seminal work on the seismic behavior of offshore platforms, and in 2012 he was inducted into the ASCE/OTC Hall of Fame. His pioneering work on self-centering bridges earned him the FHWA James Cooper Best Paper Award in 2007. He served as a director of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (SEAONC) and was awarded SEAONC’s Helmut Krawinkler Award in 2017 for outstanding leadership in implementing state-of-the-art research into structural engineering practice. In addition, he chaired the NEHRP Northridge Earthquake Engineering Research Coordination Program from 1995 to 1997.

“Steve was an impressive and generous force based on his deep understanding of the behavior of structures under seismic loads,” noted Tom Schlafly, AISC’s director of research. “His contributions to seismic design methods will have an impact on our Seismic Provisions and designers for years to come due to his work on SAC, his many students and his prolific collaborations with leaders in the seismic engineering community. We are thrilled that we recently supported Steve's work on strongback frames that we believe, as Steve did, will become a frequently used system.”

Mahin had a deep interest and unique talent to interact and make friends with fellow researchers throughout the world, and he was invited to give keynote addresses at several national and international conferences. Many international research collaborations with Asian countries were initiated and nurtured by his leadership. Over three decades, he enlightened, guided and led multiple phases of U.S.-Japan research collaboration on earthquake engineering using large-scale test facilities operated by the two countries. He chaired the NSF US-Japan Cooperative Earthquake Research Program on Composite and Hybrid Structures from 1995 to 1999 and the NEES/E-Defense Collaborative Research Program since 2004.

“We will miss this great man and wonderful person,” remarked Gregory MacRae, a professor in the department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. “We say here [in New Zealand] that ‘a mighty Totara has fallen.’”