‘Exceptionally dedicated to bringing the community together’: UC Berkeley professor Stephen A. Mahin dies at 71

Jack Moehle/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering Stephen A. Mahin, 71, died Saturday. 

Mahin was a world-renowned earthquake engineering expert, working both internationally and within California to advance seismic safety. He attended UC Berkeley for his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, and he worked as a UC Berkeley professor for more than four decades.

In addition to being a professor and researcher, Mahin was the director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, or PEER, which brings multiple states and universities together to tackle problems in earthquake engineering and risk mitigation. Many of his colleagues remember him for his incredible knowledge and experience.

“He was a giant in terms of depth and breadth in earthquake engineering,”said Jonathan Bray, Mahin’s colleague and a campus geotechnical engineer. “There were very few things you could talk about in earthquake engineering where Steve didn’t have expertise and hadn’t worked in the area.”

Mahin pioneered a now widely used technique of hybrid testing in earthquake experimentation. This technique helps combine physical structures and computer simulations and analyses to determine a building’s response to earthquakes.

Mahin is also characterized by his creativity and willingness to help others. Shanshan Wang, Mahin’s former graduate student, said Mahin devoted every minute of every day to his work and his students.

“Every time I talked to him, the meeting lasted half the day,” Wang said. “You would propose a problem to him, and he would give you 10 solutions of which direction you could go.”

This spirit of care and helpfulness continued even through his illness, according to colleague Jack Moehle, a campus structural engineering professor and Mahin’s close friend. Moehle reminisced about a party that he and other colleagues organized last year for Mahin.

“We wanted to get his friends together and celebrate his career,” Moehle said. “He immediately turned the tables and wanted to hear how everyone else was doing. It took over an hour to go around the room and (for people to) express their connection to him.

Mahin’s expertise in earthquake studies and his attention to others made him a major player in international collaboration. He traveled constantly and built relationships around the globe, focusing specifically on collaborative programs between Japan and the United States.

“He trained a generation of earthquake engineers to think internationally and learn through an exchange of information instead of burying (themselves) in (their) own research,” Moehle said.

Through Mahin’s long career, there was no shortage of colleagues touched by his work. Campus professor of structural engineering Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl worked closely with Mahin for decades. He remembers the renowned professor for always bringing new ideas to others, encouraging them rather than looking for recognition for himself.

“(He was) exceptionally dedicated to bringing the community together,” Astaneh-Asl said. “He had the unique ability to see what needed to be done, find the people to do it and then bring the best out of them.”

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.