Rice mourns loss of Professor Corcoran

She was ‘a great role model for women in physics.’

Rice physicist and beloved faculty member Marjorie Corcoran was killed Feb. 3 when a light-rail train struck her while she was bicycling across the tracks on Fannin Street.

Photo of Marjorie Corcoran

Marjorie Corcoran

“Marjorie was a much-admired longtime professor of physics and astronomy who worked tirelessly on behalf of her students, Rice and STEM education,” wrote President David Leebron and Provost Marie Lynn Miranda in a memo to the Rice community.

They noted that Corcoran served as the first speaker of Rice’s Faculty Senate when it was formed in 2005.

Corcoran studied experimental particle physics to better understand the most elementary constituents of matter. In an article in Rice Magazine in 2010, she said, “My field of research picked me. I became interested in particle physics when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I was reading about it and said, ‘Wow! This is so amazing.’ It went on from there.”

Corcoran came to Rice in 1980, but she had already begun her research at Fermilab while a graduate student at Indiana University. In earlier work at Fermilab, she was part of the KTeV experiment, which searched for an explanation to the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe. In the B-Physics group she continued the theme of seeking an understanding to this asymmetry.

In recent years, she and her students made important contributions to the KTeV and D0 experiments at Fermilab and played a leading role in detector construction for the new muon-to-electron-conversion experiment (Mu2e), which seeks to understand how heavy leptons decay. Her research focused on CP violation, tests of fundamental symmetries and searches for physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics that has been successful in describing all known experimental results. She was a co-convener of the Fermilab physics group that studies particles containing the b-quark. Corcoran’s interest in physics beyond the Standard Model included a new initiative, the Mu2e experiment.

In 2012, Corcoran was among the faculty members who received a grant from the Faculty Initiatives Fund. Her proposal was to introduce students to medical physics through a collaboration with the MD Anderson Cancer Center. The grant supported a summer internship program that allowed Rice students to gain hands-on experience in the rapidly growing field of medical physics, particularly in proton therapy for cancer patients.

An advocate for women in science, Corcoran supervised a number of Rice graduate students’ theses and dissertations. She was a fellow of the American Physical Society and served on its Division of Particles and Fields Executive Committee. She convened the sessions on heavy quark properties at the 2010 International Conference of High Energy Physics in Paris. Corcoran received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the University of Wisconsin Physics Department. She worked tirelessly with students and educators and created the ongoing Quarknet high school teacher program in 2004. Just this past month, she co-organized a Rice-hosted, APS-sponsored Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. In January 2015 the American Physical Society named Corcoran “Woman Physicist of the Month” and noted that she was “a leader in the particle physics community and a great role model for women in physics.”

“Our hearts go out to Marjorie’s husband and their three children, one of whom received his degree at Rice, and to the students and faculty members who studied and worked with her,” Leebron and Miranda said. “We have lost a truly gifted and dear member of the Rice community.”

The Corcoran family welcomes those who were especially close to Professor Corcoran to join the family memorial service. The visitation will be at 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, followed by a memorial service from 3 to 4 p.m. at Bradshaw-Carter Memorial and Funeral Services, 1734 West Alabama St. The family asks that in lieu of customary remembrances, any donations be directed to Save the Children or the charity of your choice.

Rice plans to have a memorial service later in the spring semester to allow time for former students and members of the particle physics community to make arrangements to travel to Houston and come together with the Rice community to mourn the loss of Corcoran.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy has set up two areas in memory of Corcoran: one in Herman Brown Hall on the second floor near the elevator, and one in Brockman Hall for Physics on the second floor in front of the Physics and Astronomy Department’s office suite. Note cards are available at each location for writing a memory or condolence to the family. “We will ensure your messages reach her family,” Miranda said.

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.