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In Memoriam

Robert Forster, professor emeritus

photo of Robert Forster

Robert Forster, ’56 PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of History, died May 12, 2020, of congestive heart failure at his home in Cockeysville, Maryland. He was 93. 

Forster was renowned for his work on the history of early modern France, publishing seven books on the subject. Major scholarly contributions came with a study of a notable family from the Bordeaux region, and a ducal family from Burgundy. Deeply interested in social history, he studied social rank and the relationship between wealth and dignity. In later years, his research turned to the Dominican Republic. 

Born in New York City, Forster earned a BA in history from Swarthmore College in 1949, an MA in modern European history from Harvard in 1951, and a PhD from Hopkins in 1956. Research for his doctorate centered on the nobility in and around 18th-century Toulouse. The University of Toulouse later awarded him an honorary doctorate. 

Forster loved teaching occidental civilization and taught it every other year for decades. He quickly gained a reputation for being firm but flexible, listening to graduate students, and encouraging them to research what really interested them.  

Forster served as instructor in modern European history at Hopkins from 1956 to 1957; Bissing fellow at the University of Toulouse from 1957 to 1958; assistant professor at the University of Nebraska from 1958 to 1962; associate professor at Dartmouth from 1962 to 1965; and professor of history at Hopkins from 1966 to 1996, when he was named emeritus.  

Pier Larson, professor

photo of Pier Larson

Pier Larson, professor in the Department of History and renowned scholar of African history, died of a heart attack July 25, 2020. He was 58. 

Larson specialized in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands, focusing on social, cultural, and intellectual history in the early modern period. His teaching and research revolved around the history of East and southern Africa, Madagascar and the Francophone islands of the Western Indian Ocean, slavery, literacy, religion, and the history of the French empire. From 2013 to 2014, he served as the Krieger School’s acting vice dean for the humanities and social sciences.  

Born in Paris, Larson grew up in Madagascar, where his parents were teachers and missionaries. This experience laid the groundwork for his academic interest in, and deep personal understanding of, the people, languages, and culture of that island. His scholarship was based on extensive research in archives throughout Europe, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands, and he was known for his extensive use of Malagasy documents as well as interviews with local informants.  

Larson earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Minnesota in 1985, and a master’s and PhD in African history at the University of Wisconsin in 1987 and 1992, respectively. He came to Hopkins in 1998 as assistant professor after serving as assistant professor in the Department of History at The Pennsylvania State University and visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at Stanford. He was named associate professor in 2003 and professor in 2008. He served as visiting professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Madagascar, Antananarivo; and as director of the Krieger School’s International Studies Program in 2013–14.  

Sakiko Olsen, retired senior lecturer

photo of Sakiko Olsen

Sakiko Olsen, ’68 MA, ’72 PhD, retired senior lecturer and 50-plus-year veteran of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, died July 7, 2020, in Tokyo after a brief illness.  

Olsen spent much of her career working to understand how to characterize rocks formed from complex mixtures—“migmatites”—using their chemical signatures. Her research took her to the Front Range of Colorado, the Vassalboro rocks in Southern Maine, and the Aar Massif in the Swiss Alps. She and colleagues developed a numerical code that could be used to identify the sources of rocks from their chemical content.  

A native of Hokkaido, Japan, Olsen earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Northwestern University in 1963, and a master’s and PhD in geology from Hopkins in 1968 and 1972, respectively. Her thesis examined the formation of the Baltimore Gneiss, an ancient formation of blue-tinged gray rock still found in buildings throughout the Baltimore area. She showed that the rock was formed in two separate stages: when magma intruded into a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, and then when these rocks were metamorphosed during the formation of the Appalachians.  

Following her PhD, Olsen stayed on in the department as a research scientist, and was named senior lecturer in 1994. She remained in that position until the age of 82, teaching optical mineralogy and undergraduate lab courses to generations of students. Her research was part of a larger effort within the department to understand the complex interactions between minerals, melts, and fluids that continues to this day. 

Douglas Poland, retired professor

photo of Douglas Poland

Douglas Poland, a highly regarded theoretical chemist who retired from the Department of Chemistry in 2014, died of cardiac arrest on September 5, 2020, at his home in New York State after a period of declining health. He was 80. 

A major contributor to the field of statistical mechanics, which joins the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds, Poland studied phase transitions and other singularities as well as order-disorder transitions in biological macromolecules, including proteins and DNA. He was deeply respected as both a researcher and a teacher. His research in statistical mechanics spanned chemistry, physics, and biology, and he published his results in major journals specific to each field. 

A New Jersey native, Poland earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1961 and a PhD in physical chemistry in 1966, both from Cornell University. Following postdoctoral training at Cornell with Harold Scheraga, he arrived at Johns Hopkins as assistant professor in 1969, rising to associate professor in 1975 and professor in 1979. He served as the department’s chair from 1983 to 1987, and won several Hopkins teaching awards. 

Mark O. Robbins, professor

photo of Mark Robbins

Mark O. Robbins, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and renowned condensed matter and statistical physicist, died unexpectedly on August 13, 2020. He was 64. 

Robbins specialized in non-equilibrium processes like friction and adhesion, working to better understand the atomic origin of macroscopic phenomena such as earthquakes and avalanches. He also played a key role in supporting the development of computational facilities at Johns Hopkins, and was associate director of the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science, coordinating the institute’s computing efforts. 

Robbins grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and received his BA and MA degrees from Harvard University. He spent a year as a Churchill Fellow at Cambridge University before receiving his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Exxon’s Corporate Research Science Laboratory in New Jersey, he joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins in 1986. 

A widely popular teacher and mentor, Robbins was central to the effort to build the first shared computing cluster at Hopkins and subsequent expansions of that system. His efforts were also critical to establishing the alliance that resulted in the Maryland Advanced Research Computing Center, the largest computing system at Hopkins, and he was part of the team to receive a multimillion dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the MARCC. 

S. Wojciech Sokolowski, senior research associate

photo of Wojciech Sokolowski

S. Wojciech Sokolowski, senior research associate at the Krieger School’s Center for Civil Society Studies, died at home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on May 2, 2020, after a 10-year battle with inclusion body myositis. He was 67. 

Working within the center’s Comparative Nonprofit Sector, Listening Post, and Nonprofit Employment Data projects from 1992 until his death, Sokolowski’s research interests focused on comparative research of organizations and civil society institutions, measurement of nonmarket social action and behavior, macroeconomics and economic sociology, organizational behavior, and social determinants of cognitive processes. He researched the legitimating role of civil society organizations in Eastern Europe and Russia during the period of transition to market economy, social movements, organizations, work, occupations, and professions. 

Born in Gdànsk, Poland, Sokolowski earned a BA in philosophy from Lublin Catholic University in Poland, an MA in sociology from San Jose State University, and a PhD in sociology from Rutgers University in 1997. He taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, from 1982 to 1988; at Hartnell College from 1985 to 1990; at Rutgers University from 1990 to 1992; and at Morgan State University from 1996 to 2000.