Case Western Reserve this week is mourning the passing of Elizabeth Meckes, a professor of mathematics renowned worldwide for her brilliance—and beloved on campus for her compassion.
An undergraduate alumna who earned her doctorate at Stanford in 2006 and became a full professor here in 2018, Meckes was spending this academic year at the University of Oxford. After being diagnosed with cancer several weeks ago and starting chemotherapy, she died Wednesday—six months after her 40th birthday.
“Elizabeth was nothing short of remarkable,” said close friend Jonathan Sadowsky, CWRU’s Theodore J. Castele Professor of History. “[She was] a brilliant scholar, and a colleague who always wanted to help the rest of us in the most constructive ways.”
The power of her intellect was quickly evident to her doctoral adviser at Stanford, Persi Diaconis, the Mary V. Sunseri Professor of Statistics and Mathematics. “She pursued whatever mathematical problem she was tackling with all of her being,” he explained, “She was at the top of her field, driven, giving, and full of life.”
After spending a year as a visiting scholar at Cornell, Meckes returned to her alma mater in 2007 as an assistant professor—as did her husband, Mark, who had earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Case Western Reserve in 1999. The two had met when Mark helped with a high school band camp Elizabeth attended, and married after she graduated in 2001.
The couple published their first paper together in 2007, and collaborated on several others before writing their textbook, Linear Algebra, published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press (CUP). The following year, CUP released Elizabeth’s 275-page book, The Random Matrix Theory of the Classical Compact Groups.
“Her papers have opened up new avenues of research and her book … was an extraordinary achievement,” said the University of Oxford’s Jon Keating, whose group she had joined for this academic year. “Her passing is a devastating loss to our community. She was a great role model, combining academic brilliance with a wonderful family life.”
Mark also was at Oxford for the year, along with their two children, Juliette and Peter. The two were active members of the university’s faculty parents group, which had been founded by another colleague who joined Case Western Reserve in 2007, Eileen Anderson-Fye.
“As a colleague she was brilliant, good, courageous, strong, dynamic, open, collaborative and humane,” said Anderson-Fye, an associate professor and director of education in the Department of Bioethics. “As a friend she was compassionate, thoughtful, hilarious, dedicated to her children and her husband, Mark, and shared a smile that lit up the room.”
The current leader of the faculty parents group, Associate Professor of Art History Maggie Popkin, met Elizabeth and Mark through the group after arriving at Case Western Reserve in 2013.
“She worked hard to make things better for younger faculty and for faculty with young children,” Popkin said. Case Western Reserve “is a better place because of Elizabeth’s service and commitment to raising up her colleagues.”
Professor of Music Education Lisa Koops agreed. “She is a true model of compassion, generosity, creativity and insight. The grief of losing Elizabeth is unspeakable.”
In a message to the College of Arts and Sciences’ community Wednesday evening, Dean Joy Ward noted that information about ways to support the Meckes family would be shared as soon as it was available—as would opportunities to honor Elizabeth’s memory next year.
“I didn’t have a great amount of time to get to know Elizabeth before she and her family left for Oxford,” Dean Ward said, “but even through just a few conversations I had the opportunity to witness the extent of her brilliance and the generosity of her heart. I know she will be sorely missed throughout the College and the entire university. As we move forward we must emulate her same kindness to each other.”