Joe McCaffrey
Joe McCaffrey

Las Vegas, N.M. — The New Mexico Legislature declared Feb. 27 “Dr. Joe McCaffrey, Jr. Day” to recognize the scientific achievements of the distinguished New Mexico Highlands University alumnus.

State Sen. Pete Campos introduced the senate bill to honor McCaffrey, who lives in Las Vegas and is a part-time physics professor at Highlands. He also serves on the board of the Highlands University Foundation.

McCaffrey, a descendant of New Mexico pioneers, was born and raised in Albuquerque. He earned both his B.S. and M.S in physics and mathematics at Highlands, going on to complete his Ph.D. in physics from Colorado State University.

McCaffrey had a distinguished 30-year career as a computational scientist for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory at both its Washington, D.C. headquarters and its Stennis Space Center site in Mississippi.

At NRL, McCaffrey rose to become a leader of one of the laboratory’s most productive scientific groups, which published groundbreaking research on topics such as El Niño, tide and storm surge, ocean currents, and arctic sea ice.

McCaffrey was awarded the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award for the instrumental role he played in advocating for global positioning systems, or GPS, technology.

“In my career, I’m most proud of the work I did on behalf of GPS because of the impact it had on our society,” McCaffrey said. “In 1981, the House Armed Services Committee cut the entire budget for GPS research. I wrote the white paper that answered all the technical and budgetary questions. The GPS budget was restored.

“Today’s applications for GPS are beyond what we could even imagine back then. GPS is everywhere, from its original military applications to scientific discovery and the cell phone in your pocket and GPS unit in your car,” McCaffrey said.

He said another important highlight of his career was being a talent scout who hired and mentored promising postdoctoral scientists.

“It was very rewarding to see these young scientists mature and make significant scientific contributions,” McCaffrey said.

At one point in his career, McCaffrey was assigned to the Office of Secretary of the Defense as the computational technology leader for climate, weather, ocean forecasting, and simulation.

After retiring from the Naval Research Laboratory, McCaffrey worked as the associate director of the Engineering Research Center at the University of Mississippi, where he was also a computational engineering professor.

In addition, he was the senior research scientist and interim director of the Trent Lott Center for High Performance Computing and Visualization at the Stennis Space Center.

During his career, McCaffrey held a variety of leadership positions, such as serving as the vice chair of the Institute of Electronics Engineers/Association for Computing Machinery. He also co-convened an American Geophysical Union Ocean Sciences Meeting, among others.

McCaffrey has an extensive list of scholarly publications and professional presentations.

His lifelong journey as a scientist began at Highlands. In 2002, the university honored McCaffrey as a distinguished alumnus.

“At Highlands, I received a strong foundation in the sciences, and learned how to study and be a scholar. Chemistry professor Dr. E. Gerald Meyer had the most profound influence on me, and a whole generation of students,” McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey and his wife Martha, a retired librarian and also a Highlands alumna, came full circle back to Las Vegas in 2004.

“We returned to Las Vegas because of the tremendous experience we both had as students at Highlands. We’re trying to give back to both the university and the town that were so good to us,” McCaffrey said.

Both the McCaffrey’s are prize-winning photographers, and Joe serves on the board of the Las Vegas Arts Council. Martha serves on the board of the Las Vegas Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation and mentors media arts students at Highlands.

Married 53 years, the couple has four adult children and five grandchildren.