Moving On Up

Judging from the 160 likes, 27 shares and more than 6,000 people reached and counting on yesterday’s related Facebook post alone, I’d say the Texas A&M Science audience is just as excited as we are about the big news on campus. No, not sole presidential finalist Michael K. Young’s meet-and-greets with various faculty and student groups, which was certainly cool. Rather, the announcement that Texas A&M University has rejoined the ranks of the National Science Foundation’s top 20, long regarded as the barometer for best research institutions across the country. Oh, and speaking of sole, did I mention we’re the only university in the state of Texas that made the list?

testtubes

As with any complex and multifaceted enterprise, there are many ways to slice and dice research-related data, but NSF is one entity that pretty much has it as down to a science as anyone can. In short, this is a legitimate cause for celebration, particularly given that so many in this college and across this campus day in and day out play such an important role in what amounts to a university-wide research result.

On more than one occasion, Dean of Science Joe Newton has referred to the College of Science as the university’s biggest research college without an affiliated state agency. And for as long as I can remember, we’ve enjoyed a close relationship with the Texas A&M Division of Research, from related resources for principal investigators and laboratories to marketing and communications efforts. All the more reason we share in their collective pride regarding this result.

I recall asking Dr. Newton early on in my Texas A&M Science tenure why faculty choose Texas A&M, given the myriad options. His matter-of-fact answer, as both dean and a faculty member, has never wavered:

“Scientists go where they can do their science best.”

So pleased that Texas A&M University is one of those places and that the world is taking notice. Congrats, Texas A&M Research, and here’s to many more years of productive, world-changing results!

Meme Me Up, Scotty

Even before I started writing about science instead of struggling to pass it, I knew who some of the traditional big names were among its primary print media outlets: Science magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science and Discover, to name but a few.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but one of those biggies, Nature, just went down a peg in my prestige book, undone by what I consider to be a dying art: the ability to write a good headline. You know, one that’s above all else correct and then — and only then, if possible — catchy and creative without sacrificing and/or detracting from the content. Here’s a link to the story, in case it didn’t flood your news feed, along with its offending ‘I can haz genomes’: cats claw their way into genetics headline.

Forget the dog-versus-cat debate, I’ve got a bone to pick with (I can only assume) the copy editor here. To each his own as to what defines humor, but it’s a fine line in any setting, particularly that of science journalism. Regardless where you choose to draw it, there’s a time and place even for the craftiest turn of phrase. In my opinion, this story was neither.

Nature_CatGenomes

At the risk of being perceived as catty, this one missed the mark for me. But I acknowledge potentially being in the minority there. For instance, one Twitter commenter credited them for “trying to thread the needle between catchy and accurate.” Um, #fail.

Reducing such a long-awaited milestone for human health, if not victory for cat enthusiasts, to a cheesy (or should I say cheezburger) Internet meme runs the risk of turning people off to the story (which involves a Texas A&M University geneticist — read an overview complete with a solid headline here) before they’ve even read word one of the lead. Good luck convincing them the research is solid or serious from there.

Lolcats, indeed.

Interestingly enough, another Texas A&M professor, Mays Business School’s Caleb Warren, is one of the many researchers working to define the science of humor. Toward that end, he and his University of Colorado at Boulder collaborator Peter McGraw have developed something they call the benign violation theory, the foundation of McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder and a widely published subject in a variety of sources, from a book to mainstream psychology journals. According to a broader Bloomberg article, they postulate that humor emerges “when: a) a situation violates some kind of norm; b) the violation is benign; and c) these two things occur to the observer simultaneously.”

It's a Venn diagram, so that's a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

It’s a Venn diagram, so that’s a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

So, yeah, I guess it’s possible that I just didn’t get the joke. I am blonde.

OK, off my soap, er litter box.

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I’m pleased to report the week wasn’t a total loss for science journalism. Props to Science staff writer Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for circling back on a story that made international headlines earlier this month (in some cases for all the wrong reasons) and for leaving no step un-retraced in her subsequent effort not only to set the record as straight as possible from here but also to understand where and why things went wrong. Further proof that this work is serious business — and intensely personal in addition to professional, at that — for parties well beyond the scientists involved.

Driven by Nature

Cross-country road trips present the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander. The possibilities (much like the road) are endless, particularly if you’re a scientist.

Meet Dwight Bohlmeyer ’84, who earned both a B.S. in marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1984 and an M.S. in genetics from Texas A&M University in 1989. A former department head for the Division of Natural Science (2009-2014) and a longtime biology instructor (1997-2014) at Blinn College’s Bryan campus, he recently joined the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, where he manages the Salter Farm Educational Research Program.

Dwight and I met this past fall by way of Monarch butterflies and related marketing opportunities. He’s a glutton for all things STEM education, and in addition to having a keen eye for photography, he has the science background to make it beneficial beyond the beauty. If you follow us on Facebook, chances are you’ve probably seen some of his work.

In fact, it was via Facebook that I first learned about his latest project, a daily nature photography challenge to capture five species a day throughout 2015 for a total of 1,825 species by December 31. He dreamed it up as a rather unique New Year’s resolution while filling mental space during his return trip to College Station from Missouri, where he was visiting family for the holidays.

Even though I know these things are all about stretching one’s limits (which I like to think I accomplish by default as a full-time working mother of three), I think Dwight’s really outdone himself here and that the results will be well worth following. And we can all do just that at FIVEx365, the WordPress blog he’s set up to help document his results and keep him accountable like the disciplined scientist he is. He even has rules, which he outlines in the first entry.

And to think, all this time, I’ve been jamming out to mixed CDs and XM Radio during my extended travels. Get the picture?

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A Fine Mess

Well, folks, the news is in: I’m not messy; I’m just different, er creative. And I have the science to prove it.

A recent study published in Psychological Science and promoted, among other places, in the New York Times confirms that I’m simply a product of my environment, which apparently is comprised primarily of “safely ignorable stuff.”

You can read more about the analysis here via News.Mic, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll go ahead and submit what I like to call Exhibit A below. Feel free to share yours in the comments if you’re so inclined and/or feel it would be either therapeutic or cathartic in any way. Creatives don’t judge!

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk's perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn't say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it's my husband's.

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk’s perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn’t say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it’s my husband’s.

Admittedly, my mother would understand if not be proud, especially when I confess that I’m likely the messiest (scratch that — most creative!) among my College of Science Dean’s Office brethren. But when it comes to faculty, I’m certainly in good company.

And let’s not even talk about what lies beneath. Or my electronic inbox.

For that matter, why stop at desks? I mean, science is all about extrapolation, as Elite Daily does here. I bet there’s hope for my entire house (flat surfaces being just the tip of the creative iceberg) and my kids!

2014 In Review

‘Tis the season for all things recap. Case in point: This morning’s inbox fodder featured a nifty end-of-year report (thank you, WordPress.com stat monkeys!) on the Texas A&M Science blog. In case you don’t care to sift through the entire thing available here, I’ll hit the high points as I see them.

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In summary, 2014 blew 2013 out of the water. Thirty-four published posts, 5,872 views and 3,235 visitors, compared to 19 posts, 977 views and 523 visitors in 2013. And our top all-time viewing day — 332 on November 25.

To be fair, however, 2013 started a half-year behind, given that the blog didn’t officially launch until June. Fitting, then, that the original post I wrote back in 2013 to pitch the overall blog concept (Heart of the Matter) was the only one from the previous year to grace 2014’s Top 10:

1. A Bittersweet Benchmark (486)
2. The Beauty of Rare Creatures and Social Networking (466)
3. Light My Fire (259)
4. All Work and No Play (240)
5. Winning Teams (206)
6. Life Forces and Legacies (152)
7. You Are Enough (129)
8. Heart of the Matter (97)
9. Angel in Flight (91)
10. Tradition in Action (85)

Seven of those posts topped 100 views, with five exceeding 200. By comparison, only one post logged three-digit-viewing numbers in 2013: the perhaps-coincidentally-titled By the Numbers with 242. The top feeder was Facebook, followed somewhat surprisingly by search engines.

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I’ve always enjoyed seeing new countries show up on the world viewing map, and we certainly broke lots of new international ground in 2014 as word (pun intended) has continued to spread. Current reach: 73 countries, which sounds amazingly cool, to me! Not surprisingly, the United States accounts for most of our views (5,323), but can you guess which country is second (170) as the only other that cracked triple digits?

All good news and good fun befitting this blog, which has become one of my favorite self-assignments if not general writing exercises. While in my admittedly old-school book, new media will never trump nor entirely replace traditional media, it sure makes for an enjoyable alternative and accompaniment, ideally for reader and writer.

On behalf of Texas A&M Science, I sincerely thank each of you for being part of this continuous, ever-evolving experiment. Here’s to more stories, additional insights and broader perspectives in 2015!

Oh, and I almost forgot — that No. 2 viewing country? Brazil. Go, GMT!

Snatch the Pebble, Get the Shot?

I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating: Science is all around us. In the best instances, it’s accompanied by statistics.

More than a decade of working for one of my favorite statisticians, Joe Newton — who’s known as the Data Dean around here for good reason — has taught me a lot, from Einstein_Educationvaluable critical thinking skills to appreciation of the bigger picture, especially in situations where it hasn’t necessarily been disclosed. From both him and experience (sometimes painful), I’ve learned the importance of caution; of maintaining both a cooler head and the healthy dose of skepticism necessary to withhold judgment as I attempt to gather and evaluate as much information and/or evidence as possible. More often than not, this process begins and so often ends with a single piece of information: methodology. The more statistically relevant, the better.

Apparently, neither Dean Newton nor experience has taught me tact.

This past week, yet another of my friends came down with the flu. I dutifully monitored her prognosis from a non-contagious distance (i.e., Facebook) and noticed that things were looking up by week’s end. Given that ours is a relationship largely based on witty banter, I decided to celebrate her recovery by sharing a flu-related post to her page — a fictitious admission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, she’s fluent in the sarcasm I thought was apparent, given the sensationalized headline and the “news” source — which I now know is approaching a stunning 1.5 million likes on Facebook, indicative to me of a whole other type of pandemic — but several of her friends didn’t get the shot (pun intended). One went so far as to post this fact-laden retort from Respectful Insolence. (Oh, the irony, considering how often I’m the one who gets this educational honor by virtue of my day job).

Properly armed with the full CDC transcript, I’ll let you be the judge as to the accuracy of both the headline and the content of that Natural News piece. However, on the subject of jobs, I think ScienceBlogs.com author Orac really does a nice one in his blog entry of explaining the context behind the flu vaccine and what an absolute (albeit science-based) crapshoot it truly is each year for the World Health Organization. Forget the College Football Playoffs, this one is a statistical nightmare. Well, maybe more like a Bayesian’s dream, if you get my drift (again, pun intended). Paging Bani Mallick or Val Johnson?!?

I'm usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

I’m usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

Incidentally, my dad religiously got his flu shot every fall, and while I don’t recall him ever getting the flu, I can’t say that exactly inspired me to follow his example. Despite the fact that I know the science is solid, the only year I actually did get the shot was the year I happened to be pregnant in the fall (read guilted into it). Guess what? My husband and I both got the flu that year, with a bonus: H1N1. He got antibiotics; I got saline/homeopathic remedies. And the call from the elementary school once we got home, informing us that our first-grader had managed to get a piece of playground pea gravel stuck in his ear.

There is value in not judging a book by its cover, regardless how eye-catching or appealing, and prudence in looking before you leap, no matter how compelling the pitch or bandwagon. And in knowing your audience, even when among friends. Probably the capacity of your ear canal, too.

But in the final analysis where I’m concerned, all the hand-washing, ounces of prevention and apples a day won’t keep the sarcasm away. It’s hardwired. Jury’s still out regarding my own progeny, save for their mastery of dubious playground magic tricks.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

And the Beat Goes On

One of my favorite questions beyond “Why Texas A&M?” for the many faculty, researchers and students I encounter in the course of this job is, “Why science?”

Texas A&M biologist Deborah Bell-Pedersen recently scratched the surface of this topic for the latest issue of Spirit magazine. She then agreed to take it one step further and more personal for our blog, delving into the earliest motivations behind her 30-plus-year career in higher education and fundamental research in circadian and fungal biology.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus's genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus’s genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

My path to becoming a research scientist was not a straightforward one. Although science and math were always my favorite classes as a student, I wanted to work to save the animals on our planet through conservation efforts and to find ways to limit our negative impact on our environment.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that few people have ever heard of. In this small community, I could easily see how our growing population and lack of concern for building in new areas was negatively affecting local wildlife populations. So in my first two years of college, I majored in wildlife conservation.

It wasn’t long before I became concerned that I was not really learning what I thought I needed to in order to achieve my goal. I figured to really have an influence on conservation efforts, I would need a solid understanding of the biology and ecology of the organisms I so deeply wanted to protect. That’s when I began studying biology.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them  that drew her into biology as a possible career.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them that drew her into biology as a possible career.

In my junior year, a friend who was working in a research lab would tell me all about the experiments he was doing to uncover the mechanisms for how cells divide. This caught my attention because I assumed that scientists already knew nearly everything about cell division. While our textbooks made it seem like all of the problems had been solved, we really didn’t know much about what controls cell division. That’s when I decided to try my hand at research, and during my senior year I carried out a research project in cell biology. I found it incredibly exciting to be designing my own experiments to get answers to problems that no one had ever previously studied. On top of the thrill of basic discovery, the research also had important implications in animal and human health.

I was hooked and continued my journey toward a career in research and teaching. Along the way, I have found joy from continuing to make basic discoveries in biology, some of which now appear in textbooks and have potential for the development of new approaches to treat cancer.

As a career, I would say there is nothing better. The research we are doing will have a major impact on society; I learn something new every day; I interact with fascinating people from all different cultures; I travel all over the world to speak about our work at meetings; but probably the most rewarding aspect is my role in training students to be our next generation of research scientists, many of whom will make important new discoveries themselves.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen's Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen’s Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Research scientists do work long hours, but for me, doing experiments and analyzing data is fun and more like a favorite hobby than actually working. Despite these long hours, I still find time to maintain my childhood interest in animals and pretty much have my own zoo — one rescued dog, one cat, two miniature donkeys and one horse. I take riding lessons twice a week on my horse, Tea and Crumpets, to learn dressage.

In addition, I have also always enjoyed music. People are always surprised when they come to my office and hear anything from opera to hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I do play the piano a little and in recent years, I have started learning to play the violin.

In many ways, I think playing music is a lot like conducting research. Both are a lot of fun, require creativity and concentration, and have the potential for long-lasting impact on society.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Yeah, Bell-Pedersen is onto something here, and go figure that there’s actual science behind it, too. Watch it, then get to work and/or go play!

Garbage In, Creativity Out

Video

For a decade, if not longer, I’ve been a subscriber to my cousin Floyd Hoelting’s Quote of the Day email service. Each weekday, his daily dose of inspiration hits my inbox around 7:30 a.m. and typically is one of the last things I read prior to leaving for work.

Some days, I read and delete, but others, I simply stop and marvel. Today is one of the latter. And believe me, the correlation between this landfill and my overstuffed inbox isn’t lost on me, either.

Thank you, Floyd, and thank you, kids of Cateura and Landfill Harmonic! Here’s to finding the diamond in the rough within your own heaps and days.

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“The beauty of music can touch the hearts and ingenuity of the mind.” ~ Suzette Lagacé

Landfill Harmonic- The world sends us garbage… We send back music. from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.

Six Degrees of Nick Suntzeff

Lest anyone think fundraising is the only obstacle to getting next-generation telescopes (such as the Giant Magellan Telescope in which Texas A&M University is a founding partner) off the ground, the New York Time’s Gerald Brown recently weighed in on another area of tough, at-times-touchy sledding — drawing the line between spirituality and science.

As Brown explains, this age-old debate most recently played out in Hawaii and on YouTube, among other venues, concerning a protest by Native Hawaiians that disrupted the October 7 groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

As with all things astronomical, I forwarded the NYT link to Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who grew up in California, studied at Stanford University and at Lick Observatory and also spent 20 years as an astronomer in Chile, where he helped co-discover dark energy in between helping to save Alan Alda’s life, among other feats. Nick offered his two cents in the usual colorful manner I’ve come to both expect and love.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I agree this is a great article. I, too, have been part of controversies about native claims to mountains as sacred sites. The mountains of Junipero Serra, Cerro Tololo, Quimal, Cerro Toco and Kitt Peak come to mind as having been claimed to be sacred. Quimal, which is perhaps the best mountain in Chile for astronomy, definitely is a sacred mountain, and we did not try to study it, except to verify that it did have burial sites on the summit. Kitt Peak is also sacred, but it is not an important site in the Tohono O’odham culture as is the Baboquivari Mountain to the south.

The article expresses the delicate point that indigenous peoples have been totally screwed by western expropriation of their lands, and fighting any fight to show their plight is totally understandable. In the case of Hawaii, the astronomers initially did not reach out to the Native Hawaiians and alienated them early on. There is not a small amount of support among the Native Hawaiians for astronomy, but we were late in including them in the discussions.

Ah, yes. I have many stories about the native beliefs versus astronomy, including meeting Ansel Adams a few times. …

I have always been uncomfortable with this issue since we are sympathetic to native beliefs, yet are often vocal against similar beliefs in mainstream religion. I am very glad George Johnson brought that up in his article. Few people have ever touched on that point of conflict.

cheers, nick

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Yep, there he goes again, creating another story within a story. Nick’s the master of a well-placed tangent, and by this point, he should know I’m an absolute sucker for those. Move over, Kevin Bacon; you’re been replaced by six degrees of Nick Suntzeff, and I’ve got to know the rest of the story on this one!

“You’ve met Ansel Adams?!?” I incredulously reply. “Of course you have! Why am I surprised by anything at this point? Tell me more.”

And, true to form, Nick does — about the legendary artist and then some. As I’ve said time and again, the man’s a walking history book and a born educator.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The quick answer: Ansel Adams lived near Santa Cruz and Monterey (I’ve forgotten where). Around 1975, Lick Observatory was involved in building a new telescope that would be even larger than the Palomar 5-meter. They (Dr. Merle Walker) studied mountains in California and Mexico and found that the best mountain was Junipero Serra Peak, the tallest mountain in the central coast range of California that is more than 5,000 feet while only about 10 miles from the coast. He did an onsite survey measuring the turbulence and found it was an outstanding peak.

As the highest mountain, it was claimed to be a sacred mountain by the local Native Americans. The problem was that there was no evidence anywhere that this mountain was sacred. The local Indians claimed an oral tradition, but again, there was no evidence for this until after the astronomers were interested in the mountain. The mountain is inside a wilderness area, so it is protected and would take a special permit to build there.

So, just like Hawaii, there was a problem between astronomers and the locals. I hiked the mountain once (it is a tough climb), and I thought it was one of the most beautiful mountains in California in the springtime. It is so high that the forest there is an isolated stand of sugar pines, which are common in the Sierras. The mountain has permanent snow in the winter, so the top of the mountain is alpine country like the Sierras. There is only one other mountain — Cone Peak — nearby that also has a few sugar pines. The pines are dying fast, and the forest will be lost in the near future.

I am not sure how, but someone knew someone who knew Ansel Adams, who was an avid amateur astronomer. He supported the building of the observatory (provided that it had minimal impact on the mountain). So I was roped into being a chauffeur for him, taking him to maybe two public meetings. His mere presence there made a big impact.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

He was a private sort of person, so I did not get to know him well. But I did find out that, along with his famous photos, he also had some sort of telescope and took astronomical photos for fun. I imagine these were all destroyed along with the original photographic plates and negatives when he died (a common thing photographers do). I would have liked to see some of his plates. Since I also took photographic plates for astronomy (yes, I am that old), we talked mostly about the techniques of astrophotography.

I have never heard of anyone talking about his astrophotography.

cheers, nick

P.S. This is really old history, and I wish I remembered more details of our conversations. His Wikipedia entry does mention his interest in astronomy, and they have the fact which I never knew that his father was the treasurer for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is the other professional astronomy group in the U.S., that unlike the American Astronomical Society, includes amateur astronomers as members. He was treasurer from 1925-50, a major position which would have put him in the Executive Council of the ASP.

See also:
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/an-ansel-adams-encore/

And here’s a fascinating primer on the artistry behind the icon, authored by a pretty good photographer in his own right, the Eagle’s Dave McDermand.

quote-adams

Light My Fire

I’ve been to my fair share of External Advisory & Development Council meetings during the past decade, but this one took the cake. Well, make that melted dark chocolate.

Each fall meeting marks the addition of a few new members — names and faces that I try my best to mentally file along with the customary group of longtime favorites I so enjoy seeing on a biannual basis. While newcomers are always recognized at some point in the meeting, I don’t recall any of them previously being allowed to make short presentations as part of the induction process.

Based on last month’s experiences, let’s just say the bar’s been raised on what I personally hope is a new tradition.

Each meeting typically is broken into morning and afternoon sessions, separated by one break per session as well as lunch. When we returned from said lunch, I immediately spotted an array of products stacked against the base of the speaker podium — the first indication we were in for a treat on top of the delicious cheesecake we’d just been served as dessert. Beyond the fact that they looked slightly similar to the MREs (meals ready to eat) I’d seen in a previous work life in which one of my supervisors was ex-military, I quickly dismissed them as the venue possibly peddling some new coffee samples or something equally innocuous.

Mistake No. 1.

As Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci, the first of two new members in attendance, took to the podium to briefly describe his company and related work, I couldn’t help but notice as a wait-staff member methodically went seat by seat, row by row to distribute individually prepackaged toothpicks. Mildly intriguing, but then again, we’d just finished lunch, so. … Back to the presentation at hand.

Lynntech's Tony Ragucci presents his company's research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci presents his company’s research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Too late! I’d glanced to my left, toward the end of our row of tables, where I zeroed in on four small plates with sliced bananas and strawberries?!? Granted, EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76 was seated there, so perhaps he had merely requested an extra dessert or two, which wouldn’t be out of the question, right?

By this point, my spidey senses were beyond tingling. Thankfully, Dr. Ragucci was hitting a most interesting stride, so I immersed myself in learning all that I could about condensed matter physics and some pretty sophisticated materials science and engineering, along with related fabrication. Mind sated, curiosity abated. Although he couldn’t disclose the company’s clients by name nor discuss specific information about the proprietary projects and products, that merely added myth to the mystery for me. After all, exclusivity is one of the council’s biggest draws, and it comes bundled with a palpable sense of curiosity that permeates the entire room.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci's presentation, RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker's podium.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci’s presentation, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker’s podium.

After Dr. Ragucci concluded his presentation, Dr. Beckerdite introduced our second new member, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach. He began to talk about batteries, a subject I could readily identify with not as a scientist but as a parent responsible for three kids ages 11 and under and, more importantly, keeping a steady supply of AA, AAA, 9-volt, C and D batteries on hand at any given moment as well making sure that all cell phones and electronic devices are charged.

RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach explains his company's Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach explains his company’s Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

I’m pretty sure the entire room was as surprised as I was when Mr. Laubach and Dr. Beckerdite began distributing via the first person in each row a variety of rectangular-shaped items adorned with shiny, bright-orange packaging. After polling the group to see if anyone was in orthopedics, he then asked each row to peel back and remove an adhesive strip from the first item — a thin, roughly 3-inch X 12-inch board resembling the look and feel of spongy corrugated cardboard. And to wait for a couple minutes as the product heats up (wait, what?!?)

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) '74 and Albert Gallatin '61 inspect their row's allotment of RBC products.

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) ’74 and Albert Gallatin ’61 inspect their row’s allotment of RBC products.

Long story short, he then proceeded to set Dr. Beckerdite’s pretend forearm fracture, using what in the course of a couple minutes had morphed from a lifeless cardboard wafer into a warm, entirely flexible and moldable splint which hardened as it cooled before our eyes into the equivalent of a rock-solid cast! In true salesman-esque, but-wait! fashion, there was more —- smaller, bright-orange, rectangular packets containing dark chocolate (which, once warmed, we drizzled over the fruit and then used our handy-dandy toothpicks to eat), hand lotion and wet wipes. There was even one for macaroni and cheese, but given that this product still is in the final testing phases, it was empty. The intriguing takeaway there for me is that it’s named after Mr. Laubach’s daughter —- further proof of that softer side of science I’ve always loved.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite '76, getting his "injury" set by Adam Laubach.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76, getting his “injury” set by Adam Laubach.

All in all, show and tell -— much less science -— doesn’t get much better than warm comfort food and portable medical supplies. Nor does the fact that, at their core, scientists are humans. One of the best varieties, in my book: those who are highly motivated to improve the future. Sometimes, it’s a direct route. Other times, it involves detours -— years that all too quickly turn into decades of hard work that doesn’t always pan out, save for in the occasional, sobering realization that it’s time for a new direction.

In RBC’s case, they continued to dance with the one that brought them (batteries), secure enough in their extensive knowledge and experience to take two steps back before breaking into what looks to be one heck of a technological tango from here.

Ultimately, those rectangular packages harbor a lot more than some spectacular self-heating technology for a variety of commercial and societal uses. To me, they are a perfect metaphor for science and scientists who, on the surface, often appear pretty ordinary if not downright non-descript. However, given the right catalyst, the sky’s the limit as to where their innate inspirational fire, once activated, will take them and, by default, our world.

As for me, I think a field trip to Science Park at Research Valley (where both Lynntech and RBC are located) definitely is in order. Just in case, I’m bringing a fork.

Laubach serves up one of the day's most popular Safe Heat products -- melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Laubach serves up one of the day’s most popular Safe Heat products — melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Click to see additional photographs from the Fall EADC Meeting, held October 24 at Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, Texas.