A Horse By Any Other Name

Days outside the office are few and far between. All the more reason I find it somewhat prophetic if not entirely fitting that my most recent day out once again was for the purposes of a video shoot featuring another female distinguished professor, Dr. Marcetta Darensbourg.

Five years ago next month, this blog began as an indirect result of Dr. Karen Wooley, who, like Darensbourg, is one in a long line of preeminent chemists to grace Texas A&M University’s faculty. In hindsight, I suppose it was merely par for the course that I would bump into Sir Ian Scott — the equine version, that is, so named by Darensbourg in tribute both to lineage and her longtime Texas A&M Chemistry colleague Alastair Ian Scott, who redefined both organic and natural product chemistry prior to his untimely death in 2007.

Sir Ian Scott, waiting for his post-ride brushing and carrots, if not the cameras to leave his barn.

Sir Ian of the equine variety is the grandson of Great Scott (affectionately known as Scotty) and the son of Gwenael, better known as Gwen and Darensbourg’s mare. She is Darensbourg’s longtime mount of choice, including on this particular day when Gwen, Ian, Halley Berry and Century Mark (along with Darensbourg and Look Sharp Farm’s other respective riders Jenny, Colleen and Kelly) were the stars in Protagonist Digital’s current work at hand: a video showcasing Darensbourg as the 2018 Southeastern Conference Professor of the Year.

(From left:) Marcetta Darensbourg, along with Jenny, Kelly and Colleen, who are set to ride once Ned’s camera starts rolling on a beautiful April morning in Aggieland.

Darensbourg is no stranger to the spotlight, having recently been elected to the National Academy of Sciences last spring. Prior to reaching the national pinnacle of her discipline, she became the first woman to receive the American Chemical Society (ACS) Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry Award, the society’s top annual honor in this realm. She is an inaugural Fellow of the ACS as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one the country’s oldest and most prestigious honorary learned societies. Closer to home, she and her husband, fellow Texas A&M chemist Don Darensbourg, rank as the first distinguished professor couple in Texas A&M history.

Don and Marcetta Darensbourg, during their Tulane University days. (Credit: Marcetta Darensbourg.)

Marcetta describes Don as “the major pillar in my support network for over five decades.” They met in graduate school, at which point Marcetta says “the proximity effect took over.” They bonded over chemistry as well as their love of horses — specifically, German warmbloods, which they ride and raise on their 50-plus pastoral acres located in southeast College Station.

“We share our farm with 10 wonderful equines and two dogs, Willie and Pippa,” Marcetta says. “A score of Aggies, usually animal science majors, have helped us attend to the horses over the years, and we have helped the Aggies earn money for school. We work hard every day and then meet on the back porch each evening about 7 or 8 to share a glass of wine. Sometimes, we talk about the day’s events; sometimes, we just talk about the news and the critters we live with.”

While they primarily stick to Sunday trail riding nowadays, both Marcetta and Don did dressage in decades past and hosted countless clinics to promote the sport. In 1992, Marcetta earned a silver medal from the United States Dressage Foundation — tangible proof of the competitive fire that fuels both her personal and professional interests. In 2016, she and Great Scott teamed up to complete her first Century Ride, which, in true family form, also showcased Gwen and Sir Ian (ridden by Jenny and Colleen, respectively) in a musical freestyle presentation.

Marcetta Darensbourg and Gregor, en route to a United States Dressage Foundation silver medal in 1992. (Credit: Jim Stoner Photography.)

When it comes to the farm’s naming rights, Don defers to Marcetta, who describes it as a creative exercise that begins with the first letters of the horse’s sire and dam (for example, “H” and “B” in the case of Halley Berry, whose name also reflects the couple’s love of movies). From there, it’s a combination of observation, from markings to temperament, culture popular and otherwise, and gut instinct — the same innate resolve she credits for carving out her clear career choice, even as a child.

“I was set on being a college professor when I was 4 or 5 years old — and on being a scientist since I was in high school,” Marcetta says. “I knew I wanted to do something that incorporated nature, based on my love of wilderness, which ties back to my two biggest passions: chemistry and horses. Both require discipline and a constant respect for and perfecting of the process in order to make things better, whether for the horse or for society.”

Marcetta Darensbourg, on set with Protagonist Digital’s Jason Ruha at Look Sharp Farm.

Marcetta admits competition is a powerful motivator, whether in the arena or research laboratory. These days, however, her primary goal is to fulfill what she considers to be her ultimate responsibility: preparing her students to be “citizen scientists.”

“Everyone can be diligent observers of the world around her/him, gather and interpret data, question hypotheses and look for logic in a report,” she says. “To be a citizen scientist is a noble calling — and develops better citizens.”

Makes perfect horse sense to me.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As a bonus feature, check out the related story on Darenbourg on the SEC’s It Just Means More blog or the official vignette that premiered at the 2018 SEC Awards Dinner in Destin.

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