About Shana Hutchins

20+ years in higher education marketing and communications, including ~10 with Texas A&M Science. Every day/project is a learning adventure. No rules; just write!

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.

An Age of Anniversaries, Acceleration and Accolades

The dawn of a new year is a perfect time to pause and reflect, taking stock of the past while also looking forward to the future.

In that dual-introspective spirit, I received an email in late December from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, letting me know that the discovery of dark energy is now 20 years old. He also noted the paper authored by the High-Z Supernova Search Team he co-founded detailing the groundbreaking discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating is now the most highly cited paper in the history of astronomy, according to the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), an online database of more than eight million astronomy and physics papers across both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed sources.

“There is a book ahead of us — Numerical Recipes — but we are the No. 1 cited paper in history,” Suntzeff clarified. “You will find that we are No. 12 of all papers in astronomy and physics.”

Nick Suntzeff (Credit: Bill Salans / Texas A&M Foundation.)

The High-Z team featured Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt and Johns Hopkins University/Space Telescope Science Institute’s Adam Riess, co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics along with the University of California Berkeley’s Saul Perlmutter, who headed up the competing team, the Supernova Cosmology Project, that near-simultaneously reported the same result. Suntzeff had co-founded the High-Z Team along with Schmidt in 1994, at which time Riess was a graduate student finishing his thesis.

“This month 20 years ago, we were doing fits and calculations and having snippets of exciting conversations, and reading and rereading the Carroll, Press, and Turner (1992) ARAA on the Cosmological Constant, having completed image subtraction, photometric solutions, K-corrections, etc., the prior months,” Riess wrote in a December 21 email to his High-Z colleagues. “In two weeks minus 20 years, Brian confirmed my last-step analysis of the likelihood in the Matter/Lambda plane with a Jan 8th email, ‘Well Hello Lambda!’ and a day and a half later, we were all emailing back and forth in one long thread … about what we all thought of this. We were pretty surprised and confused! This AAS meeting is 20 years after Peter G. [Garnavich] discussed Omega_M<1 and kept mum about acceleration*. In February, [it will be] 20 years [since] Jim Glanz reported the story for Science, and on March 13, [it will be] 20 years [since] we submitted the paper. … I remain awed and grateful to have worked with such great colleagues and in such interesting times.”

For his part back then, Suntzeff was an astronomer at the United States National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, where he served as the principal investigator on the discovery of the supernova (some 50 of them) whose light was inexplicably weaker than expected — the first indication that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. Prior to that, he had co-founded a previous group, the Calan/Tololo Supernova Project, that used the brightness from a specific type of supernova, Type Ia, to produce not only a precise calibration but also a precise measurement of the Hubble constant — a key finding that paved the way for both teams’ subsequent discovery that merited the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Physics, the 2007 Gruber Prize for Cosmology and the 2006 Shaw Prize.

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (Credit: Fermilab / Tim Abbott.)

Nearly 20 years later, I would write my initial press release on Suntzeff, announcing his 2006 hire at Texas A&M. At the time, I didn’t know much about him, but I knew it had to be big, given that then-Bryan-College Station Eagle higher education reporter Brett Nauman had heard of him. In fact, he asked me if the rumors of such a coup were true! I distinctly remember being struck by two details in particular: that Suntzeff was part of Science magazine’s Scientific Breakthrough of the Year in 1998 and that he was a co-recipient of the 1983 Robert J. Trumpler Award presented annually by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in recognition of the most outstanding astronomy thesis of the year granted at North American universities. In combination, these two facts told me all I needed to know – that he was big-time and that he could write, which means he could appreciate not only what I do but also why I do it.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been proven right on both counts during the past decade, but I do know that one of those memorable occasions was writing the 2007 Gruber Prize announcement — my first release on Suntzeff, now that he officially was at Texas A&M, and my first opportunity to hear his version of the story behind the discovery. Again, I remember being fascinated by a key detail — the fact that every six months, the High-Z team gave its data to different groups at different institutions, ensuring that the highest priority would be given to each part of the problem and enabling them to catch up to Perlmutter’s team at Berkeley. In addition to helping them stake their claim to astronomical history, the unorthodox approach allowed them to give credit where it was due: the postdocs, who in turn were rewarded for all their hard work with first authorship on the team’s resulting papers. I had written enough press releases and research features at this point in my career to know this was a major exception to what I knew thus far as the norm — a fact that Suntzeff confirmed was as unique as it sounded to me, as well as a point of pride for him and the rest of the team, which I found both intriguing and refreshing.

Nick Suntzeff, pictured within the Texas A&M George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy (Credit: Sam Craft / Bryan-College Station Eagle.)

Suntzeff also correctly predicted at the time that the discovery would be honored with the Nobel Prize forthwith. And that there would be a lot of associated angst and heartbreak, considering that, unlike the Gruber Prize shared by 52 international researchers, the Nobel and its global certainty of all but cementing the historical record would go to a maximum of three people. When the inevitable came to pass in October 2011, Suntzeff took it upon himself to congratulate, console and champion his teammates to take heart in all they had accomplished — to a man but more importantly because they did it as a group in the true spirit of team.

“I mean, how many people can say they discovered nearly 75 percent of the universe?” Suntzeff quipped in my paraphrased recollection of his parting words to his teammates.

Fast-forward to present day, when Suntzeff’s co-leader Schmidt summed it up quite nicely himself in his reply-to-all to Riess’ original email, alerting the High-Z team to their top-ranked paper:

Dear Adam —

Thank you for your reminder to us all what an amazing piece of history that all were part of. Not sure how we should celebrate. Perhaps this is the right way to do so — via email, as a group, just like we were working 20 years ago.”

My kind of teamwork and leadership. Happy anniversaries, High-Zers, and here’s to making more future history!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

* A Footnote to History

Peter Garnavich was first author on the High Z team’s paper that preceded Riess et al 1998, further validating the efficacy of their powered-by-postdoc strategy.

“Peter G. was our real unsung hero,” Suntzeff said. “His paper was extremely important because it showed that the expansion rate of the universe over time changes in a manner driven by the total matter of the universe. Peter estimated the total matter content of the universe directly from cosmology and showed that the total matter in the universe was not enough to close it, thereby contradicting Perlmutter et al 1997.

“That HZT paper was the first successful measurement of the content of the universe based on the geometry of the universe. Peter also showed at the same time that if the universe is flat, the universe must be in acceleration. What Riess et al 1998 did was to measure that the universe was in acceleration without the assumption that the universe is flat.”

Science Comes Full Circle in Chile

It’s for good reason people look forward to Fridays. In addition to marking the official end of the work week (sometimes mercifully), they represent a last opportunity of sorts to close the deal.

I found myself at just that point in both respects last Friday, when I was hard at work, prepping a draft of a lengthy feature story that actually turned into two stories summarizing the Texas A&M Astronomy Group’s role in one of the biggest discoveries in astrophysics history — the first neutron star collision observed in both sound and light. This one had legs for days and as such was both a writer’s dream and nightmare in one fell swoop.

Ever since I’d found out about it in late August, I had cautioned myself and my experts that we and any media we hoped to target would be best served by concentrating on an angle unique to us. Boy, did we have that in spades, considering Texas A&M astronomer Jennifer Marshall happened to be the only astronomer present at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile observing at the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope at the time for the Dark Energy Survey. Did I mention she was using the world’s most powerful digital camera, the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, for which Texas A&M astronomer Darren DePoy served as the project scientist and for which Texas A&M’s Munnerlyn Laboratory also provided a key sub-component, a spectrophotometric calibration system known as DECal?

I digress as usual. In prepping the draft story in our news database, I realized I needed to find the perfect photograph equally unique to our story — preferably something to which not everyone else within the 400-scientist, 26-institution DES collaboration would have access. As fate would have it, I remembered a photograph I had stashed away awhile back, acquired somewhere in my internet/social media travels: an absolutely stunning shot of CTIO and Blanco, with the Milky Way Galaxy magnificently resplendent overhead.

Blanco_MilkyWay_MattDieterich_HigherRes

The Milky Way as seen over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope, home to the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera and some of history’s first images of a binary neutron star merger, taken by Texas A&M University astronomer Jennifer Marshall. (Credit: NSF ACEAP ambassador Matt Dieterich / Website and Instagram)

As I pulled it up on screen, I was relieved to find it was just as glorious as I remembered. At the same time, however, my mind wrestled with two competing realizations: what I knew I had to do and just how long the odds of success in that endeavor were. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought. So I keyed in the photographer’s name, Matt Dieterich, and clicked on the link to his website. I dashed off a quick email using his online form and hoped for the best while I continued prepping the story.

Several hours later, Matt responded, and within the course of a few emails, a deal between strangers was sealed. As a self-described big fan of astronomy education, Matt was kind enough to lend his beautiful photograph to our publicity efforts. In turn, I agreed to send him the link to the story once it went live the following Monday.

I left the office that evening sure of two things: that I got the better end of our arrangement, and that there indeed are good people left in this world who do what they do simply because they are passionate about it and because it’s the right thing for a good cause. How’s that for a FridayFeeling-worthy hashtag?

Here’s where the story gets even better, if not full circle. As so often happens in life if not also science, Matt revealed to me once the story officially broke on Monday that the reason he got to see and document CTIO in the first place was courtesy of the National Science Foundation-funded Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program. Go figure that NSF is also one of the main funding sources behind the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detected the ripples in space-time generated by the cataclysmic collision and issued the August 17 alert that kick-started the whole universal history-making process in motion.

Three cheers for fundamental science, breakthrough discoveries and beautiful images, on top of 11th hour teamwork and the kindness of strangers. There’s a lesson here far bigger than astrophysics, folks.

Thanks and gig ’em, Matt! In addition to making one heck of an NSF ACEAP ambassador, you hold a special place in our news archives and maroon-bleeding hearts. Rest assured you’ll always have a friend in Texas A&M Science.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Follow Matt on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/MattDieterichPhotography/.

Year in Review: Undergraduate Statistics Program

This weekend as part of August commencement ceremonies, Texas A&M University will award diplomas to the largest summer class in its 140-year history — a group that includes the first two graduates of one of its newest degree programs, the bachelor’s of science in statistics. Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney, one of two faculty advisors for the program, agreed to summarize his thoughts on the program’s historic first year — 12 months that helped establish a firm foundation for both the students enrolled and the Department of Statistics, as well as within a broader profession with the powerfully appealing potential to impact so many others.

Dabney_Classroom

In addition to serving as a faculty advisor for the undergraduate program in statistics, Texas A&M statistician Dr. Alan R. Dabney is one of two university faculty members appointed to 2016 University Professorships in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence (UPUTE) at Texas A&M University.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Statistics currently is one of the hottest career options around! A few key indicators: LinkedIn has listed statistician as one of the top 5 “Hottest Skills” sought by employers in each of the past two years; CareerCast named both statistician and data scientist as among the top 5 professions for two consecutive years; U.S. News & World Report ranks statistician as the top job in business, top job in STEM and No. 17 on their list of 100 Best Jobs overall; and the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked it as the 9th fastest growing occupation between 2014 and 2024.

In response to the growing demand for statisticians worldwide, Texas A&M University introduced a brand new undergraduate degree program in fall 2016. While the Department of Mathematics has offered an applied mathematical sciences (APMS) degree with specialization in statistics, the new bachelor’s of science degree in statistics offers a unique opportunity for Aggies to kick-start their statistical careers and set themselves up in a rewarding vocation.

If you’re considering a career in this multidisciplinary field, read on to find out more about the program, the successes of our earliest graduates and where we’re headed.

STAT_Classroom_Full

After providing fundamental statistics instruction for the past five decades in support of hundreds of undergraduate degree programs across Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M Department of Statistics began offering its own bachelor’s of science degree in fall 2016.

Bachelor’s of Science in Statistics

For the first time in history beginning last fall, Texas A&M undergraduate students have the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree in statistics!

The program is delivered by an already distinguished department recognized as one of the nation’s top graduate program providers. As such, the bachelor’s of science in statistics has been designed to rigorously prepare students to enter the workforce or continue their studies in graduate school.

Through newly developed classes, the program introduces students to the theoretical and applied fundamentals of statistics and data science. However, because statistics is such a multidisciplinary and collaborative profession, the bachelor’s also requires students to complete four classes in an outside area of specialization. This sets students up to confidently enter a workforce where collaborating with non-statisticians will be an important part of their jobs.

While the department has outlined some popular areas for this outside study — including business, math, computer science, biology, engineering and pre-med — students are given the flexibility to choose their own paths of specialization. In many cases, if specialization classes are carefully chosen, students can also graduate with a minor to add to their employability as a statistician.

In the final year of study, students are then required to apply their skills to solve substantial, real-life problems in a capstone project under the direction of a faculty member. The capstone is intended to draw on all completed courses and provide a comprehensive exercise in statistical application. We expect it to be excellent preparation for both a career as a professional analyst and for conducting fundamental research.

One notable highlight of the new program is the introductory survey class STAT 182 that shows students how statistics is used in the modern world. Last year, guest speakers were invited to address the class each week to inspire our future statisticians with real-life stories. Among these speakers were renowned statistician Nate Silver from fivethirtyeight.com; senior statisticians from Google, Facebook, Biogen, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; recruiters from Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and other industry juggernauts; and several distinguished professors, both from our own department and around the world. This class gives our students a highly valuable peek behind the scenes at cutting-edge statistics in the real world. Screencast recordings of the guest speakers from this past spring semester are available on YouTube.

NateSilver_STAT

Statistician and FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver (left, front of room) fields questions from students and Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney (right, front of room) in the Texas A&M Department of Statistics during a March 2017 visit to Texas A&M.

Scholarships in Statistics

Although it’s early days for the new statistics undergraduate program, the department has already managed to secure a number of scholarships to enhance the educational experiences for our top-tier students.

Four students enrolled in the bachelor’s of science in statistics — Jose Alfaro, Steven Broll, Caroline Lee and Xin (Thomas) Su — have received $2,500 awards for use during the course of the 2017-2018 academic year. Two of these scholarships are sponsored by Shell Oil, while the other two come directly from the Department of Statistics.

To learn more about the scholarships available to statistics undergraduates, click here.

Internships in Statistics

Another valuable feature of the bachelor’s of science in statistics is the opportunity to obtain internships.

Two students spent their summer gaining paid, hands-on experience in dealing with genomic data sets, courtesy of Advanta Seeds, an international agronomic and vegetable seed company. A third student is set to work with the Texas A&M Office of Undergraduate Studies to learn from student feedback on academic advising experiences, while another will work with the University Honors Program to develop predictive models for identifying at-risk students. Finally, a fifth will work with a faculty member in the College of Nursing to explore and analyze scores on nursing standardized tests.

Additional internship opportunities are in constant development.

STAT_Generic

Career Options for Statistics Graduates

Career options for graduates with a bachelor’s of science in statistics are almost endless! Graduates will be able to pursue a career in any of the numerous industries in which there is a need for statisticians. Possible venues include businesses ranging from small to large, governmental agencies, hospitals, the tech industry, the pharmaceutical industry and universities.

In addition, our graduates will be well-prepared to continue their studies in graduate school.

To learn more about statistical career options, see the American Statistical Association website.

A&M Undergraduate Statistics Graduates

After the first year of operation, we’re proud to announce the graduation of two bright and gifted students from the bachelor’s of science in statistics program. Here’s a little about their journeys and experiences at Texas A&M:

Tessa Johnson

Tessa didn’t come to Texas A&M, planning to major in statistics. Instead, she chose a field that she enjoyed — mathematics — and would allow her to study the many different things in which she was interested.

As one of the first two graduates of this new degree program, Tessa says she found the experience to be invaluable. She enjoyed the fact that the program allows you to take your study in almost any direction that you’d like.

After graduating with outstanding grades and a double major, Tessa was awarded the prestigious James B. Duke Fellowship to continue her study of statistics in the Ph.D. program at Duke University. She feels that Texas A&M has prepared her very well for grad school and hopes that the department there allows for the same kind of flexibility for student-directed research.

JohnsonTessa_DabneyAlan

Tessa Johnson ’17 (left) visits with Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney, one of two faculty advisors for the undergraduate program in statistics. Johnson and Sharon Wang ’17 each received two of the most versatile and powerful undergraduate degrees across the campus and nation on August 11: a bachelor’s in applied mathematical sciences and the first bachelor’s in statistics awarded in Texas A&M history.

Sicheng (Sharon) Wang

Sharon took a few statistics classes before enrolling in the new program. After enjoying them, it felt like a natural move to add a statistical major.

The thing she says she enjoyed most about the new program was the ability to be mentored by Texas A&M’s top-level statistics professors. Not only did she find them to be excellent educators, but she was also impressed by their willingness to offer extra help at any time.

Graduating with exceptional grades, Sharon’s been admitted to the data science Ph.D. program within the Department of Computer Science and Engineering here at Texas A&M. This move will take her one step closer to her goal to become a professor in an area that’s both challenging and a passion of hers.

For any freshmen who are considering pursuing their own bachelor’s of science in statistics, Sharon recommends trying out a few statistics courses beforehand. She also suggests talking to the program advisors who are more than happy to talk with students about the many different data-driven career options they can pursue.

img_7463

Sicheng (Sharon) Wang, pictured with her Texas A&M diploma.

The Future of Undergraduate Statistics at Texas A&M
We have 35 current majors and an additional 35 incoming freshmen and transfers in the fall semester. Due to the large amount of interest in statistics among students and parents, these numbers are expected to steadily grow. As the program grows, here’s a sneak peak at the department’s future plans.

Undergraduate Students Association

Just as the graduate program has an active student association, we are in the process of forming the Statistics Undergraduate Student Association (SUSA). SUSA will serve to connect our students with each other, the graduate students and the faculty, in addition to providing opportunities for career development through job talks and recruiter visits.

Dedicated Academic Advisor

In June, the Department of Statistics welcomed a dedicated undergraduate academic advisor, Alyssa Brigham. Alyssa is available to help students decide which classes to take, manage student interactions with the university and advise on career opportunities and preparation.

Honors Program

We also plan to develop an honors program for high-performing statistics undergraduates. This will involve the creation of at least four dedicated honors classes in core areas of the degree program to teach and refine skills at the highest level.

Combined Bachelor’s and Master’s Program

Another option for future high-performing statistical students will be to complete a fast-tracked, combined B.S. and M.S. degree. This will allow students to complete both the undergraduate and graduate degree programs in five years, when it would otherwise take six.

STAT_Classroom_Vert

Why Texas A&M for Undergraduate Statistics?

As you can see, the new bachelor’s of science in statistics presents students with a great opportunity to gain early entry into a promising career path. But all that aside, why choose Texas A&M for your study? Why, indeed:

  • Highly ranked statistics department – The new undergraduate degree has been developed by a department that’s already built a solid reputation in the statistical world. We’re renowned for offering students access to a wide breadth of real-world problems in a vast array of application areas, including public health, engineering and spatio-temporal applications, such as climate change, business analytics, forensics, astronomy and many more. Graduates from the department are highly sought after and respected in both academics and industry.
  • Excellent curriculum – Texas A&M’s program is comprehensive, rigorous and highly flexible. It has been designed to prepare undergraduates on a level comparable to that of many master’s of science programs.
  • Invaluable connections – With established connections to local businesses and other university faculties, the undergraduate program allows you to network and gain experience in working with a wide variety of potential employers. Our contacts include oil and gas companies, banks, cancer research centers, national laboratories and other federal agencies, and leading researchers around the world.
  • A&M = a great university – With a solid reputation, strong traditions and community, there are countless reasons why you’d be proud to call yourself an Aggie.

To learn more or inquire about enrolling in the bachelor’s of science in statistics program, visit the degree overview webpage.

Thanks and gig ’em!

Dabney_Classroom2

The Mysterious Missing Third

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” — Martin Luther

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff (left) visits with 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and donor George P. Mitchell '40 at the 2010 dedication of the Stephen W. Hawking Auditorium within Mitchell's namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff (left) visits with 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and donor George P. Mitchell ’40 at the 2010 dedication of the Stephen W. Hawking Auditorium within Mitchell’s namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nick Suntzeff and I don’t see each other nearly as often as I would like. But every once in a blue if not super moon, we get a chance to catch up the new-fashioned, 21st century way: via email.

The threads admittedly are few and far between these busy days, but what they lack in frequency, they more than make up for in substance, from word count to subjects covered.

Truth be told, Nick is one of the main reasons I started this blog. I realized shortly after I met him when he came to Texas A&M in 2006 that he’s a natural storyteller — and that he saves some of his best stuff for his written correspondence. No way should such greatness be relegated to my inbox if I can help it! (Incidentally, I can’t be alone in thinking he should write a book. Heck, I bet I can come up with at least one volume myself during the past decade. And that doesn’t even take into account his Facebook profile posts.)

You see, “talking” to/with Nick is like happy hour with one of your best friends — one who has an uncanny way of seeing right through your soul and speaking directly to your heart. It’s both a comfort and a disarming ease I absolutely treasure, mostly because I know it’s genuine and that it comes with great care and at great cost. It’s no secret that those who feel so intensely as to be so in tune with their surroundings do so at considerable personal risk. But Nick’s vulnerability is just another of his many endearing qualities, and I dare say it’s served him as well in professional circles as it has in his personal relationships.

Speaking of personal, here’s a story rather close to home and heart that Nick has graciously given me permission to share. No better time in my book -– figurative and maybe even that literal one I hope he writes — than the Thanksgiving season.

For a bit of context, we were discussing an idea I’d had for a possible new marketing campaign tentatively titled “I Am Texas A&M Science” and centered on science starts -– how our faculty, students and staff got into science, from choice of major to first jobs, and why they choose to stay. Lighthearted. Informal. Identifiable. Human. Fun.

Naturally, Nick took it from there and ran with it. The result is more than I could have hoped for as both a communicator and a human being. Inspiring on levels that transcend science and even the best marketing taglines. Read/see for yourself.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

My first job — and a science job — was staining Pap smears in a pathology lab. I was only 16. It was a cool job, and I also got to help out in the real path lab, because my boss was also coroner for the county of Marin.

There is another part to the story, though. When I went to Stanford, it was expected I would pay one-third, my parents would pay one-third, and I had a state scholarship for the final one-third. Not much money really back then, but my parents were not wealthy. It got a lot worse when my father became ill and then paralyzed from a World War II injury and could not work. So the last two years, I would not have the one-third my parents could pay. I worked all summer and on many weekends for my one-third, but if I were to make up the missing third, I would have to hash or something.

But then I got a letter from Stanford stating that I was awarded a scholarship, and I did not have to pay the missing one-third and part of my share. So it all worked out. I never applied for a scholarship, so it was all mysterious.

It turns out the person I worked for when I was 16 was a physician and friend of my father’s. When he heard of my situation, he donated money to Stanford for my scholarship but required it to be anonymous. I learned the story much later when my father told me. But it was too late to thank Dr. John Manwaring.

What a wonderful gesture — one I will never forget. My father said Dr. Manwaring was proud that I went into science, and he wanted to help me.

cheers, nick

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As I read it for the first time on an October Friday night, It brought tears to my eyes. As I format it tonight for this blog, it still does.

“It was a very important part of my life, and a life-learning event when I discovered what my father’s friend had done.” — Nick Suntzeff

Lack of scientific proof aside, I firmly believe the universe has its own way of showing us sometimes that we’re in exactly the right place at the right time doing the right thing for the right reasons. This is one of those times.

I also believe it’s never too late to say thank you. I humbly add my own here on the record for Dr. Manwaring and the many generous, forward-thinking visionaries out there like him. Talk about leading by example and enabling us to realize an immeasurable return on your investment in the process.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

blog_quote

Improving STEM Education: It’s About Time

The following is a guest post from Robert Wilson ’89, a former 3rd grade science teacher at Bryan Independent School District’s Blue Ribbon-recognized Johnson Elementary School. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M and longtime science educator, currently is Director of STEM Classroom Products for Galxyz’s Blue Apprentice, a new app that is putting the interactive adventure into elementary science and making international headlines, including for a recent partnership with Popular Science to create an entire line of game-based K6 science resources.

Although Wilson may no longer be head of the class at Johnson, his heart clearly remains with his students and singularly invested in their best interests, particularly with regard to the S in STEM.

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sometimes we put too much faith in a system without understanding all that is involved. I support our teachers and administrators and respect the job that they do for our children every day. However, the legislative constraints in which they work are having a negative impact on our students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. If we are to improve STEM education as a nation, we have to take a long hard look at what is happening within classrooms at the elementary level concerning the amount of time that teachers are teaching science, along with topic selection.

Do you have a child in elementary school? How much science instructional time are they receiving?

planets

Food for thought follows, with accompanying citations:

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

“The recommendations for improvement of science education from the NRC indicate that the elementary years are an important time to capture students’ interest and motivation for science study and that time for science instruction is critical (NRC, 2007, 2012). A review of some 150 studies of children’s attitudes toward science found that interest in science for some children tends to decline from age 11 onward (Osborne, 2003), and thus elementary grades instruction in science provides a key time for building interest.”

“The current federal requirement of annual reporting on adequate yearly progress in mathematics and reading for all students produces a strong incentive for schools to focus more instructional time on mathematics and reading, which can result in less class time for science, social studies, and other subjects.”

Sandholtz, J. H., & Ringstaff, C. (2014). Inspiring instructional change in elementary school science: The relationship between enhanced self-efficacy and teacher practices. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(6), 729-751.

“In contrast to daily instruction in mathematics and reading/language arts, only 20 percent of classes in kindergarten through grade 3 (K-3) receive science instruction on most days, and many classes receive science instruction only a few days a week or during some weeks of the year (Banilower et al., 2013). In the past decade, the amount of instructional time spent on science has declined rather than increased. In 2000, K-3 teachers in the U.S. spent an average of 23 min a day teaching science (Weiss et al., 2001), but in 2012, K-3 teachers spent an average of 19 min on science instruction (Banilower et al., 2013).”

Ness, D., Farenga, S. J., Shah, V., & Garofalo, S. G. (2016). Repositioning science reform efforts: Four practical recommendations from the field. Improving Schools, 1365480216650312.

“Combined, prior science education reform efforts have failed to recognize the impact from the environmental press on learning. More recently, the constraints with which teachers have grappled are increased pressure – resulting, in part, from time constraints for assessments — and an overwhelming focus on mathematics and literacy at the elementary levels (Farenga et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2008; Ravitch, 2013). As a result of high-stakes testing, too little time is allocated toward the instruction and assessment of the science curriculum. Teachers spend more time on mathematics and reading at the elementary level to fulfill requirements on these exams. As a result, science learning, knowledge, and motivation suffer (Anderson, 2012, p. 119). Suggestions to improve and increase content should be proposed by individuals who have spent a considerable amount of time working or teaching in K to 12 classrooms — a task that might provide a better understanding of the environmental constraints that are found in the K to 12 setting.”

This might give you a little more perspective on why I left the science classroom to work for Galxyz, Inc. Technology is rapidly changing how we educate our children. Blue Apprentice is a fun way to learn science and increases the amount of time students spend focused on STEM — time the students are not receiving in the classroom.

sower_harvest

Observational History

Texas A&M University took its right to wonder cosmic in 2004, becoming a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope and officially launching a first-rate astronomy program that was recognized in 2015 with selection to the prestigious Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

Although the program instantly became established on the international research scene with that $1.25 million lead gift from Texas businessman and global energy pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40, it hadn’t truly arrived in one universally critical aspect: academics. That big moment came earlier this year when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) unanimously approved Texas A&M’s graduate degree program in astronomy.

Texas A&M astronomer and program director Nick Suntzeff was present at that meeting and recapped the historic event for his colleagues in the following email message capturing his stream-of-consciousness euphoria and heartfelt gratitude for all those who worked so hard to pave the way for an astronomically brighter future in Aggieland and across the Lone Star State. I’ll let Nick take it from here!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

From: nsuntzeff
Subject: Astronomy MS and PhD
Date: April 28, 2016 at 7:21:02 PM CDT
To: “Astrophysics@TAMU”
Cc: Lara Suntzeff, Jeruska Vladislavic

Dear All,

Today, at around 2:30 p.m., the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted unanimously to allow Texas A&M, through the Dept of Physics and Astronomy, to grant MS and PhD degrees in Astronomy. We are now the second public university in Texas to have a PhD program in astronomy. The ability to grant these degrees at A&M will be effective in only a few days. There are forms to be sent to the Provost, but that is all pro forma because she supports the program.

The THECB did not debate the program — they adopted it without discussion and gave it a unanimous vote. Two of the THECB members looked at me and smiled, obviously pleased with the outcome.

This was the last big piece in the creation of an astronomy program that was started ten years ago.

There are a number of people to thank. George Welch and Ed Fry, as department heads, have supported and encouraged the creation of the program and degrees. Dean Joe Newton also has been a tireless supporter of our efforts, and deserves our thanks. Provost Karan Watson, who knew how the THECB worked, paced the application process to allow all details be sorted out with staff at the THECB, such that there was little doubt that the program would be approved. Joe Pettibon, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs in the Provost’s office, was our point person in the final application process.

Astronomy before I came was headed by an Astronomy Committee who were committed to bringing astronomy to A&M. The 2003 members were Fry, [Richard] Arnowitt, [George] Kattawar, [Robert] Webb, and [Roland] Allen. They shared this vision for astronomy at our university. In addition, David Hyland, a professor of Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering, gave support through his college to our program in the early days, and was instrumental in the initial negotiations for our participation in the GMT back in 2004. These were our advocates for the GMT telescope.

We should not forget the backing of the whole department who have allowed our program to be carved out of the Physics Department, and agreed to add the nine faculty we now have in just ten years. We had many supporters, but I would like to call out the early support of Peter McIntyre, Chris Pope, Dimitri Nanopoulos, Bob Tribble, Bob Webb, Alexei Belyanin, Lewis Ford, Tom Adair, Don Carona, James White, Nelson Duller, and Ron Bryan. None of you know this, but it was Alexei Sokolov who led the first stages of the remodeling of the Munnerlyn Building.

The Texas A&M Astronomy Committee convened the Freedman Committee of 2003: Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Tod Lauer, Charles Townes, David Cline, and Craig Wheeler. I bet you did not know that we had two Nobel Laureates who recommended the formation of the Astronomy Program! After the establishment in 2006, Townes came to A&M to celebrate the beginning of the Astronomy Program, as did Steven Weinberg, who also lent his support for our program. Although I don’t know, I bet it was Marlan Scully who convinced them of the need of astronomy at A&M.

The Presidents of A&M — [Robert] Gates, [Elsa] Murano, [Bowen] Loftin, [Mark] Hussey, and now [Michael] Young — have all supported the creation of astronomy here at A&M.

We also should thank George Djorgovski, Ed Olszewski, and Rocky Kolb for their time on the 2015 visiting committee who gave us a glowing recommendation for the degree program.

A few other external astronomers helped us by writing letters and attending early conferences — Adam Riess, Bob Kirshner, Alex Filippenko, Brian Schmidt, and Geoff Marcy.

We have been greatly helped by our friends at UT-Austin and McDonald Observatory, especially David Lambert and Dean Mary Ann Rankin, and Taft Armandroff continues their help for us.

It goes almost without saying that it is Lucas [Macri] who shepherded the application over, what was it, six years? — whose absolutely stunning document detailing the need for astronomy at A&M convinced our betters in the administration, [the Texas A&M System Board of] Regents, and now the THECB. The word “stunning” was not mine; it was used by Allan Mitchie, who was the staff member of the THECB who coordinated and ultimately became an advocate for the application.

Finally, the Mitchell Family — George and Sheridan — have supported our efforts in so many ways. We would not have any program without the vision of George and unwavering encouragement from Sheridan.

I am sure I have left out names, and I apologize in advance.

cheers, nick

P.S. I attach photos from the panel meeting at Cook’s Branch in October 2003.

(From left:) George P. Mitchell '40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

(From left:) George P. Mitchell ’40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)


Cynthia and George P. Mitchell '40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Cynthia and George P. Mitchell ’40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)


George P. Mitchell '40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).


George P. Mitchell '40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

George P. Mitchell ’40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

"I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend -- meeting of the minds?" an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

“I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend — meeting of the minds?” an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Lights, X-rays, Breakthroughs!

It seems only fitting that as I headed to my recent interview appointment with Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee for a story to announce a research breakthrough involving batteries that the one in my cell phone was down to 20 percent. And that midway through my third question, he had to scramble for a power adapter because the one in his laptop was dying.

The folks who constantly remind us that science is all around us aren’t exaggerating. Batteries are one of the most ubiquitous and vital examples as the fuel for our cell phones alone. All the more reason Dr. Banerjee’s news is something to write/text home about.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Banerjee and a team of collaborators that spans the better part of the North American continent have directly observed for the first time the distorted, electron-trapping structure within cathode material that causes the everyday delays we experience when charging or discharging batteries. They were able to do this with the help of powerful soft X-ray microscopes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a massive facility equipped with an equally massive light source the size of five football fields, along with a beamline that can be focused down to the nanoscale.

“People here use all kinds of different x-rays and such, spanning a big part of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Banerjee explains. “This is basically a humongous light source that gives you intense beams of light you can get at any energy. My group especially likes to work on soft X-rays, which are kind of like your biological X-rays but very intense, well-resolved beams.

“This facility is one of the few places in the world that has such a beam that you can shrink down. So you’re not only taking an X-ray of an object, you’re shrinking it down — taking an X-ray image down to about 30 nanometers pixel size. That’s really what allowed us to see what we did. It’s a very powerful microscope that’s one of its kind, and it allows us to solve these problems.”

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

So, what powers Banerjee’s lab? In a word, energy and related research of all different flavors, with Canadian oil being one of the most prominent. One Canadian company in particular funds a large part of his laboratory (the bulk of the rest being the National Science Foundation) for specifically designed surfaces research, and from the videos he showed me, boy, is it cool, in addition to patent-pending. He says it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed him and his students to explore intriguing horizons outside the bounds of normal academic science.

“We have all kinds of crazy projects that have nothing to do with basic science,” Banerjee says, the sheer joy readily apparent in his smiling face and eyes. “So, yeah, a wide variety of industrial sponsors support the rest of my lab apart from the NSF and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which funded a recent three-year research project on solar energy. I also have a Department of Defense project. But it’s a large lab, so you need all different kinds of support and projects.”

Banerjee at the bench.

Banerjee at the bench.

Speaking of all different kinds, Banerjee clued me in to two interesting tie-ins related to the battery project. For starters, the X-ray technology used is predicated on Baez mirrors — as in Albert Baez, the father of 1960s American folk singer Joan Baez.

“Her dad actually was one of the people who invented ways for handling these x-rays — trivia fact,” Banerjee says. “It’s Baez mirrors that go into it. My dad used to listen to her.”

Banerjee also noted that these big light sources his research requires are few and far between. Before his team moved to the CLS’ Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope (STXM), they ran their initial experimentation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — a facility since replaced by the NSLS II, built by Texas A&M physicist Steven Dierker, husband of Texas A&M Dean of Science Meigan Aronson, just prior to coming to Texas A&M.

Yep, it’s a small, cool world after all. Trippy!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A postscript, courtesy of one of Banerjee’s Canadian Light Source collaborators, CLS Spectromicroscopy beamline scientist Jian Wang:

“Also very interesting that Prof. Banerjee’s last Nature Communications paper using CLS STXM and other techniques and computation was published on June 28 in 2011, exactly five years ago. It has been one of the best papers for our beamline, and I believe the current one will also have great impact on the relevant field.”

My kind of date with destiny. Way to go, Dr. Banerjee, and keep on truckin’!

BanerjeeLab_WideShot

Curiouser and Curiouser

“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this ‘something’ cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory. The census doesn’t count it. Nothing counts without it.” — Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

Robert Fulghum is right: Some of the most important things in life, you learn in Kindergarten. Or in my case, from one of my children’s Kindergarten teachers, longtime South Knoll Elementary School’s Sandy Felderhoff, whose email signature for as long as I’ve known her reads as follows:

“Children may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you make them feel.”

Like Sandy, I’m one who firmly believes in the power of words and feelings, not to mention of retaining and nourishing one’s inner child as a major key to staying hopeful, humble and curious. It’s one of the big reasons I feel such a kinship with teachers and also here in the Texas A&M College of Science, where curiosity is an unspoken job requirement. I believe in it so strongly, it’s our primary marketing tagline: Be Curious.

PassionatelyCurious

Several months ago, Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff and I were discussing the concept as an aside to the press release we were working on to promote a Brazos Valley Museum of Natural Science photography exhibit featuring two glass plates on loan from Carnegie Observatories that were taken by world-renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble. I told Nick that, in addition to the press release, I envisioned a blog on the value of curiosity, perhaps as a sequel of sorts to one I’d written a couple years back involving 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient Dudley Herschbach. Here was Nick’s reaction:

“Sure! Dudley is amazing and one of those scientists who has never lost his interest in everything, including seeing humor in scientists’ curiosity. I wish he were here [at Texas A&M] more, because he is one of the most interesting and enjoyable scientists I have met. The Nobel Prize did not destroy his inner child — perhaps it amplified it!”

Einstein_Curiosity

As is often the case with Nick and I via email, the conversation continued to the point that I realized I had enough material for at least two blogs — this one and another I thought best reserved for National Teacher Appreciation Week to showcase the value of those gifted with the powerful ability to inspire long after the final exam.

I believe in Nick’s case, it takes one to know one. As usual, he explains it best below using both example and anecdote, helping me circle back precisely to where we began — memory and associated emotion, one of the most effective forms of lifelong learning simply because it so often effortlessly enhances and even eclipses the original subject at hand.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dudley and I share something in common beyond an appreciation for curiosity. We were both undergraduate math majors at Stanford, separated by about 15 years. He even had one of my math professors. And he is really one of my heroes now.

Although I did not know him until I came to Texas A&M, he was always the ideal I had in mind of what a professor should be. In that sense, he was like my thesis advisor Bob Kraft, who passed away last year, or another mentor I had — Bob Williams, who was director first at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and then the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). They all had different personalities, but each of them shared a lot in common outside of science — humor, culture, empathy and personal discipline.

Bob Kraft was special. At one point, we were observing and began to chat about music. He had studied classical guitar and loved all sorts of music (except Russian classical music of the 19th century. Go figure). I had taken classes in music as an undergrad in which we read scores of symphonies and such and, from the perspective of a conductor, got to see the rich parallel structure of music and the history behind it. I also had a Russian family that took me to the opera (which I still really do not like) and the symphony (which I do). Kraft knew a lot more than I did, but he was intrigued that a grad student would know stuff like this. So he asked me if there were others who were interested and could read conductors’ scores. A number of grad students could — most grad students in astronomy played some sort of musical instrument. So we got together a group of about six of us, and every two weeks for a semester, we would meet at his house. His wife would cook a great meal; we would get a lecture on wine (on which he was an incredible expert); and then we would go to his living room, where he had a great stereo system, and listen to (1) a Mozart piano concerto, (2) a Sibelius symphony and (3) a Beethoven string quartet. He would dissect the music: “Here is the second theme, but coming in in the bass in a minor chord. . .” I was enraptured. I did not like string quartets, and I still don’t, but the study of the music was fascinating. He managed to get one credit for the “class,” and he gave us a second class a year later.

Now, imagine I would do the same today — invite students over, have wine, talk about music. It would be great, but I am sure there could be Title IX problems and legal issues about drinking, etc., and definitely no credits. But to me, that was what the academy was — an almost spontaneous explosion of learning by someone who was a master.

cheers, nick

Timely Finds

I found a stash of old CDs yesterday — mostly time capsules from past work lives and far more creative days, given that they predated the birth of my three children and social media, among other milestones and competing distractions. There in a folder on one was this forgotten little ditty, inconspicuously labeled as “Essay_Final.doc” and date-stamped March 5, 2004:

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Brotherly Love

As a communicator for three Texas A&M University colleges, I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of former students for gift-related publicity purposes. It’s a process that never gets old.

When I made the telephone call last spring to set up a photo shoot with Blue Bell Creameries’ Edward and Howard Kruse, I knew I was in for a special treat — and not just the free ice cream sample kind.

We arrived in Brenham on a cold, blustery morning, blown in by winter’s last gasp raging through a countryside already wrapped in a gloriously beautiful (if not warm) coat of bluebonnets. As we stepped into the House that Blue Bell Built, I immediately felt at home, from the building’s hardwood floors to its cheerful receptionist, who directed us to the main conference room for the shoot.

As we discussed placements and camera angles, a tall well-dressed man entered the room only seconds behind his smile. “Ed Kruse,” he said, taking my hand and noting the Aggie ring. “My brother, Howard, will be down soon. He’s tied up on the phone, and besides, he’s always late.”

While we waited, Ed gave us an overview of the company — a conversation that soon shifted to Texas A&M and the brothers’ student days. As Ed talked, we imagined what it must have been like to hitchhike to attend a university then only 10,000 students strong — all male and all proud members of the Corps of Cadets. And although Ed recalled that he and Howard had their share of fun, he assured us they both knew why they were there: to get their educations.

It’s a philosophy they’ve continued to live by. Both brothers firmly believe education is the solution to most problems. As strong advocates of Texas A&M’s undergraduate studies programs, they have funded endowments to benefit both students and faculty. Just as valuably, they give of their time, speaking to groups and volunteering as leaders for Texas A&M’s One Spirit One Vision Campaign.

In true president/chief executive officer fashion, Howard’s arrival marked the end of story time and a return to the business at hand. I thanked Ed for including us in his reverie, then helped the photographer position the brothers for their 15 minutes of fame.

As we did so, the photographer told them it would help if he could refer to them by heights — to which Ed replied, “Yeah, Howard’s used to me being the big brother. He followed me everywhere, even to A&M.”

It was the closest Howard came to an unforced smile the entire shoot.

After packing up our equipment, we headed to the gift shop for our samples. I don’t know if it was the novelty wooden spoons or the events I had just witnessed that made me think back to the simpler days of my own childhood when there was nothing I enjoyed more than the taste of ice cream — unless it was razzing one of my own siblings.

I guess some treats in life are universal after all.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

For those who are visual learners, here’s a partial scan of the resulting ad that ran in the Summer 2003 issue of Lifescapes magazine:

KrusesAd_AgProgram

My kids can attest to the fact that I’m a sucker for a good jingle. One that used to run on local radio stations proudly and melodiously proclaimed that “Blue Bell tastes just like the good old days.” Nice to experience an unexpectedly refreshing taste of mine and the reminder that I was a fan of first-person prose long before launching this blog.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, RIP, Ed Kruse. I’m certain Heaven’s a much sweeter place with you in residence.