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!

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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

I Am Just a Teacher

The following is a guest post from Patricia Oliver ’11, a 10th grade chemistry and 9th grade Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. A 2011 graduate of Texas A&M University and a member of the aggieTEACH Program, Oliver earned both her bachelor’s of science degree in university studies (2011) and a master’s of education degree in education curriculum and instruction (2012) at Texas A&M. Earlier this month, she was honored with the 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award — a prestigious honor that includes a $5,000 personal award as well as $5,000 for Oliver to spend on her classroom.

Patricia Oliver '11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Patricia Oliver ’11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

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I am a just teacher. Every year, there comes a point when I contemplate that statement. When people ask me what I do, I automatically answer, “I am a teacher.” And to any non-teacher, that translates to: I talk to students, I grade papers and then I go home. Anyone can do that.

There are many examples of this that all teachers can relate to. One that springs to mind is when a man I was talking to said, “Oh! So you just went to college to get your Mrs. degree?” after hearing I was a teacher. Or it’s commonly assumed that I teach elementary. People are generally shocked when I tell them I teach high school chemistry, often responding with, “Wow! You must be smart, then!” Does that mean if I taught anything else, I am not smart?

The title of “teacher” doesn’t scream intelligence to non-teachers. It is sad that society views the teaching profession in that way. It makes every teacher feel inferior. People’s views of my profession make me second-guess myself all the time. I never think I’m working hard enough. Doing enough. Providing enough. It’s stupid, isn’t it?

This year, I was awarded the STEM innovation teaching award. I had students come hug me and tell me that I was the reason they walked across the stage. But even in those moments of validation, I think I’m not deserving. I feel guilty that I’m being praised for a job well done, because I don’t think I did anything amazing. It’s just my job. I am just a teacher.

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver '11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver ’11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

Today, while sitting at lunch at a conference with 2,000 other teachers during my vacation time, I received a text from a former student who recently graduated:

“Ms. Oliver, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for me! You’ve always been there when I had a problem or I needed somebody to talk to. You’ve impacted my life for the best, and I can’t thank you enough for everything! You’ve looked out for me and guided me in the right path. I love you so much, and I know you might hear this from a lot of students, but I honestly mean it. You’re like a mother, sister, best friend and mentor to me. I honestly don’t know where I would be without your guidance. I’m honestly going to miss you so much, but I’ll still, hopefully, go to feed the homeless. Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for everything! I love you from the bottom of my heart! You were and forever will be my favorite teacher.”

The message was sent completely out the blue. I immediately started to cry. When I asked why she sent the text, she responded, “I was just thinking about my high school years and, well, you were in most of it.” My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous! I didn’t pay enough attention to you! I couldn’t possibly mean that much to you.” I am just a teacher.

Then I realized something … never once did she talk about all the chemistry she learned! She didn’t mention all the papers I graded or how the immediate feedback I gave her was so influential! Funny, isn’t it?

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

I am more than just a teacher. Like my student said, I am a “mother, sister, best friend and mentor.” I am a counselor, sounding board, advice-giver, mediator and thought-provoker. I change lives.

I am so much more than a teacher, and I am proud.

I could go on forever. But I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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.

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

A Bittersweet Benchmark

On January 19, 2008, Texas A&M University lost one of its absolute best absolutely too soon: Presidential Professor John L. Hogg, a beloved chemist, champion of undergraduate education and science outreach, and all-around life force of graciousness and good will.

Last summer on a casual jaunt across campus for an errand, I noticed an unfamiliar maroon bench outside the Texas A&M Chemistry Complex that I’d apparently missed for the better part of five years — not unlike its namesake in the case of so many.

BenchThey say every person has a story, and so does this bench, as told here by longtime Texas A&M Chemistry administrator Ron Carter, associate department head and friend of John Hogg:

Dr. Hogg’s 2008 spring class had just started earlier in the week, and his students were very saddened when they were informed of his passing. Various faculty members stepped in to teach his class and take over his undergraduate advising duties and other roles within the department. While we all handled what had to be done, the students stepped up with their own approach, unbeknownst to anyone that I am aware of to this day. Toward the end of the semester, I received an anonymous telephone call, informing me a memorial gift in the name of Dr. John Hogg had been delivered to the front steps of the Chemistry Building. I went outside, and although no one was in sight, there in the bright sunshine was a shiny maroon memorial bench sitting at the base of the grand staircase leading up the Chemistry Building with an inscription on it honoring the memory of Dr. John Hogg. It was a very overwhelming moment to know his students cared and appreciated him so much that they had come together to purchase a lasting memorial in his honor. We have never received a note or letter from anyone claiming credit for his memorial bench. The Department of Chemistry and the College of Science subsequently provided the funds to have it permanently installed under one of the large oak trees at the main entrance to the Chemistry Building where he once sat and talked with students.

PlaqueSix years later, an anonymous gift as altruistic as the man himself continues to pay quiet but constant tribute regardless of weather or season to the memory and the ongoing impact of the beloved chemist well-known for shouldering many a worthwhile cause of great consequence with precious little fanfare while also counseling generations of Aggies toward career excellence in chemistry and inspiring anyone fortunate enough to enter his orbit along the way.

Between the bench and the stately oaks that shade it, it’s a picturesque metaphor for a man most at peace among his students, his colleagues and his chemistry who is clearly and dearly missed by all three.

As colorful and exciting an individual as his trademark tie-dyed lab coat, Dr. John Hogg and the Chemistry Road Show program he created introduced more than 2,000 people each year to the wonders of chemistry, physics and general science with the help of fire, explosions, weird polymers and super cold materials.

As colorful and exciting an individual as his trademark tie-dyed lab coat, Dr. John Hogg and the Chemistry Road Show program he created introduced more than 2,000 people each year to the wonders of chemistry, physics and general science with the help of fire, explosions, weird polymers and super cold materials.

Of Forests, Trees and Maroon Roses

Ever find yourself so focused on the little things wrong that you miss the big picture of all that’s right? Easy to do when the day-to-day begins to rule not only the day, but also the week, then the month, then the next month, and so on. Sometimes it takes conscious effort to break this vicious cycle, but thankfully, there’s one routine assignment each year in the late spring/early summer that guarantees I stop and smell the maroon roses (so to speak) representative of Texas A&M Science. And boy, were they particularly fragrant in 2013. Or 2012, I should say.

Each year Texas A&M Science Communications compiles an annual report cataloguing our teaching, research and service efforts across all departments for the previous calendar year. Collectively and per individual tenured/tenure-track faculty member. It’s no small endeavor, with the end result being as weighty as the three-ring binder in which it arrives. One of the first pages within said binder is a foreword from Dean of Science Joe Newton summarizing the highest of the year’s high points — my primary contribution to the larger effort, which mostly involves pinning Dr. Newton down and making him focus on the rear-view mirror even as he’s engrossed in all levels of forward-looking responsibilities as our designated driver. Typically each department head also provides a foreword for each respective unit. All in all, it’s pretty impressive information that definitely goes against the Aggie tradition of humility (arguably the eighth core value!) but speaks volumes about what we value as a college and across the fundamental sciences and professions we represent.

Rather than relegate that summary to the binder for another year, I want to share it here so that you, too, can see it’s been a good year for the roses. Congratulations, Texas A&M Science, but your work here isn’t done. We’ll get more binders ordered…

FOREWORD FROM THE DEAN (2012 Annual Report)

As dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University, it is my obligation and privilege each fall to take stock of our progress toward our three-part university mission — teaching, research, and service — and to reevaluate our collective commitment to ongoing excellence in all respective phases.

I am pleased to report that the Texas A&M College of Science continues to deliver on its unspoken yet inherent promise to advance discovery and solve real-world problems. In the past year alone, our scientific ingenuity has resulted in hundreds of top-notch graduates and more than $56 million in sponsored research projects that create new knowledge and drive economies around the world. Each year despite all economic indicators to the contrary, those awards steadily continue to increase, both in amount and stature, as testament to the strength of our programs and overall reputation for excellence.

Beyond research funding, the past year marked another major milestone in external fundraising — a landmark $20 million legacy gift by George P. Mitchell ’40 and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation toward the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy that followed their $25 million gift (half of which was credited to Texas A&M) to the Giant Magellan Telescope in 2011.

Our individual teaching, research, and service highlights in 2012 were many and magnified, highlighted primarily by big discoveries and major research-related awards in each department. Two faculty, physicists Marlan Scully and Alexander Finkelstein, were honored for lifetime research achievement — Scully with the Optical Society’s highest award, the Ives Medal/Quinn Prize, and Finkelstein with a Humboldt Research Award. Chemist Oleg Ozerov was recognized with The Welch Foundation’s Norman Hackerman Award for Chemical Research, while fellow chemist David Russell earned the American Chemical Society’s Field/Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry. Three faculty received National Science Foundation CAREER Awards (Helmut Katzgraber, Wenshe Liu, Grigoris Paouris),

In other notable accolades, Chemistry’s Sherry Yennello was recognized as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), while Karen Wooley was named 2012-14 chair of the Nanotechnology Study Section within the National Institutes of Health Center for Scientific Review. Mathematics celebrated 11 inaugural American Mathematical Society Fellows (Harold Boas, Ronald DeVore, Ronald Douglas, Rostislav Grigorchuk, William Johnson, Peter Kuchment, Gilles Pisier, Frank Sottile, Emil Straube, Clarence Wilkerson, and Guoling Yu, who was named the inaugural holder of the Thomas W. Powell Chair in Mathematics), as well as its first Texas A&M Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence (Boas).

 In global research breakthroughs, our high-energy physicists were part of international experiments at the Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab that confirmed preliminary proof for what is believed to be the Higgs boson particle. The Dark Energy Camera, for which astronomer Darren DePoy serves as the project scientist, captured and recorded its first images high atop the Blanco Telescope in Chile. First blast occurred at nearby Las Campanas Peak, marking the beginning of site preparation for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which also celebrated successful completion of its first mirror. Chemist Joe Zhou received his second Department of Energy grant in as many years to develop more efficient natural gas storage tanks for passenger vehicles. Our faculty (Alexander Finkelstein, Christian Hilty, Oleg Ozerov, Jairo Sinova, Clifford Spiegelman, Renyi Zhang) also are involved in six of the eight joint research projects encompassed in a $1.5 million campus-wide collaboration with Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

 On a campus achievement front, Physics and Astronomy’s David Lee was selected as a university distinguished professor, Texas A&M’s highest academic honor for faculty. Biologist Michael Benedik was named Dean of Faculties, and a record-tying six faculty received university-level Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Awards — Tatiana Erukhimova and Sherry Yennello in Teaching, Kim Dunbar and Nicholas Suntzeff in Research, Marcetta Darensbourg in Graduate Mentoring, and Edward Fry in Administration. Physicists Olga Kocharovskaya and David Toback earned Sigma Xi Distinguished Scientist and Outstanding Science Communicator Awards, respectively. Toback and chemist David Bergbreiter also earned their second University Professorships for Undergraduate Teaching Excellence (UPUTE) appointments. Mathematics’ Sue Geller received the Texas A&M Honors and Undergraduate Research Director’s Award, while chemist Kim Dunbar earned the inaugural Texas A&M Women Former Students’ Network Eminent Scholar Award.

Students shared equally in the accomplishment spotlight, none brighter than Mathematics’ Tanner Wilson, who earned one of two Brown-Rudder Awards presented each year at spring commencement to the top Texas A&M seniors. Allyson Martinez (Biology) and Meng Gao (Physics and Astronomy) earned Phil Gramm Doctoral Fellowships, while Charles Zheng (Mathematics) received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Mathematics major Frances Withrow earned a Pi Mu Epsilon/Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Award at MathFest 2012, and physics major Daniel Freeman received the 2012 Outstanding Thesis Award for Undergraduate Research Scholars from Texas A&M Honors. In addition, four graduate students merited Distinguished Graduate Student Awards for their exemplary efforts in research, teaching and mentoring (Michael Grubb and Casey Wade, Chemistry, doctoral research; Wenlong Yang, Physics and Astronomy, master’s research; Scott Crawford, Statistics, doctoral teaching).

One of our most cherished former students and longtime External Advisory & Development Council champions, the late Dr. Robert V. Walker ’45, received a Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus Award, while Statistics’ Jerry Oglesby ’71 and our own chemist Daniel Romo ’86 were inducted into the college’s Academy of Distinguished Former Students.

From an educational outreach perspective, Chemistry hosted the 25th edition of its award-winning Chemistry Open House and Science Exploration Gallery, while record crowds attended both the Math MiniFair and Physics & Engineering Festival. Dozens of women participated in a three-day, national physics conference hosted by our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office, while the Mitchell Institute unveiled the Physics Enhancement Program (MIPEP) to improve high school physics teaching. The Texas A&M Math Circle also was born to engage and encourage bright middle school students, while Houston-based Halliburton put its name and grant support behind a new “Mathematics All Around Us” outreach program. The Greater Texas Foundation committed $50,000 to round out a $150,000 challenge grant started by another big name in Texas industry, Texas Instruments, to benefit aggieTEACH. Finally our Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) is helping to lead a new $10 million science and technology educational outreach program funded by NASA.

Last but certainly not least, longtime Dean’s Office staff member Carolyn Jaros retired in May, capping 30 years of service to Texas A&M and to three different deans in the College of Science. Biology also saw the retirements of three dedicated career staffers: Tonna Harris-Haller (associate director, Freshman Biology Program), Jillaine Maes (assistant head of the department), and Vickie Skrhak (business coordinator).

In 2012 as in years past, I thank each of you, not only for another year of great achievement, but also for the continued distinction you bring to both Texas A&M University and the College of Science in your efforts to deliver the highest quality of science education, scholarly research, and technical expertise and service to benefit the world.

Heart of the Matter

I got the rare opportunity a few months ago to sit in on a video shoot with one of our fairly new and absolutely dynamic professors in the Department of Chemistry, Karen Wooley. I’ve never been so glad that I for once seized the day, because soon after leaving my usual seat, I found myself sitting on the edge of quite another.

For proper context, I’ve had the privilege of writing a few press releases on Dr. Wooley’s work, but in all cases (mostly due to her busy travel schedule and the basic convenience of mine) those exchanges occurred via email. Suffice it to say in-person is invaluable and that I had no idea what I was missing. To be in her presence is to know the pure joy she radiates — about her science, her students and broader lab group, their shared “ah-ha” moments big and small in the name of curiosity as catalyst of discovery, the overall give-and-take of knowledge generation, being at Texas A&M University, etc.

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

I learned three things in that hour, and to the surprise of a gal who struggled through two years of premed before changing majors to journalism, even a little chemistry in the process:

  1. Karen Wooley enjoys her work, and there’s a lot of it to love. The sheer volume of projects she has going on would make your head spin. And that’s before she rattles off the myriad federal agencies and industry leaders who fund and support it. In short, she believes — in herself, her group, her department/university and her profession’s potential — and that contagious confidence not only shows, it produces results. And more grants. And more breakthrough discoveries. And more excitement. Talk about a pretty picture that needs no storyboard!
  2. Karen Wooley gets frustrated. Newsflash: Scientists are people, too. Even though I know this and try my best to convey it in every story I write, I have to admit I never fully thought about the everyday struggles involved in and incumbent upon being a research group leader. While I joke that I only get to write in my spare time, the same holds true for high-flying chemists, whose responsibilities as de facto CEOs of what amounts to a small corporation likewise take away from their true love — actual bench time. There’s no “i” in team. Nor is there one in “laboratory” or “research.” Interesting parallel.
  3. Karen Wooley has trouble defining success. After nearly a solid hour of providing non-stop detail on the countless projects and personnel that encompass Team Wooley (and revealing that some of the best breakthroughs indeed happen by accident — or, to put it more accurately, under the expert watch of someone with the right combination of experience, knowledge and curiosity necessary to first recognize and then to play out the possibilities), it was a wrap. I saw my window and jumped, rendering Dr. Wooley speechless for the first and only time that afternoon with one spontaneous question: “How do you define success?” Granted, it was neither in the pre-shoot list nor entirely fair. The trite job-interview equivalent of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which always makes me chuckle as I think of the stock “in-your-job” answer that runs through my mind but for once not out my mouth. For the record, my standard answer is “happy.” And although Dr. Wooley never said as much, she didn’t have to, considering it was obvious to all present in the room.

A wrap, indeed, and all in my ideal kind of day’s work.