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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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

Expanding Y[our] Horizons

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson has made a career out of science education, outreach and inquiry, inspiring countless school children across this state and nation to learn more about math and science and the many related possibilities through hands-on projects and presentations.

This past Saturday, he made his third consecutive appearance at Expanding Your Horizons, an all-day, workshop-structured conference for 6th grade girls intended to open new doors of interest and opportunity while also encouraging them to stay actively involved in math and science. Beyond making them aware of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career opportunities, the annual event also provides the girls with a chance to meet female role models in related fields.

For his part, Craig says he learns as much as he teaches — typical, given the astute observer and encourager that he is. As the ultimate lifelong learner, he has agreed to share his educational observations via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring a broader audience if not horizon.

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Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his "Expanding Your Horizons" audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his Expanding Your Horizons audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Expanding Your Horizons . . . better known by its acronym “EYH.” You might imagine an expansive horizon, the sun sinking in the west with a myriad of colors filling the sky before darkness descends. A lone rider is riding away into that sunset in silhouette. Who is the rider? From our infatuation with Westerns, one assumes it is a cowboy. But why not a cowgirl? Perhaps it is she who has just saved The West? Why not?

EYH is designed to change that mindset from both without and within. The “Your” refers to 6th grade girls. The “Horizons” is not girls seeing a sunset but seeing science as a possible career. The “Expanding” is encouraging and helping them to look up, to look out and to look above and beyond. Just as the Orion spacecraft is looking to one day take humans to Mars, to break the shackles of low-Earth orbit where we have been trapped since 1972, so it is that EYH wants to help girls to go in science where too few girls have gone before.

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung -- a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung — a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Why is that? These girls know nothing of this, although their parents might. There are various theories, but that is unimportant on this particular Saturday. The question to be asked is, “Why have these young girls come today?” I did not ask, but I suspect that it may be because of parental interest, for each has to come with a chaperone. They have to be brought to the College of Science on the Texas A&M University campus, and 153 have made it today. This is good, because this means that their parents see this as important. They are giving their girls options. They are helping to expand their daughters’ horizons.

Today, what do the girls look like? They look interested. They look interesting. They look like potential scientists. I start my first session. They do not sit back and spectate. They participate. This is good, because this is half the battle. The other half is for them to ask questions. This is difficult, because this is not easy for girls or boys. It used to be second nature. It came naturally when they were younger. It is in the nature of scientists to inquire, to observe and to then ask questions about what they have seen. That is the way science is done, and I try to model that and have the girls see that science is much more than book learning. It is about active engagement. It can be fun. But they have to see that it is important and that they can do it as well as if not better than anyone else.

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut's calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut’s calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

I run three sessions. At the end of each, I am encouraged. These girls have what it takes. They have the right stuff to become scientists. Sadly, not enough girls or boys see it that way. We are not getting enough students to pursue science in college. The STEM fields need them. The world needs them.

The world needs answers. She is beset by problems. We need problem solvers to step up and help her. Why not these girls? They have stepped up today. They have given up a Saturday for science. Today, they have expanded their minds. They have seen that they are not alone. Each has taken a small step for a girl but a giant leap towards a scientific horizon that they may have thought was beyond their reach.

This Texas A&M College of Science program is a small step in the right direction. It tells each girl, “You can EYH.” Yours and ours.

Learning

Down-Home Research

One of the things I enjoy most about video production is that it gets me out of the office. Don’t get me wrong, working in the luxury of air conditioning can be really nice in the summer, but anyone can go a little stir-crazy if they spend every single day at a desk. But every now and then, my job takes me places, and during production of our most recent Labors of Lab segment, it took me back home.

Laura Schwab, a senior biology major at Texas A&M who studies aquatic insects, is the star of our latest installment. As I was beginning the storyboarding process for her episode, Laura’s faculty advisor, Dr. David Baumgardner, invited me to film her and a few other students as they trapped insects at the Navasota River. Well, it just so happens I’m originally from Navasota, so this would be a homecoming of sorts for me. Sign me up!

Users are responsible for securing permission from the copyright holder for publication of any images. Contact communications@science.tamu.edu.

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Now, let’s be clear: The Navasota River isn’t what you would call a “pretty” river. It’s muddy, and there’s usually no shortage of algae. But it is buzzing with wildlife, especially the aquatic insects the students were so hoping to capture. And even though I grew up in that area, I’d never actually been near, or in, the Navasota River. This was a shoot I was truly looking forward to, even on a Saturday.

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Laura turned out to be an excellent choice for a Labors of Lab spot, and it was quickly apparent that she was Dr. Baumgardner’s right-hand person. Upon our arrival, they immediately divided up the students and waded into the river, where they embarked on separate excursions. While Dr. Baumgardner led two of the students off to catch insects in the river’s current, Laura and two other students went searching for snag, the random sticks and natural debris that protrude from calm parts of the river that often serve as nesting grounds for many water bugs.

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It was here that Laura’s natural leadership shined. She carefully chose which area of the river they would scour for snag, all while explaining to her team the reasons for her selection and demonstrating the proper way to collect a specimen. Whenever they found a particularly mossy stick that looked like it might be serve as a decent home for insects, they carefully doused the end of it in an alcohol solution and secured it in a Ziploc bag.

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It was fascinating to watch. In the videos I produce, I often only film people talking about their research and, usually, I’ll stage scenes of people pretending to work on their research so it appears as if they’re actually doing something fascinating in the final video. Never have I actually had the chance to film genuine research in progress — until now. The scenes I filmed at the river that day were some of my best, in my opinion. Undergraduate students doing real research, having real fun. You can’t fake that.
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Plus, there’s no place like home.

Oh, and speaking of that spot, watch Laura in action and hear her thoughts on doing field work for Dr. Baumgardner’s lab in our latest Labors of Lab episode below:

Building Astronomy in Texas

This weekend, the Texas A&M Astronomy Group will host the statewide Building Astronomy in Texas (BAT) workshop within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on the Texas A&M University campus. At present, the tentative RSVP list includes more than 80 astronomers, students and research staff representing 18 different Texas universities.

Arguably a sweet spotlight by any standard, for us and the state, but I contend it’s merely an extrapolation of what the Texas A&M astronomers do best: learn about and from each other and then use that new knowledge to grow as people, as a program and as a profession.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a relevant case in point if not precursor: August 28. Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for the ASTRO group to host an all-day symposium the Friday before the fall semester starts. It’s organized and chaired by postdoctoral students, and each member of the group — from tenured professors to undergraduates — has the opportunity to give a 10-minute talk on his or her current research. This year, they ended the day with a new tradition: a group-wide dinner at Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall’s house. Check out this recap video for additional information on the symposium and further insight via first-person interviews:

When I was explaining to my husband about what they had planned for that day, from the postdoc-chaired symposium and group-wide presenting opportunity to the family-style dinner (not at a restaurant, mind you, but at the deputy director’s house), I said it reminded me of exactly how Bob Johnson –- er, make that Dr. Robert E. Johnson, AIA — treated me during one of my past professional lives in the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Bob himself interviewed and later hired me as a staff member in the CRS Center, established in 1990 by legendary Houston architecture firm CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott) as one of the then-seven research centers and institutes within Texas A&M Architecture. I knew nothing of Bob nor the field, yet from Day 1, he gave me full access to every facet of his operation, from the financials to the server records to the CRS firm archives. I saw exactly what he saw, because he saw us as equals. What an empowering view! Yes, it’s a calculated management risk, but wow, the rewards that can be realized for all parties when that trust is there, real and reciprocated.

The Texas A&M ASTRO group is there, and it’s as powerfully compelling and exciting to me as learning about the historic rise of another Texas juggernaut on the architectural scene was, then and now. One resulted in two chapters in a book, and the sky’s the limit for the other. Take it from someone who didn’t know a lick about architecture or astronomy.

Turning the Tide

Anyone who knows Tim Scott ’89 or has heard him present to general audiences (particularly current or prospective students as associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Texas A&M College of Science) knows that one of his go-to points of inspirational reference is the starfish story, a classic tale by Loren Eiseley about motivation, intrinsic reward and end results.

As many times as I’ve heard him tell the story, I don’t recall ever hearing nor even pondering the starfish’s perspective. Until earlier this month, when Scott forwarded the following email from a former student, Alvin Lira ’13, a 2014 Texas A&M bioenvironmental sciences graduate and current Legislative Support Specialist with the Texas A&M University System Office of Federal Relations in Washington, D.C.

Lira has agreed to share his words via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring other students who may find themselves in his 2012 shoes, not to mention possible benefit from knowing there is light at the end of what at present might appear to be a mighty dark tunnel — and that there are caring people like Tim Scott who are more than happy to help them visualize it even when they might not be able to see it for themselves.

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AlvinLira_LinkedInHello, Dr. Scott,

Not too long ago, I was a biology student at Texas A&M. In 2012 I met you under very unfortunate circumstances due to the academic troubles I had encountered during my first few semesters at TAMU. I was struggling in most of my classes due to a variety of personal issues, and I was at risk of being placed under academic probation. You asked me to meet with you, and I remember thinking about transferring to a different university and changing my course of study before our meeting. While I was in your office, you dissuaded me from this decision and asked me to find a major I would enjoy at TAMU. You told me you would do everything you could to help me get into the department I had chosen in order to finish my studies. You mentioned how many first-generation students from the Rio Grande Valley, like myself, struggle early on and eventually leave TAMU, and you did not want to see someone else miss out on the education that A&M can provide. Soon after, you came through on your end of the deal, and you helped me get into the bioenvironmental sciences degree program.

It was the first time at TAMU that someone had taken the time to truly help and guide me through my struggles. Coming from my background to TAMU, I never really had someone to aid me in any education-related issue. Having someone who put time and effort to help me succeed completely changed my mindset. After speaking with you and seeing how helpful you were, I felt more comfortable reaching out to others for advice and guidance. Within two years after our conversation, I had changed my major to bioenvironmental sciences, learned how to study and find resources, began mentoring at-risk students, got three internships in a row (one of those in D.C. working on Agriculture & Natural Resources Policy), and graduated from Texas A&M (I ended my last three semesters above a 3.25 GPA and my last two semesters above a 3.5 GPA)! After graduating, I went on to work for a state agency for a few months, and I am now in D.C. working for the Texas A&M System’s Office of Federal Relations.

I cannot tell you how much those 20 minutes with you influenced me. You definitely played a huge role in my decision to stay at Texas A&M, and the opportunities that were given to me at TAMU resulted from my decision to stay. I may have not graduated with the highest GPA in my class as a result of my early struggles, but I took advantage of every opportunity given to me afterward, and I did very well in bioenvironmental sciences. I wrote so much, but I simply and truly just wanted to say thank you. I hope that you encourage other first-generation students to pursue their dreams and to never give up. Sometimes it just takes one person to believe in you to change things around. I hope you are doing well and continuing to impact student’s lives. Take care.

Sincerely,
Alvin Lira

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Of course, anyone who knows Tim Scott also knows he’s as gracious and geunine as he is generous. He conservatively estimates he answers at least 100 emails from students each day, and his response below to Alvin (spoiler alert: it includes a starfish reference) speaks volumes about a lot more than undergraduate education or potential career advice.

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Scott_TAlvin,

What a tremendous gift you have given me today! I am blessed beyond measure. One of my favorite stories is the man walking on the beach throwing washed-up starfish back in the ocean (http://www.esc16.net/users/0020/FACES/Starfish%20Story.pdf). I feel like that is my calling in life. Thank goodness I had the good sense to reach out to you to help you understand your full potential. As we discussed, you went on, graduated and are accomplishing the dream. Your job now is to pay it forward, and it sounds like you are doing just that. Also know how much you brought to the table. You were open, accepting, trusting and worked hard. With those attributes, you can do anything you want to do. Thank you for your note today and for not giving up. I am in DC from time to time related to grants, and maybe we can connect when I am there.

Warm Regards,
Tim Scott

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There are perhaps few greater potentially valuable efforts than making and taking the time — Tim Scott back then to help yet another individual in need, and Alvin Lira present-day to prove that investment (Scott’s and his) paid off. As does saying thank you. I bet the starfish would agree.

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All In a Day’s Work

To know Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson is to love him — if not for his genuine passion and absolute gift for scientific knowledge, inquiry and outreach, then for his entertaining stories in pursuit of the aforementioned. Here’s one that he shared last week with several people in the Texas A&M Science Dean’s Office, most of whom know a thing or two about spending time in close quarters with both Craig and his cockroaches. Let’s just say it’s better to be hissing than missing!

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The university media specialist (by his own admission a non-scientist) was spending half a day with us to learn and write about the Future Scientists Program. He had been taking all manner of photos, including many of the teachers using the digital microscopes in the classroom that had been set aside for our use. He then accepted an invitation to join us outside studying in the wildflower meadow, where I had the teachers collect a variety of flowers with the goal to examine different types of pollen.

No sooner had he joined us than he left us, taking off running back to the road like a scalded cat screaming, “Snake!” At that point, bodies bolted in all directions, while I headed to the area where the snake might have tried to make its own escape. I was able to secure a four-foot rat snake (Elaphe obsolete lindheimeri) with one foot and grasped it behind the head. If possible, it seemed more agitated than the erstwhile cameraman.

This seemed like a teachable moment, so I carried my prize back to the classroom for further study and looked for a suitable container. In a side room, I found the old terrarium inhabited by 40 Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches (Gramphadorhina portentosa). Still holding the snake firmly in one hand, I managed to remove the lid … but where to put the cockroaches? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a waste bin with a liner, so I dumped the cockroaches in there for later use and placed the snake in the terrarium. At that point, the by-now-somewhat-calmer-and-mollified photographer steeled himself and took photos of his incarcerated nemesis.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Wilson notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Craig notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

An hour later, I was ready for the teachers to study the cockroaches, so I went to retrieve them. I was startled to see an empty waste bin! A quick inquiry revealed that a janitor had been seen in the building. Quickly putting two and two together, three of us (not four!) rushed out and around to the back of the building and began dumpster diving. The fifth bag retrieved and opened indeed was holding the missing cockroaches. One should avoid anthropomorphism if at all possible, but the insects appeared none the worse for their experience, if not perhaps chagrinned that they had not made good on their escape to cockroach nirvana at the landfill. I cannot say the same for my co-dumpster divers or for our fearful media specialist.

Each year, I am invited by Texas Farm Bureau to present at this, the Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) Summer Agricultural Institute, held at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Each year, something notable happens, usually on the good side of bad. For example, I always take the teachers to walk over and study the turf grass experiments nearby. While there, I also collect lily flowers (Lilium) for them to study, as there is a large bed set aside to grow them that rivals Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, such is the proliferation of shapes and colors of the large blooms.

However, this year was different. This year, the research scientist unexpectedly showed up and showed concern at this uninvited presence. Naturally, I marched straight up to him and asked him to explain his research. He was somewhat taken aback, given that he is not a people person. When he kindly invited them to help themselves to lily flowers, I had to admit that I had already helped myself on their behalves. My transgressions are always in the name of science.

For many, this would be a very different day’s work, but for me, it was all in a day’s work.

Wilson routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

Craig routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

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

Analyze This

In this day and age when an organization’s communications efforts are considered only as good as the tracking metrics put in place to validate them, I am most decidedly old school. While I get that analytics have their place and are here to stay as a valuable strategic tool, I firmly believe even the best metric can never trump good old-fashioned gut instinct.

In essence, when it comes to quality communications, you know it when you see it. In the case of the Texas A&M Division of Research, I routinely do.

Because the Texas A&M College of Science has the largest amount of fundamental research funding on campus, our two communications offices often have quite a bit of agenda overlap and, therefore, lots of opportunities for collaboration in reaching our broader marketing and communications goals.

Director of Communications and Public Relations Susan Wolff and her entire team’s collegiality knows no bounds. Believe me, I’ve extensively tested them — team and bounds — especially during the past few belt-tightened years. Thankfully, individually and collectively, this group subscribes to a singular purpose: providing an invaluable service role for campus units in need of central resources or signal amplification, from governmental relations and federal-funding radars to general societal awareness. Texas A&M Science has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of their goodwill, punctuated in both b-roll and stand-alone pieces for feature stories and news releases from their videographers, sundry retweets and elevated online placements from their social media and web developers, and on-the-fly assistance for professors in need of video or artistic services from their graphic designers and illustrators.

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

The first scenario is how I came to meet Jeff Gustafson in spring 2013 as the videographer in charge of a memorable and most fruitful shoot in Texas A&M chemist Karen Wooley’s laboratory. Admittedly, even prior to that March 7 shoot, I was intrigued by two things: He was a graduate student in the Department of Visualization’s master’s of visualization sciences degree program, and he preferred the nickname “Goose.”

True to form, I arrived on set just as Goose was wrapping up color and lighting testing with Susan, who was serving as Dr. Wooley’s stand-in. He moved fluidly about the tight scene, pausing between equipment adjustments and final checks to introduce himself, punctuating that first impression with a warm smile and a firm handshake. For the most part, I was able to contain myself and simply observe, but in what amounted to a moment of foreshadowing, I did spontaneously extend the shoot when I blurted out an extemporaneous follow-up question after what was supposed to be the final one in the two-hour session.

That day, Goose graciously kept the cameras rolling. In the subsequent days, neither he nor any other member of the Good Ship Research Communications has stopped humoring me in a variety of ways big and small. The resulting videos — oil-absorbing nanoparticles and anti-biofouling polymer coatings, among others — speak well enough for themselves, but for me, the proof is in the many projects in between that day’s final shot/cut and the present.

Which brings me to this sweet bonus — a stylized compilation of cuts from shoots in various Texas A&M Science labs by Goose and fellow videographers Eric Burke and Bhakti Duran, complete with some editorial nudges from Susan. The timing, the touches, the colors, the precision, the overall synergy and synchronicity . . . I am absolutely blown away.

My gut says it’s a perfect mix of art and science. Susan and her crew simply call it a gift to Texas A&M Science. Fitting, considering that’s precisely the word I would use to describe them with regard to this campus and its communications.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Good communicators know it’s a delicate balance of all three. Here in Texas A&M Science, I’m privileged to lead, follow and get out of the way of some of the very best.

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

Time is Relative

Forrest Gump said it best: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I feel the same way about interviews. In both situations, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, it’s a mild-flavored, otherwise-forgettable center. Occasionally, it’s crunchy-nutty goodness or maybe coconut or nougat. And in other instances, it’s a mysterious, vaguely citrusy mess that you can’t spit into your napkin fast enough to save what’s left of your taste buds.

Every so often, however, it’s a total surprise — a good one, at that. A week ago, I found such a nugget in the middle of Texas A&M physics Ph.D. candidate Ting Li’s responses to my #Take5 for Texas A&M Student Research Week questions. Here’s her line that gave me pause:

“Every week during our group meeting, we each present our work from the past week and our plans for next week and get feedback from our advisors. …”

A weekly group meeting where each member in a 15-plus group presents? Uh, to borrow a popular social-media-driven phrase, ain’t nobody got time for that, and yet, clearly, a place as busy as the Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory does. I had to know more.

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source, buyolympia.com, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I'd say I'm not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant, buyolympia.com)

Yeah, this is pretty much how I feel about meetings. Judging from the fact that their source, buyolympia.com, is now experiencing 2-to-3-week shipping delays due to the popular demand, I’d say I’m not alone. (Credit: Will Bryant, buyolympia.com)

As luck would have it, Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab Director Darren DePoy happened by my office the next day. I seized my opportunity, motioning him in and expecting him to dismiss Ting’s altruistic yet surely erroneous statement. Except that he didn’t; he confirmed it. I fired back with a series of questions, the first one challenging him to explain exactly how — as in, how much time does it take each week to get through that many people’s to-do lists? (Keep in mind I do their PR, and although that means I know what amounts to probably less than the half of it, I do know that simply ticking off the names of each project/collaboration alone — with or without acronyms, partners involved and funding sources — would take a considerable time investment for one person.)

His answer? Roughly an hour. Oh, and it’s typically a set time each week — Wednesdays at 4 p.m.

His secret? Each person gets three slides and only 4-to-5 minutes to speak. (Move over, Robert; there’s a new rules of order sheriff in town, and his badge happens to be the world’s largest, whether spectrograph or digital camera.) Oh, and there’s nothing left to chance with regard to those three slides, either. Each must address a specific topic: What I did last week (Slide 1); What I think I’m going to do this week (Slide 2); and Problems/Questions I need to discuss (Slide 3). DePoy tells me they have an online archive of everyone’s slides dating back to the astronomical instrumentation group’s founding in 2008. (Muahahahahahaha!)

“It’s a good exercise for all of us, even [Texas A&M astronomer and Munnerlyn Lab manager] Jennifer [Marshall] and me, but it’s really good for the undergraduates in our lab,” DePoy says. “They learn how to present, how to structure their thoughts and communicate verbally, and how to defend their ideas among peers.”

On second thought, maybe there is time for that. And here, I thought their themed t-shirts for every project were impressive. …

Former Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group's many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab's close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.

Former Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy research associate and Munnerlyn Lab member Jean-Philippe Rheault, modeling a VIRUS spectrograph as well as one of the group’s many custom-made t-shirts indicative of the lab’s close-knit ties and infectious sense of camaraderie.