Life Forces and Legacies

Last week Texas A&M University hosted a familiar face and cherished friend in one Robert M. Gates, 22nd United States Secretary of Defense and 22nd President of Texas A&M, who was here on campus to discuss his new book, DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. As expected, Dr. Gates packed Rudder Auditorium and had his audience hanging on his every warm and oftentimes humorous word.

Two Texas A&M presidents removed and two jobs later, Dr. Gates remains a man much revered in Aggieland, if not for progressive plans like faculty reinvestment, then for more student-centric feats like first-year grade exclusion and the university studies degree. (Or, in my case, as the guy at the helm when journalism died, but that’s another subject, one for which I’ve mostly forgiven him. Mostly. And I even understand the dairy center, given that yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of Dad and Mom selling off our own herd and ending our family’s days in the milking pits. In short, it was time for both.)

His visit reminded me of another revered Aggie, George P. Mitchell ’40, who was a big fan of Dr. Gates and his energy when it came to Mr. Mitchell’s alma mater and its future. Understandably there as well, considering Mr. Mitchell invested as big as anyone in those dreams, adding his monetary muscle to fuel the dream for Texas A&M Physics.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

That admiration was mutual, as evidenced by this quote from Dr. Gates upon hearing of Mr. Mitchell’s death on July 26, 2013:

“George Mitchell was a great man and a great benefactor of Texas A&M University. Through his generosity, dramatic improvements were made possible in many areas, including science research and teaching at Texas A&M, particularly in physics. Thanks to his philanthropy, world-class facilities and significant enhancements for faculty and students alike brought international renown to the university. His gifts also extended to athletics, particularly tennis. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from him while I was president of the university. He will be greatly missed.”

These two powerful men and their visionary motivations coincided and collided in a
marvelous and near-magical way, creating the best possible hiring world and a climate of excitement and forward momentum that proved so attractive in 2006 as to actually land such an established star as Nick Suntzeff, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, to lead Texas A&M’s new astronomy program.

Thanks in large part to Dr. Gates’ and Mr. Mitchell’s dual dreams, the future is gloriously bright for Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Texas A&M University and the overall state of Texas. Despite being gone in vastly different extremes, both will be forever remembered in Aggieland, if not for enabling sweeping recruiting successes and other tangible program-wide gains, then for negotiating two beautiful buildings — architectural showpieces and the first on campus to be built through a unique university-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.

Here’s a bit of the rest of the story on that story, as told by Joe Newton, Dean of Science and inaugural holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Endowed Chair in Statistics, who reflects on a pivotal meeting involving Dr. Gates and Texas A&M’s most generous benefactor:

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

George P. Mitchell, 1940 Texas A&M University distinguished petroleum engineering graduate, the largest benefactor Texas A&M has ever had, developer of The Woodlands, and the leading figure in hydraulic fracking (among a host of other amazing accomplishments), passed away on July 26 at the age of 94.

Lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as dean of the Texas A&M College of Science, I was privileged to participate in his philanthropic efforts to build fundamental physics and astronomy at Texas A&M. In the process, he became a friend. I flew on Continental Express with him. I ate at Chick-fil-A with him. Somehow he thought I had power. He would call me to tell me to fix things. Sometimes I even could. His passing has made me very sad. I cannot believe this life force has left us.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

I also had the honor of knowing former Texas A&M President (and CIA Director and Secretary of Defense) Robert M. Gates. These two men came together in Mitchell’s Houston office on Aug. 14, 2005, in a meeting that changed the face of Texas A&M. It was my honor to be there, and I would like to pay tribute to both of them by describing the meeting.

Both men had already played a large role in the development of fundamental physics and astronomy on campus; Gates with his reinvestment program designed to bolster teaching and research efforts by hiring a large number of new faculty, and Mitchell with his philanthropy that created an institute named in his honor, that helped us build a new astronomy program and attract great faculty.

Ed Fry, the department head at the time (and a dreamer of the first order), had developed a remarkably close relationship with Mitchell. Fry thought that Mitchell would be receptive to a request to help fund two buildings on campus. The first would be a “signature building” architecturally to house the Mitchell Institute; the second would for the first time consolidate all of the department’s faculty and classes in one place.

The task of convincing the university to supply the matching funds that Mitchell always required fell largely to me. Mitchell routinely drove a hard bargain, but the driving premise behind his trademark matching requirement was to ensure the maximum benefit of every dollar contributed — his or the university’s — to the broader cause or project. A major component of this particular project was that the department would make no claim on space it would vacate, so that the university would in fact receive a net gain with its matching funds.

After a series of meetings with various university officials, especially Gates, it was agreed that Gates and a few others (including Fry, Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 and College of Science Director of Development Don Birkelbach ’70) would go to Mitchell’s office in downtown Houston to make “the big ask.”

There was a sense of history when we walked into the conference room. Mitchell, as usual, started by asking about projects in which he was interested, including the Giant Magellan Telescope. Then his attorney, Barry Levitt, suggested we talk about the buildings. The rest took perhaps five minutes. Both Gates and Mitchell had great respect for the other. There was a true sense of good will.

Gates began by saying, “I don’t want to insult Ed or Joe, but a physics building has not been one of our top priorities.” In his typical wry manner, Mitchell interrupted Gates with, “Yes, I’ve noticed.” At which point everyone laughed. “But because of all you’ve done,” Gates continued, “we will contribute $2 million toward a building to house the Mitchell Institute, and I have a suggestion for you: I have identified $20 million in cash, and if you agree to the legacy proposal we have prepared for you, we will use the first $20 million of your funds to match what we will do.”

Mitchell responded that there were problems with the proposal, but that perhaps he could do $3 million per year for five years. Gates, without batting an eyelash, countered: “The $20 million really straps me; how about you do 10 years?” Mitchell came right back at him, suggesting, “How about $2 million for 10 years?” After a pause, Gates continued to barter, “$2.5 million for 10 years would split the difference.” Then Ed Fry jumped into the fray with, “It would really help to do it in five years — how about $5 million for five years?” Mitchell said, “Same amount of money, so OK.” The deal was done!

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Later, Mitchell’s total contribution for the $82.5 million buildings actually reached just over $36 million.

The rest is history. It took many, many meetings to complete the two beautiful buildings, but I will never forget the day these two legendary men agreed to something that greatly enhanced Texas A&M. Ultimately, with the fundamental work being done in these buildings and the resulting renaissance for Texas A&M physics and astronomy, they have indeed changed the world.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell '40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell ’40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

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.