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.

Moving On Up

Judging from the 160 likes, 27 shares and more than 6,000 people reached and counting on yesterday’s related Facebook post alone, I’d say the Texas A&M Science audience is just as excited as we are about the big news on campus. No, not sole presidential finalist Michael K. Young’s meet-and-greets with various faculty and student groups, which was certainly cool. Rather, the announcement that Texas A&M University has rejoined the ranks of the National Science Foundation’s top 20, long regarded as the barometer for best research institutions across the country. Oh, and speaking of sole, did I mention we’re the only university in the state of Texas that made the list?

testtubes

As with any complex and multifaceted enterprise, there are many ways to slice and dice research-related data, but NSF is one entity that pretty much has it as down to a science as anyone can. In short, this is a legitimate cause for celebration, particularly given that so many in this college and across this campus day in and day out play such an important role in what amounts to a university-wide research result.

On more than one occasion, Dean of Science Joe Newton has referred to the College of Science as the university’s biggest research college without an affiliated state agency. And for as long as I can remember, we’ve enjoyed a close relationship with the Texas A&M Division of Research, from related resources for principal investigators and laboratories to marketing and communications efforts. All the more reason we share in their collective pride regarding this result.

I recall asking Dr. Newton early on in my Texas A&M Science tenure why faculty choose Texas A&M, given the myriad options. His matter-of-fact answer, as both dean and a faculty member, has never wavered:

“Scientists go where they can do their science best.”

So pleased that Texas A&M University is one of those places and that the world is taking notice. Congrats, Texas A&M Research, and here’s to many more years of productive, world-changing results!

And the Beat Goes On

One of my favorite questions beyond “Why Texas A&M?” for the many faculty, researchers and students I encounter in the course of this job is, “Why science?”

Texas A&M biologist Deborah Bell-Pedersen recently scratched the surface of this topic for the latest issue of Spirit magazine. She then agreed to take it one step further and more personal for our blog, delving into the earliest motivations behind her 30-plus-year career in higher education and fundamental research in circadian and fungal biology.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus's genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus’s genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

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My path to becoming a research scientist was not a straightforward one. Although science and math were always my favorite classes as a student, I wanted to work to save the animals on our planet through conservation efforts and to find ways to limit our negative impact on our environment.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that few people have ever heard of. In this small community, I could easily see how our growing population and lack of concern for building in new areas was negatively affecting local wildlife populations. So in my first two years of college, I majored in wildlife conservation.

It wasn’t long before I became concerned that I was not really learning what I thought I needed to in order to achieve my goal. I figured to really have an influence on conservation efforts, I would need a solid understanding of the biology and ecology of the organisms I so deeply wanted to protect. That’s when I began studying biology.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them  that drew her into biology as a possible career.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them that drew her into biology as a possible career.

In my junior year, a friend who was working in a research lab would tell me all about the experiments he was doing to uncover the mechanisms for how cells divide. This caught my attention because I assumed that scientists already knew nearly everything about cell division. While our textbooks made it seem like all of the problems had been solved, we really didn’t know much about what controls cell division. That’s when I decided to try my hand at research, and during my senior year I carried out a research project in cell biology. I found it incredibly exciting to be designing my own experiments to get answers to problems that no one had ever previously studied. On top of the thrill of basic discovery, the research also had important implications in animal and human health.

I was hooked and continued my journey toward a career in research and teaching. Along the way, I have found joy from continuing to make basic discoveries in biology, some of which now appear in textbooks and have potential for the development of new approaches to treat cancer.

As a career, I would say there is nothing better. The research we are doing will have a major impact on society; I learn something new every day; I interact with fascinating people from all different cultures; I travel all over the world to speak about our work at meetings; but probably the most rewarding aspect is my role in training students to be our next generation of research scientists, many of whom will make important new discoveries themselves.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen's Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen’s Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Research scientists do work long hours, but for me, doing experiments and analyzing data is fun and more like a favorite hobby than actually working. Despite these long hours, I still find time to maintain my childhood interest in animals and pretty much have my own zoo — one rescued dog, one cat, two miniature donkeys and one horse. I take riding lessons twice a week on my horse, Tea and Crumpets, to learn dressage.

In addition, I have also always enjoyed music. People are always surprised when they come to my office and hear anything from opera to hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I do play the piano a little and in recent years, I have started learning to play the violin.

In many ways, I think playing music is a lot like conducting research. Both are a lot of fun, require creativity and concentration, and have the potential for long-lasting impact on society.

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Yeah, Bell-Pedersen is onto something here, and go figure that there’s actual science behind it, too. Watch it, then get to work and/or go play!

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.

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)


I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)


If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Core Competency

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, one of the many perks of my job is having experts at my fingertips. With a simple email, phone call or Facebook message, I can get instant feedback concerning the day’s top headlines, scientific and beyond.

Take for instance last week’s reports celebrating discovery of oceans of water beneath the Earth’s surface. I happened to catch a radio snippet recapping the Huffington Post’s version of the story as I was heading solo to the grocery store on a rare Friday vacation day. (Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are as to what qualifies as vacation for this full-time working mom of three ages 10 and under. But that’s another story with neither experts nor answers!) Intrigued, I first Googled the story to find out where it originated (Northwestern University), then emailed my friend Wolfgang Bangerth, a Texas A&M mathematician and author of a modeling software program, ASPECT, that is designed to develop, among so many other things, clearer pictures of Earth’s interior.

Besides being a computational scientist and modeling genius, Wolfgang is no slouch when it comes to geophysics — or any engineering-related branch of science, in my experience. While I knew this would be right up his alley, I didn’t realize he was in South Korea at the time teaching a weeklong workshop. Distance certainly didn’t affect his ability to advise nor my efforts to produce a press release on the subject with his copious help.

(Here’s an example of Wolfgang’s ASPECT-driven work — convection in a 3D box. Reminds me of those cool optical illusion-type puzzles you got as a kid or the nifty gel-based paperweights you sometimes see in science-types offices!)

For me, curiosity is right up there with a sense of humor and vocabulary prowess in the way of appealing attributes, but I do so love it when others share my enthusiasm for a spur-of-the-moment idea, PR-related and otherwise. Wolfgang certainly went the extra mile (pun intended) to bring this one to fruition, paying me and other communicators what I consider to be the ultimate compliment during a side discussion concerning my use of the formal “Dr.” title with him out of habitual respect:

“It’s a title. I got it by doing my job, not by being particularly brilliant. As for respect, you are doing a fantastic job, too, and I do respect that just as much. At a university, we’re a team. You can’t do your job without us, and we can’t do it without people like you. I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat each other as equals.”

Well said as always, my wise friend. Let the record show (at least in this piece) that I’m recovering nicely.

Thank you, Wolfgang, for the global assist and the team affirmation. Awesome to the core!

Another bonus of being friends with such world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Another bonus of being friends with such a world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

What Moves a Monarch Man

A recent Slate.com article reporting the lowest level on record of Monarch butterflies reaching Mexico this year reminded me of a related story Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science researcher Dr. Craig Wilson had shared in October prior to agreeing to be a contributing author to this blog. (Incidentally, roughly a month before the Jan. 29 Slate article ran, Craig also had been featured in a PBS piece for his expertise on this very scenario he had forecasted last spring.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

You see, among oh, so many other things, Craig is a valiant champion of all things nature and educational — subjects he views in constant and quite purposeful tandem. When it comes to butterflies, he is the host and caretaker of his own official Monarch Waystation here in Aggieland, known as the USDA/ARS People’s Garden and created as a outdoor classroom designed to get students interested in science and possible related careers. And last spring, he singlehandedly planted milkweed and other butterfly-friendly varieties in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden. Because it’s the right thing to do, for the children and the butterflies.

After watching that PBS clip as 2013 metamorphosized into 2014, I had emailed Craig to tell him I enjoyed seeing that he has a kindred spirit way down south and that I could totally see him (Craig) breathing life into a Monarch here in Texas. His response?

“Funny you should say that, but I revived a frozen Monarch on a playground in El Reno, Oklahoma several years ago and had it flying around a middle school classroom. The kids made a box for it and provided sugar water, and I transported it with me to Corpus Christi, where I had a conference the next week, and released it in a garden there, sending photos back to the students en route. Helping the migration, one Monarch at a time…”

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view -- as well as personal steps like planting milkweed -- toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view — as well as personal steps like planting milkweed — toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

But I digress. I had mentioned having a past story — why don’t I just let Craig tell it in his own inspiring, firsthand words!

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On Boss’s Day [October 16], we pay homage to our brave and fearless leader. Below is a short essay I wrote in tribute to another Monarch…

From Queen Elizabeth II to other Monarchs including Tim [Scott, Craig’s boss as one of four CMSE co-directors]:

It must be my destiny, to leave one continent behind where I pledged allegiance to a Queen, only to arrive on another where I am again ruled by a Monarch, only this time it is a butterfly.

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of “Flight of the Butterflies” in the IMAX theatre in Austin, Texas where I was enthralled by both the Monarch’s flight and plight, tracing its history through the eyes of a young boy (Urquhart) lying in the pastures above Toronto, Canada, wondering just where they flew, to the discovery near the end of his life that it was to a few acres’ nestling at 10,000 feet in the Sierras that transverse the state of Michoacan in Mexico. The wearing of 3-D spectacles was new to me, but it enhanced the experience beyond my wildest dreams as I felt myself flying with the adult butterflies, munching alongside their caterpillars and dicing with death in the form of crop sprayers, predators and loss of my habitat. But the most wondrous magic for me was to be able to watch the four-year-old girl in front of me, sitting on her father’s lap and reaching out continuously in the total belief that a Monarch would land on her tiny, precious hand. Oh, that everyone could believe.

monarchs-nestingI have been enthralled by Monarchs for several years now and take part in the Citizen Science Project out of Kansas University, through which you can receive individual tags to stick on the hind wing of a migrating Monarch as it flies the 2,000 miles south from Canada in the fall to help track their movements. This is one of the world’s great migrations and, hazardous at the best of times, it has become more so of late due to a multitude of factors ranging from climate change where the extreme heat can dessicate their eggs on the journey north in the spring; wildfires that destroy wildflowers that provide nectar; loss of habitat both in U.S. and Mexico; and, perhaps most drastically, the loss of milkweed plants that are the only food source for their caterpillars.

Milkweed search and recovery has become a particular obsession of mine. I can spot a milkweed blooming on a highway verge despite going at 70 mph as I traverse the country. That necessitates a sudden but safe stop and, armed with my trusty sharpshooter, I dig below the deeply seated tuber and carry my prize back to the car to be transplanted into the USDA/People’s Garden in College Station outside my office, where I watched a female Monarch carefully depositing individual eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves yesterday. Two weeks ago, I was able to tag a male and a female — the first to arrive in our garden from Canada on their fall migration — the faded coloration of their wings and less-than-pristine condition suggesting that they did indeed have hundreds of miles on their odometers.

Naively, I do believe that, “If you plant it, they will come” — it being milkweeds that are native throughout the land over which this Monarch, I believe, should rule. It would be sad to see her go the way of George III. Perhaps, taking a literal leaf out of Lady Bird Johnson’s playbook, the north-south interstates could be planted with milkweeds and become corridors to aid the migration, but that requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration we are sorely missing currently. Would it not be ironic if a Monarch could unite this nation?

E pluribus unum…

History Worth Repeating

THIS JUST IN: This rest-of-the-story stuff is a universally (pardon the pun) appealing thing.

One of the absolute kingpins of this genre is award-winning author and Guggenheim Fellow Richard Panek, who penned the masterful 2011 book, The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality – a detailed, behind-the-scenes story of the 2011 Nobel Prize-winning discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. In the book, Panek saw fit to give due credit to (among others) Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff for his early work in Chile that essentially began the field of supernova cosmology.

Yesterday, in his Last Word On Nothing blog entry, Panek shares some vintage Nick Suntzeff – precisely the kind of trademark insight Nick is known for and to which I referred in this very blog last week.

History disease. The one chronic condition we could all be so fortunate to contract, sooner rather than later. Wonder if it’s contagious, not to mention as essential to groundbreaking research as masking tape and aluminum foil?

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), Nick Suntzeff's astronomical home for 20 years prior to coming to Texas A&M. (Credit: Tim Abbott, CTIO.)

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), Nick Suntzeff’s astronomical home for 20 years prior to coming to Texas A&M. (Credit: Tim Abbott, CTIO.)

For some additional history on Nick, check out one of the historically significant things he did as an undergraduate at Stanford that continues to educate and inspire to this day.

Yeah, he built that. But here’s how he described his contribution to elite higher education institutional history to me when I originally stumbled across the information:

“It seems not too long ago, a friend and I had no idea what we were doing, but a really supportive physics professor let us believe we could build the thing. He really was the key to this project. It is fun to see it still there at Stanford. I was amused to find out that it is well known as a romantic place on warm evenings. That is, romantic for couples, not astronomers who would be up in the dome cursing whatever is not working and drinking way too much coffee while squinting at a flickering screen and listening to totally forgettable ’60s classic rock. Not a pretty picture.”

Beats the hell outta befriending black widows, in my opinion.

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.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU

I’m one of of the faculty mentors for the Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU program, which I originally talked about here. Two of our five students are working with me on a project this summer. We are a three-woman dream team!

We are studying mathematical models of how organisms coexist and compete while using the same resources in an ecosystem. There are a variety of ways that organisms use resources. For example, plants need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and without sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients, the plant will die. On the other hand, humans can get energy for daily activities from carbohydrates, protein or fats. If we don’t have carbohydrates, we can substitute some protein or fat and get by; for the sake of providing us with energy, we need any one of these, but we don’t need all. Modeling has been used with multiple organisms using one type of nutrient utilization, but not a lot with multiple organisms having multiple ways of utilizing nutrients. That’s what we are working on.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Thus far, we’ve reproduced some results from existing models with a common type of nutrient utilization; in particular, we’ve shown how one organism can outcompete others for the same resources, and how two organisms can coexist even though they both utilize the same resources. We are working on learning some of the background science of how organisms use resources and the equations and mathematics associated with this. We are performing a literature review to familiarize ourselves with what research has been done in the past and has been published recently. We are learning what types of questions scientists are interested in and have answered in the past, and also figuring out where we can make a novel contribution. And, given that we are a mathematics program, it won’t surprise you to learn that we are developing the equations we need to make the modifications required to the model we have so that we can do something new.

The other three students in our program have interesting problems to work on as well. Two are working on mathematical models for how atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs and how diet and exercise might improve arterial health. One student is working on mathematical models for controlling invasive species; personally, I am hoping he will find a way to mitigate the spread of fireants.