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.

Carpe Diem

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff may have missed out on the Stanford University Class of 1974’s 40th reunion this past weekend because of meeting conflicts, but he still got the chance to revisit his undergraduate past.

Nick arrived on the last day, showing up just in time to walk over with Redwood High School and Stanford classmate Mike Kast to see the student observatory the two built together in the early 1970s. Not unlike the Texas A&M Bonfires of old, the structure was equal parts commandeered and sheer will — no doubt part of the reason Nick makes such a good Aggie nowadays!

As usual, Nick tells it best in both photographs and captions, so I’ll let him take it from here!

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Mike Kast and I built this observatory at Stanford back when we were undergrads. Amazingly, it is still there and has not burned down, considering I did much of the wiring. The telescope and dome have been replaced, and it has been spiffed up a lot (like the rest of Stanford), but it is still there and still being used for a popular astronomy lab class. Sally Ride helped and was a student in the first lab class we had! The real catalyst was Dr. Walter Meyerhof, who was the Chairman of the Physics Department back then and had confidence that a bunch of green undergrads could do such a project. We took the pier from aeronautical engineering (sort of without exactly asking), the 100-year-old Leuschner Observatory dome from UC Berkeley, a B/C mount from a Southern California aerospace firm that had previously used it to track downrange missile tests, and furniture from somewhere we can’t remember now. Mike figured out how to replicate the key to the electronic lock at the gate to the road up the hill so we could get in and out without anyone at Behavioral Sciences noticing. I was told the observatory hill became a place where undergrads often go on first dates.

Epilogue

OK, if you are fortunate enough to know Nick Suntzeff or have read any of this blog’s previous entries involving him, you know that there’s more to the story and that it’s worth telling/reading. More from Nick on his and Mike’s friendship and their Stanford adventures:

It was nostalgic going back and seeing it. They actually have done some remodeling of the building, and it looks a lot better. It is weird what one remembers. Mike and I told each other stuff that we remembered, and basically, we remembered completely different events. It is not that he would remember some event, and I remembered it differently — rather that I generally had NO memory of what he remembered. So it was fun piecing together the story again.

Just a short prologue. Mike’s mother is Russian, and their family knew my family. His father was a vice president for Bechtel Corporation and, thus, a really important engineer. But his father was also really interested in astronomy. So Mike grew up around telescopes. He and I were best friends in high school, and my interest in astronomy grew, albeit slowly, because of Mike and his father.

We started Stanford together. My advisor was Dr. Meyerhof, the chairman of the physics department — a rather scary, serious German fellow, or so he at first seemed. He would come over to my dorm once a week to eat with his three advisees. Mike would come over, too, so there would be four of us with Dr. Meyerhof. The other two students sort of drifted away, and the dinners were just usually Mike, me and Dr. Meyerhof. At one dinner (and this both of us remember), Mike and I were talking about the fact that Stanford had no observational astronomy and no “real observatory.” And then, Dr. Meyerhof looked at us, and said, “Why don’t we build one?” That floored us. I was 17 and Mike 18, and this famous professor at Stanford is telling us we can build an observatory? How would we start? Where would we get funds? Geez, we were zit-faced freshmen.

But Meyerhof was serious. He had always wanted to have a traditional astronomy program (like what we are doing at Texas A&M) at Stanford, and he could not get a lot of interest with the administration and even with the physics faculty, who tended to look down on astronomy as “postage-stamp collecting” — the ultimate insult of a physicist to astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, etc. So he told us not to worry about funding, but to put together a plan. So we did. And he found money. And we started to generate interest among undergrads and graduate students in the project.

Three years later, it was done. The building was designed by an undergrad in architecture. Mike acted as the general contractor, and a SeaBee grad student in engineering did the major construction. We got volunteers to help build and outfit the building. We got companies to donate money and parts of the telescope. I was kind of the spokesperson and organizer, finding people and convincing them to help us. By the end of the 1972-73 academic year (that summer), we finished. Mike lived in the building for a year as he worked on it. In the first class taught (by me), Sally Ride was one of my students, and I had to give her a grade. (She got an A. Sally always got an A in everything she did.) The next semester, she was a teaching assistant at the observatory.

Meyerhof did not get the university to start an astronomy program, but he opened the floodgates to teaching astronomy, and new astronomy classes appeared after we left. Sally Ride’s thesis advisor, A.B.C Walker Jr., took the observatory under his wing and got significant further funding for it. There’s even a history page.

Looking back, it is amazing we got the thing done and still graduated. I graduated with the absolute minimum number of credits in four years and could not start taking grad classes as a senior like the other students in senior physics. But building the observatory was way more cool. Mike in his fourth and fifth year also built a solar observatory for Stanford, which is still working. That was a more serious professional observatory, near our student observatory, and is still used by the solar physicists at Stanford.

cheers, nick

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

The Write Stuff

As another school year winds down for K-16 students across the country, I find myself pondering such altruistic, open-ended concepts as limitless potential and freedom of/in choice. At the same time, I’m doing my best to encourage my own children to close out these last few weeks in style by pressing through and persevering, when I know all they want to do is turn it in and get on with summer.

My oldest is a lot like me, particularly when it comes to his love of reading and writing. On a recent trip home from school, we were discussing the concept of writing books for a living, which he says he wants to do and thinks I should, too. (In his defense, we watch a lot of “Castle” — yes, for the writing/storylines more so than the eye candy for both sexes.) I love that he’s naïve enough to believe that anything you set your mind to, you can achieve. I love that he sees all the beauty where all I see are the obstacles which I like to label (perhaps too easily and conveniently) reality. Most of all, I love his boundless enthusiasm and unshakable belief in his mom. It’s in his DNA on both sides.

At one point in our conversation, he said to me, “But, Mom, think about it — you could write about what you love!” A heady thought, I suppose, particularly for a kid who’s told what to do and how to do it in the majority of his classes. Ever the practical realist, I replied, “Yes, but then there’s the ultimate question: Would it sell?” (Forgive me, Jonas Eriksson, but one of us has yet to write that bestseller, much less start that college fund. Uh, let’s not mention that to the aspiring author, please.) He agreed that was a critical point to consider, and then, just as quickly as the traffic signal turned from red to green, we shifted our focus to another, more pressing issue — the homework he had due for the next day and rest of the week.

Somewhere lost in the mental shuffle was what I should have told him and will. That I do write about what I love, because writing is what I love. That therein lies the beauty of writing and true love of words — it’s a passion so often and so fluidly fulfilled, regardless of topic, medium or deadline. Much like “Green Eggs and Ham,” I’ve found that I like words in a blog. I do, I do like them in a press release or magazine-length feature. I even like them in 140 characters or less, with or without hashtags, and as status updates. And who could resist headlines?!? For me, the variety is the challenge and appeal as much as the subject matter. Which, for the past decade or so has been science, so I’ve got my work more than cut out for me — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Words have the power to educate, encourage and inspire. Yep, it’s official: A quarter century or so removed from having to declare a major, I’m still sold on my decision. Here’s hoping he can say the same at my age — and that I’m still around, not only to see it but more so to write about it using whatever the latest technology of the moment is by then.

Credit: Hal Schade.

(Credit: Hal Schade.)

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

If I Had a Million Dollars

As we put the wraps on the first week of a new semester here in Aggieland, there’s a lot of good news beyond the resolution of 2012 Heisman Trophy-winning sensation Johnny Manziel’s future at quarterback.

By all indications, both incoming freshmen and their families have reason to feel secure about their educational investment, thanks to far bigger breaking news than who’s under center this season. In case you haven’t heard, Texas A&M ranks as the top university in Texas (second overall to Rice University, which is private) and fourth in the nation among public institutions for return on investment for a degree, according to AffordableCollegesOnline, a national website that tracks college pricing and, as the name suggests, overall affordability. Matter of fact, after all their algorithms are said and done, that choice to attend Texas A&M could translate to being $1 million richer. Holy future bargaining, Bat Man!

Aggieland_AerialView

Judging from local real estate sales to traffic (vehicle and foot), the secret of Aggieland’s allure appears to be out – or at least well on its way. Another study from SquareFoot.com pegs College Station as the second-fastest-growing college town in the country behind Raleigh, North Carolina, one of three anchors in the coveted Research Triangle. In fact, the home of Texas A&M University is expected to top 100,000 during the next couple of months, and that’s not even taking into account the weekend swell for home football games.

Yep, by all accounts, it’s a good time to be a Texas Aggie. Of course, I thought so 25 years ago when I fell in love with the place my older brother called his collegiate home while I was here for a summer honors program. I applied later that fall, was accepted, enrolled for my freshman year in 1989, and never looked back. Now that I’m still here and raising my own family, I have to admit, it’s one decision in life that I’ve never regretted, let alone even second-guessed. The older I get, the more I realize that’s the kind of peace of mind money can’t buy.

Thanks and gig ‘em, Aggies!

Learning to clap again

It’s been nearly a year since I switched careers from journalism to public relations, but the remnants of my old life still pop up now and then.

I recently attended a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Texas A&M Department of Statistics. The wine had been poured when the audience broke into the first of many bouts of applause throughout the night to congratulate the former students who had flown in from around the country.

For a couple seconds too long, I didn’t clap.

During three and a half years covering Texas A&M as a local journalist, I never clapped while working. Call me silly in my ethical pretensions, but my view is independent journalists are not supposed to be part of the establishment they cover or appear to promote it in any way. And that goes for benign events, too, like awards and graduation ceremonies.

So it’s been a change going from being a journalist to an advocate for the College of Science.

Surprisingly, an easy one.

Although there are key differences between my old role as a journalist and my new one as a writer in the College of Science, there are striking similarities beyond the obvious of each encompassing writing, interviewing and research. I loved telling human-interest stories as a journalist, and I can still tell many of those same stories now. When possible, I tried in my writing to show rather than tell, and I’m as committed to that now. And at their ideal, public relations and journalism are both about ethically and accurately presenting quality information to the public. I had a sense of purpose that my work as a journalist was in service to the taxpayer. I have that same sense now, though for a different reason. Impactful research goes on at this university, and my job is take a crack explaining it so taxpayers have a better understanding of what they are investing in.

So don’t look to me to probe below the surface of university politics. Or fire off a flurry of open-records requests. That’s not my role anymore. My job now is not independent. I am selling something. But luckily, it’s something I believe in, have believed in for years – the research that goes on in American academia, and Texas A&M especially.

And I’ll remind myself that it’s OK to clap about that.