Building Astronomy in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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.