Child’s Play

Yesterday, I caught my co-worker Chris Jarvis — who also happens to be my office suitemate — playing on the job. With a magnetic alphabet set, at that.

Today, he’s at it again, only this time it’s a set of magnetic balls, complete with a magnetized wand.


Drawing on a theme yet? I am, and I can tell you firsthand that curiosity is attractive. Because I had a few minutes today, I used the first few seconds of one of them to decide that if you can’t beat ’em, then join ’em. Yep, I grabbed the wand and tried it out. So did the next co-worker who had walked in to discuss a project. (And he said these things were low power…)

Interestingly enough, both sets of common children’s toys just happen to be part of the set for Chris’ latest video project -– an in-progress Labors of Lab installment showcasing a Texas A&M Chemistry student whose research involves molecular nanomagnets. Even though I’ve always known Chris to be the type who will go to great lengths to get the job done, I’m amazed. And pleasantly amused. And not just because he’s childless, yet visiting toy stores.


When Chris initially joined Texas A&M Science in 2008, I knew he would be a solid writer, based on his background, samples and genuine love for words. During what I like to refer to as his sabbatical year at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, he got the opportunity to broaden his skill set, adding website creation/maintenance and videography, among other professional nuances. Last year, we got the opportunity to re-hire him, and I can now vouch for the fact that the second time around truly is sweeter. But why take my word for it when you can read his within our news archive and also view roughly a year’s worth of his videos on our YouTube channel?

I know full well what goes into a written story, but I have a newfound appreciation for all that Chris does as a videographer. I’ve worked with some of the best during my career, but I’ve never known one who is a one-stop shop, from storyboarding and script writing, to location scouting and actual shooting, to editing and production, to draft version(s) and ultimately finished product. However, I do know that I have the luxury of resting easy in the knowledge that any project I assign to Chris or that he takes on himself is in good hands, largely without me lifting a finger nor checking up on a single detail beyond our initial conversation.

Although most of this magic happens less than 20 yards away from me, I never fully got the picture until last month, when Chris produced what I think is his best work yet: an overview piece for this year’s National Science Foundation-funded Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Six different programs across the college; one university-wide supplement; at least one coordinator per program; countless student participants; multiple locations, shoots and interviews during the course of the 10-week program; and hundreds of clips, all funneled into a single cohesive, comprehensive, well-told story. It’s definitely an art (an undervalued one, in my opinion), and I am in awe. Feel free to appreciate with me below and also check out a few bonus clips featured with the news summary:

As his co-worker and trenchmate, I love that Chris loves what he does and that he continues to come up with new and appealing ways to tell a visual story. As his friend, I love that Chris is on my team and that he continues to find joy in his work, which is so much more than a job to him, just as it is to me.

Most of us are familiar with some version of the old adage, “Work to live, not live to work.” Based on what I’ve seen, Chris is well on his way to having this one down to a science.

By all means, play on, and always remember to share — toys and talents.

Analyze This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meme Me Up, Scotty

Even before I started writing about science instead of struggling to pass it, I knew who some of the traditional big names were among its primary print media outlets: Science magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science and Discover, to name but a few.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but one of those biggies, Nature, just went down a peg in my prestige book, undone by what I consider to be a dying art: the ability to write a good headline. You know, one that’s above all else correct and then — and only then, if possible — catchy and creative without sacrificing and/or detracting from the content. Here’s a link to the story, in case it didn’t flood your news feed, along with its offending ‘I can haz genomes’: cats claw their way into genetics headline.

Forget the dog-versus-cat debate, I’ve got a bone to pick with (I can only assume) the copy editor here. To each his own as to what defines humor, but it’s a fine line in any setting, particularly that of science journalism. Regardless where you choose to draw it, there’s a time and place even for the craftiest turn of phrase. In my opinion, this story was neither.


At the risk of being perceived as catty, this one missed the mark for me. But I acknowledge potentially being in the minority there. For instance, one Twitter commenter credited them for “trying to thread the needle between catchy and accurate.” Um, #fail.

Reducing such a long-awaited milestone for human health, if not victory for cat enthusiasts, to a cheesy (or should I say cheezburger) Internet meme runs the risk of turning people off to the story (which involves a Texas A&M University geneticist — read an overview complete with a solid headline here) before they’ve even read word one of the lead. Good luck convincing them the research is solid or serious from there.

Lolcats, indeed.

Interestingly enough, another Texas A&M professor, Mays Business School’s Caleb Warren, is one of the many researchers working to define the science of humor. Toward that end, he and his University of Colorado at Boulder collaborator Peter McGraw have developed something they call the benign violation theory, the foundation of McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder and a widely published subject in a variety of sources, from a book to mainstream psychology journals. According to a broader Bloomberg article, they postulate that humor emerges “when: a) a situation violates some kind of norm; b) the violation is benign; and c) these two things occur to the observer simultaneously.”

It's a Venn diagram, so that's a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

It’s a Venn diagram, so that’s a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

So, yeah, I guess it’s possible that I just didn’t get the joke. I am blonde.

OK, off my soap, er litter box.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I’m pleased to report the week wasn’t a total loss for science journalism. Props to Science staff writer Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for circling back on a story that made international headlines earlier this month (in some cases for all the wrong reasons) and for leaving no step un-retraced in her subsequent effort not only to set the record as straight as possible from here but also to understand where and why things went wrong. Further proof that this work is serious business — and intensely personal in addition to professional, at that — for parties well beyond the scientists involved.

A Fine Mess

Well, folks, the news is in: I’m not messy; I’m just different, er creative. And I have the science to prove it.

A recent study published in Psychological Science and promoted, among other places, in the New York Times confirms that I’m simply a product of my environment, which apparently is comprised primarily of “safely ignorable stuff.”

You can read more about the analysis here via News.Mic, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll go ahead and submit what I like to call Exhibit A below. Feel free to share yours in the comments if you’re so inclined and/or feel it would be either therapeutic or cathartic in any way. Creatives don’t judge!

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk's perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn't say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it's my husband's.

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk’s perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn’t say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it’s my husband’s.

Admittedly, my mother would understand if not be proud, especially when I confess that I’m likely the messiest (scratch that — most creative!) among my College of Science Dean’s Office brethren. But when it comes to faculty, I’m certainly in good company.

And let’s not even talk about what lies beneath. Or my electronic inbox.

For that matter, why stop at desks? I mean, science is all about extrapolation, as Elite Daily does here. I bet there’s hope for my entire house (flat surfaces being just the tip of the creative iceberg) and my kids!

Got a Little Story for Ya, Ags

As a writer, I do so love a good story and those who wield both the appropriate subject matter and the flair for its proper delivery.

One of the best absolute naturals in all above respects is Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who I describe to people as a marketer’s dream for good reason. Beyond his ease with media representatives, administrators and officials, and external visitors and general audiences, he’s also a master at breaking down the subject at hand and explaining why it matters. And in going the extra mile.

I offer a recent example — a follow-up email to Battalion reporter John Rangel, thanking him for a recent story:


I would like to congratulate you on the article in The Batt on the most distant galaxy. You nailed the science and gave a feeling for the excitement of the discovery. Great job!

By the way, there are some points to this discovery that you, as an engineering student, may enjoy. It is difficult to define what is distance in astronomy because the universe is expanding, and the grid by which we measure distances is also stretching at the same time. So for me the best way to understand distance is just what you did — give it in units of how much time it took for light to get here compared to the age of the universe. However, you will see some articles refer to the distance to this object as 30 billion light years or so. This is the way astronomers would measure it, but this distance is not intuitive. Imagine we are in our galaxy in the early universe and we are looking at this distant galaxy. It would be very close to us because the universe is so small. Imagine putting a 3-D grid on this early universe and put our galaxy at one corner and the distant galaxy at another corner. Now run the universe forward to today. The universe has stretched a lot (expanded, if you will). Our galaxy and the other one are still at those corners, but the grid has expanded by a factor of 9 now. That short distant that separated us and that galaxy has now stretched into about 30 billion light years — the co-moving distance we call it. So you will also hear astronomers quote distances that are greater than the age of the universe.

How can something be farther away than the age of the universe (in today’s time) and we can still see it? Well, the weird thing is that we will never see that galaxy when it is today age — 13.8 billion years old. We can only see it now, but as the universe evolves, the galaxy will actually disappear from our universe or perhaps more to the point — will disappear from our vision.

The other point is that although galaxies appear to be moving away from us and this appears as a Doppler shift, it is actually not a Doppler shift. It is space stretching. Nothing is actually moving. The motion looks like a velocity and a Doppler shift, but there is no kinetic energy involved. If there were, galaxies near the edge of the universe would have a ridiculous amount of energy because they are moving close to the speed of light.

Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe, was careful never to call this apparent expansion a velocity — he called it a cosmological redshift which is what astronomers should also call it, and if they don’t, well I will go kick their butts.

Anyway, sorry for the long email about your great article.

cheers, nick

I don’t know about John Rangel, but for this writer, the initial interview is typically a formative experience. I remember well my first trip to Dr. Suntzeff’s Texas A&M campus office — a veritable time capsule spanning the high points of astronomical history as well as his career, which includes 25 years at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. I was interviewing him for a piece on Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant — Einstein’s self-described “biggest blunder” which he predicted in 1917 as the proverbial glue holding together the theory of a never-changing universe that Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery of the universe’s expansion later debunked. (Incidentally, in a Kevin Bacon-esque six-degrees-of-separation constant, Hubble served as mentor to Allan Sandage, who in turn is the one who encouraged Dr. Suntzeff to focus on Type Ia supernovas — specifically their brightness — to measure precise distances, which is how Dr. Suntzeff came to help discover dark energy and roughly 75 percent of the universe. But that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

After posing a basic equation-type question to gauge my level of astrophysical knowledge (essentially negative infinity), Dr. Suntzeff took great pains to explain not only the equation and the basic physics behind it, but also each and every piece in his collection, in addition to the actual research I was there to discuss. And so began an educational relationship across subsequent visits and stories, typically supplemented with emailed anecdotes and other means of follow-up insight about astrophysics and oh, so much more that has always served to enlighten or entertain. (Ask him sometime about saving Alan Alda’s life while down in Chile or about being school mates with Robin Williams — yes, that Robin Williams — or about the time he made international headlines for discovering nothing! Yeah, I have hundreds of these, as does he.)

Bottom line, it all goes to prove my long-held theory that most professors first and foremost are born educators and — big surprise — people, too. Their areas of expertise are vitally important, but somehow lost amid all that focused excellence and relentless drive is their intrinsic motivation and passion for knowledge generation, big-picture dreams and doing what they love and want you to love, too. Or at the very least understand in some tangible way.

Trust me, it’s a great story well worth the time it takes to read. Even better if you get the chance to hear it in person.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Leaders With Character

As August, the Sunday of summer, dawns hot and humid and another school year is upon us, I can’t help but think back to my own days as a freshman in Aggieland and everything I’ve lived and learned since that time — save obviously the way out of town after graduation, despite the infamous Aggie adage about Highway 6 running both ways. (It does, Mom; and I apologize, both in retrospect and advance.)

An article I received today from a friend reminded me of another classic Aggie-ism:

Q. What do you call an Aggie five years after graduation? A: Boss.

It then dawned on me as I skimmed through’s aforementioned best-boss attributes that, by virtue of staying in Aggieland after earning my Texas A&M degree, the majority of my bosses have been Aggies. I’ve learned a lot from each of them, with the good far outweighing the bad. None more so than Dean of Science Joe Newton, my first thought in reading 21st century tips on how to manage like a boss.

Dr. Newton is a rare bird, and not just because he lives in both hemispheres of his brain (while I struggle on good days to function in one) and can flit effortlessly and eloquently from side to side and throughout all neural synapses in between. Admittedly, I’m biased, but I happen to have one extraordinary boss who trusts me enough to let me do the job he hired me to do (not once but twice, but that’s another story altogether.) Novel yet seemingly terrifying concept for some people both ways, not to mention one that speaks volumes in a unit where professional expertise is king. And yes, we have fun doing it!

Dean of Science Joe Newton, being "crowned" by Executive Associate Dean Michael Hall in 2002, when he officially became Dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University. In January, Dr. Newton celebrated his 15th year of service as a member of the Texas A&M Science Dean's Office.

Dean of Science Joe Newton, being “crowned” by Executive Associate Dean Michael Hall in 2002, when he officially became Dean of the College of Science at Texas A&M University. In January, Dr. Newton celebrated his 15th year of service as a member of the Texas A&M Science Dean’s Office.

In my high school days, Mom once jokingly (at least I think) threatened to get me a copy of the classic poster featuring a pig and the slogan “You are a product of your environment.” Here’s hoping she was right and that I have another 20 years or so to absorb, evolve and enjoy!

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.