A Horse By Any Other Name

Days outside the office are few and far between. All the more reason I find it somewhat prophetic if not entirely fitting that my most recent day out once again was for the purposes of a video shoot featuring another female distinguished professor, Dr. Marcetta Darensbourg.

Five years ago next month, this blog began as an indirect result of Dr. Karen Wooley, who, like Darensbourg, is one in a long line of preeminent chemists to grace Texas A&M University’s faculty. In hindsight, I suppose it was merely par for the course that I would bump into Sir Ian Scott — the equine version, that is, so named by Darensbourg in tribute both to lineage and her longtime Texas A&M Chemistry colleague Alastair Ian Scott, who redefined both organic and natural product chemistry prior to his untimely death in 2007.

Sir Ian Scott, waiting for his post-ride brushing and carrots, if not the cameras to leave his barn.

Sir Ian of the equine variety is the grandson of Great Scott (affectionately known as Scotty) and the son of Gwenael, better known as Gwen and Darensbourg’s mare. She is Darensbourg’s longtime mount of choice, including on this particular day when Gwen, Ian, Halley Berry and Century Mark (along with Darensbourg and Look Sharp Farm’s other respective riders Jenny, Colleen and Kelly) were the stars in Protagonist Digital’s current work at hand: a video showcasing Darensbourg as the 2018 Southeastern Conference Professor of the Year.

(From left:) Marcetta Darensbourg, along with Jenny, Kelly and Colleen, who are set to ride once Ned’s camera starts rolling on a beautiful April morning in Aggieland.

Darensbourg is no stranger to the spotlight, having recently been elected to the National Academy of Sciences last spring. Prior to reaching the national pinnacle of her discipline, she became the first woman to receive the American Chemical Society (ACS) Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry Award, the society’s top annual honor in this realm. She is an inaugural Fellow of the ACS as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one the country’s oldest and most prestigious honorary learned societies. Closer to home, she and her husband, fellow Texas A&M chemist Don Darensbourg, rank as the first distinguished professor couple in Texas A&M history.

Don and Marcetta Darensbourg, during their Tulane University days. (Credit: Marcetta Darensbourg.)

Marcetta describes Don as “the major pillar in my support network for over five decades.” They met in graduate school, at which point Marcetta says “the proximity effect took over.” They bonded over chemistry as well as their love of horses — specifically, German warmbloods, which they ride and raise on their 50-plus pastoral acres located in southeast College Station.

“We share our farm with 10 wonderful equines and two dogs, Willie and Pippa,” Marcetta says. “A score of Aggies, usually animal science majors, have helped us attend to the horses over the years, and we have helped the Aggies earn money for school. We work hard every day and then meet on the back porch each evening about 7 or 8 to share a glass of wine. Sometimes, we talk about the day’s events; sometimes, we just talk about the news and the critters we live with.”

While they primarily stick to Sunday trail riding nowadays, both Marcetta and Don did dressage in decades past and hosted countless clinics to promote the sport. In 1992, Marcetta earned a silver medal from the United States Dressage Foundation — tangible proof of the competitive fire that fuels both her personal and professional interests. In 2016, she and Great Scott teamed up to complete her first Century Ride, which, in true family form, also showcased Gwen and Sir Ian (ridden by Jenny and Colleen, respectively) in a musical freestyle presentation.

Marcetta Darensbourg and Gregor, en route to a United States Dressage Foundation silver medal in 1992. (Credit: Jim Stoner Photography.)

When it comes to the farm’s naming rights, Don defers to Marcetta, who describes it as a creative exercise that begins with the first letters of the horse’s sire and dam (for example, “H” and “B” in the case of Halley Berry, whose name also reflects the couple’s love of movies). From there, it’s a combination of observation, from markings to temperament, culture popular and otherwise, and gut instinct — the same innate resolve she credits for carving out her clear career choice, even as a child.

“I was set on being a college professor when I was 4 or 5 years old — and on being a scientist since I was in high school,” Marcetta says. “I knew I wanted to do something that incorporated nature, based on my love of wilderness, which ties back to my two biggest passions: chemistry and horses. Both require discipline and a constant respect for and perfecting of the process in order to make things better, whether for the horse or for society.”

Marcetta Darensbourg, on set with Protagonist Digital’s Jason Ruha at Look Sharp Farm.

Marcetta admits competition is a powerful motivator, whether in the arena or research laboratory. These days, however, her primary goal is to fulfill what she considers to be her ultimate responsibility: preparing her students to be “citizen scientists.”

“Everyone can be diligent observers of the world around her/him, gather and interpret data, question hypotheses and look for logic in a report,” she says. “To be a citizen scientist is a noble calling — and develops better citizens.”

Makes perfect horse sense to me.

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As a bonus feature, check out the related story on Darenbourg on the SEC’s It Just Means More blog.

An Age of Anniversaries, Acceleration and Accolades

The dawn of a new year is a perfect time to pause and reflect, taking stock of the past while also looking forward to the future.

In that dual-introspective spirit, I received an email in late December from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, letting me know that the discovery of dark energy is now 20 years old. He also noted the paper authored by the High-Z Supernova Search Team he co-founded detailing the groundbreaking discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating is now the most highly cited paper in the history of astronomy, according to the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), an online database of more than eight million astronomy and physics papers across both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed sources.

“There is a book ahead of us — Numerical Recipes — but we are the No. 1 cited paper in history,” Suntzeff clarified. “You will find that we are No. 12 of all papers in astronomy and physics.”

Nick Suntzeff (Credit: Bill Salans / Texas A&M Foundation.)

The High-Z team featured Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt and Johns Hopkins University/Space Telescope Science Institute’s Adam Riess, co-recipients of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics along with the University of California Berkeley’s Saul Perlmutter, who headed up the competing team, the Supernova Cosmology Project, that near-simultaneously reported the same result. Suntzeff had co-founded the High-Z Team along with Schmidt in 1994, at which time Riess was a graduate student finishing his thesis.

“This month 20 years ago, we were doing fits and calculations and having snippets of exciting conversations, and reading and rereading the Carroll, Press, and Turner (1992) ARAA on the Cosmological Constant, having completed image subtraction, photometric solutions, K-corrections, etc., the prior months,” Riess wrote in a December 21 email to his High-Z colleagues. “In two weeks minus 20 years, Brian confirmed my last-step analysis of the likelihood in the Matter/Lambda plane with a Jan 8th email, ‘Well Hello Lambda!’ and a day and a half later, we were all emailing back and forth in one long thread … about what we all thought of this. We were pretty surprised and confused! This AAS meeting is 20 years after Peter G. [Garnavich] discussed Omega_M<1 and kept mum about acceleration*. In February, [it will be] 20 years [since] Jim Glanz reported the story for Science, and on March 13, [it will be] 20 years [since] we submitted the paper. … I remain awed and grateful to have worked with such great colleagues and in such interesting times.”

For his part back then, Suntzeff was an astronomer at the United States National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, where he served as the principal investigator on the discovery of the supernova (some 50 of them) whose light was inexplicably weaker than expected — the first indication that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. Prior to that, he had co-founded a previous group, the Calan/Tololo Supernova Project, that used the brightness from a specific type of supernova, Type Ia, to produce not only a precise calibration but also a precise measurement of the Hubble constant — a key finding that paved the way for both teams’ subsequent discovery that merited the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Physics, the 2007 Gruber Prize for Cosmology and the 2006 Shaw Prize.

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (Credit: Fermilab / Tim Abbott.)

Nearly 20 years later, I would write my initial press release on Suntzeff, announcing his 2006 hire at Texas A&M. At the time, I didn’t know much about him, but I knew it had to be big, given that then-Bryan-College Station Eagle higher education reporter Brett Nauman had heard of him. In fact, he asked me if the rumors of such a coup were true! I distinctly remember being struck by two details in particular: that Suntzeff was part of Science magazine’s Scientific Breakthrough of the Year in 1998 and that he was a co-recipient of the 1983 Robert J. Trumpler Award presented annually by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in recognition of the most outstanding astronomy thesis of the year granted at North American universities. In combination, these two facts told me all I needed to know – that he was big-time and that he could write, which means he could appreciate not only what I do but also why I do it.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been proven right on both counts during the past decade, but I do know that one of those memorable occasions was writing the 2007 Gruber Prize announcement — my first release on Suntzeff, now that he officially was at Texas A&M, and my first opportunity to hear his version of the story behind the discovery. Again, I remember being fascinated by a key detail — the fact that every six months, the High-Z team gave its data to different groups at different institutions, ensuring that the highest priority would be given to each part of the problem and enabling them to catch up to Perlmutter’s team at Berkeley. In addition to helping them stake their claim to astronomical history, the unorthodox approach allowed them to give credit where it was due: the postdocs, who in turn were rewarded for all their hard work with first authorship on the team’s resulting papers. I had written enough press releases and research features at this point in my career to know this was a major exception to what I knew thus far as the norm — a fact that Suntzeff confirmed was as unique as it sounded to me, as well as a point of pride for him and the rest of the team, which I found both intriguing and refreshing.

Nick Suntzeff, pictured within the Texas A&M George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy (Credit: Sam Craft / Bryan-College Station Eagle.)

Suntzeff also correctly predicted at the time that the discovery would be honored with the Nobel Prize forthwith. And that there would be a lot of associated angst and heartbreak, considering that, unlike the Gruber Prize shared by 52 international researchers, the Nobel and its global certainty of all but cementing the historical record would go to a maximum of three people. When the inevitable came to pass in October 2011, Suntzeff took it upon himself to congratulate, console and champion his teammates to take heart in all they had accomplished — to a man but more importantly because they did it as a group in the true spirit of team.

“I mean, how many people can say they discovered nearly 75 percent of the universe?” Suntzeff quipped in my paraphrased recollection of his parting words to his teammates.

Fast-forward to present day, when Suntzeff’s co-leader Schmidt summed it up quite nicely himself in his reply-to-all to Riess’ original email, alerting the High-Z team to their top-ranked paper:

Dear Adam —

Thank you for your reminder to us all what an amazing piece of history that all were part of. Not sure how we should celebrate. Perhaps this is the right way to do so — via email, as a group, just like we were working 20 years ago.”

My kind of teamwork and leadership. Happy anniversaries, High-Zers, and here’s to making more future history!

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* A Footnote to History

Peter Garnavich was first author on the High Z team’s paper that preceded Riess et al 1998, further validating the efficacy of their powered-by-postdoc strategy.

“Peter G. was our real unsung hero,” Suntzeff said. “His paper was extremely important because it showed that the expansion rate of the universe over time changes in a manner driven by the total matter of the universe. Peter estimated the total matter content of the universe directly from cosmology and showed that the total matter in the universe was not enough to close it, thereby contradicting Perlmutter et al 1997.

“That HZT paper was the first successful measurement of the content of the universe based on the geometry of the universe. Peter also showed at the same time that if the universe is flat, the universe must be in acceleration. What Riess et al 1998 did was to measure that the universe was in acceleration without the assumption that the universe is flat.”

The Mysterious Missing Third

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” — Martin Luther

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff (left) visits with 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and donor George P. Mitchell '40 at the 2010 dedication of the Stephen W. Hawking Auditorium within Mitchell's namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff (left) visits with 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and donor George P. Mitchell ’40 at the 2010 dedication of the Stephen W. Hawking Auditorium within Mitchell’s namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nick Suntzeff and I don’t see each other nearly as often as I would like. But every once in a blue if not super moon, we get a chance to catch up the new-fashioned, 21st century way: via email.

The threads admittedly are few and far between these busy days, but what they lack in frequency, they more than make up for in substance, from word count to subjects covered.

Truth be told, Nick is one of the main reasons I started this blog. I realized shortly after I met him when he came to Texas A&M in 2006 that he’s a natural storyteller — and that he saves some of his best stuff for his written correspondence. No way should such greatness be relegated to my inbox if I can help it! (Incidentally, I can’t be alone in thinking he should write a book. Heck, I bet I can come up with at least one volume myself during the past decade. And that doesn’t even take into account his Facebook profile posts.)

You see, “talking” to/with Nick is like happy hour with one of your best friends — one who has an uncanny way of seeing right through your soul and speaking directly to your heart. It’s both a comfort and a disarming ease I absolutely treasure, mostly because I know it’s genuine and that it comes with great care and at great cost. It’s no secret that those who feel so intensely as to be so in tune with their surroundings do so at considerable personal risk. But Nick’s vulnerability is just another of his many endearing qualities, and I dare say it’s served him as well in professional circles as it has in his personal relationships.

Speaking of personal, here’s a story rather close to home and heart that Nick has graciously given me permission to share. No better time in my book -– figurative and maybe even that literal one I hope he writes — than the Thanksgiving season.

For a bit of context, we were discussing an idea I’d had for a possible new marketing campaign tentatively titled “I Am Texas A&M Science” and centered on science starts -– how our faculty, students and staff got into science, from choice of major to first jobs, and why they choose to stay. Lighthearted. Informal. Identifiable. Human. Fun.

Naturally, Nick took it from there and ran with it. The result is more than I could have hoped for as both a communicator and a human being. Inspiring on levels that transcend science and even the best marketing taglines. Read/see for yourself.

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My first job — and a science job — was staining Pap smears in a pathology lab. I was only 16. It was a cool job, and I also got to help out in the real path lab, because my boss was also coroner for the county of Marin.

There is another part to the story, though. When I went to Stanford, it was expected I would pay one-third, my parents would pay one-third, and I had a state scholarship for the final one-third. Not much money really back then, but my parents were not wealthy. It got a lot worse when my father became ill and then paralyzed from a World War II injury and could not work. So the last two years, I would not have the one-third my parents could pay. I worked all summer and on many weekends for my one-third, but if I were to make up the missing third, I would have to hash or something.

But then I got a letter from Stanford stating that I was awarded a scholarship, and I did not have to pay the missing one-third and part of my share. So it all worked out. I never applied for a scholarship, so it was all mysterious.

It turns out the person I worked for when I was 16 was a physician and friend of my father’s. When he heard of my situation, he donated money to Stanford for my scholarship but required it to be anonymous. I learned the story much later when my father told me. But it was too late to thank Dr. John Manwaring.

What a wonderful gesture — one I will never forget. My father said Dr. Manwaring was proud that I went into science, and he wanted to help me.

cheers, nick

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As I read it for the first time on an October Friday night, It brought tears to my eyes. As I format it tonight for this blog, it still does.

“It was a very important part of my life, and a life-learning event when I discovered what my father’s friend had done.” — Nick Suntzeff

Lack of scientific proof aside, I firmly believe the universe has its own way of showing us sometimes that we’re in exactly the right place at the right time doing the right thing for the right reasons. This is one of those times.

I also believe it’s never too late to say thank you. I humbly add my own here on the record for Dr. Manwaring and the many generous, forward-thinking visionaries out there like him. Talk about leading by example and enabling us to realize an immeasurable return on your investment in the process.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.


Observational History

Texas A&M University took its right to wonder cosmic in 2004, becoming a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope and officially launching a first-rate astronomy program that was recognized in 2015 with selection to the prestigious Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

Although the program instantly became established on the international research scene with that $1.25 million lead gift from Texas businessman and global energy pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40, it hadn’t truly arrived in one universally critical aspect: academics. That big moment came earlier this year when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) unanimously approved Texas A&M’s graduate degree program in astronomy.

Texas A&M astronomer and program director Nick Suntzeff was present at that meeting and recapped the historic event for his colleagues in the following email message capturing his stream-of-consciousness euphoria and heartfelt gratitude for all those who worked so hard to pave the way for an astronomically brighter future in Aggieland and across the Lone Star State. I’ll let Nick take it from here!

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From: nsuntzeff
Subject: Astronomy MS and PhD
Date: April 28, 2016 at 7:21:02 PM CDT
To: “Astrophysics@TAMU”
Cc: Lara Suntzeff, Jeruska Vladislavic

Dear All,

Today, at around 2:30 p.m., the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted unanimously to allow Texas A&M, through the Dept of Physics and Astronomy, to grant MS and PhD degrees in Astronomy. We are now the second public university in Texas to have a PhD program in astronomy. The ability to grant these degrees at A&M will be effective in only a few days. There are forms to be sent to the Provost, but that is all pro forma because she supports the program.

The THECB did not debate the program — they adopted it without discussion and gave it a unanimous vote. Two of the THECB members looked at me and smiled, obviously pleased with the outcome.

This was the last big piece in the creation of an astronomy program that was started ten years ago.

There are a number of people to thank. George Welch and Ed Fry, as department heads, have supported and encouraged the creation of the program and degrees. Dean Joe Newton also has been a tireless supporter of our efforts, and deserves our thanks. Provost Karan Watson, who knew how the THECB worked, paced the application process to allow all details be sorted out with staff at the THECB, such that there was little doubt that the program would be approved. Joe Pettibon, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs in the Provost’s office, was our point person in the final application process.

Astronomy before I came was headed by an Astronomy Committee who were committed to bringing astronomy to A&M. The 2003 members were Fry, [Richard] Arnowitt, [George] Kattawar, [Robert] Webb, and [Roland] Allen. They shared this vision for astronomy at our university. In addition, David Hyland, a professor of Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering, gave support through his college to our program in the early days, and was instrumental in the initial negotiations for our participation in the GMT back in 2004. These were our advocates for the GMT telescope.

We should not forget the backing of the whole department who have allowed our program to be carved out of the Physics Department, and agreed to add the nine faculty we now have in just ten years. We had many supporters, but I would like to call out the early support of Peter McIntyre, Chris Pope, Dimitri Nanopoulos, Bob Tribble, Bob Webb, Alexei Belyanin, Lewis Ford, Tom Adair, Don Carona, James White, Nelson Duller, and Ron Bryan. None of you know this, but it was Alexei Sokolov who led the first stages of the remodeling of the Munnerlyn Building.

The Texas A&M Astronomy Committee convened the Freedman Committee of 2003: Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Tod Lauer, Charles Townes, David Cline, and Craig Wheeler. I bet you did not know that we had two Nobel Laureates who recommended the formation of the Astronomy Program! After the establishment in 2006, Townes came to A&M to celebrate the beginning of the Astronomy Program, as did Steven Weinberg, who also lent his support for our program. Although I don’t know, I bet it was Marlan Scully who convinced them of the need of astronomy at A&M.

The Presidents of A&M — [Robert] Gates, [Elsa] Murano, [Bowen] Loftin, [Mark] Hussey, and now [Michael] Young — have all supported the creation of astronomy here at A&M.

We also should thank George Djorgovski, Ed Olszewski, and Rocky Kolb for their time on the 2015 visiting committee who gave us a glowing recommendation for the degree program.

A few other external astronomers helped us by writing letters and attending early conferences — Adam Riess, Bob Kirshner, Alex Filippenko, Brian Schmidt, and Geoff Marcy.

We have been greatly helped by our friends at UT-Austin and McDonald Observatory, especially David Lambert and Dean Mary Ann Rankin, and Taft Armandroff continues their help for us.

It goes almost without saying that it is Lucas [Macri] who shepherded the application over, what was it, six years? — whose absolutely stunning document detailing the need for astronomy at A&M convinced our betters in the administration, [the Texas A&M System Board of] Regents, and now the THECB. The word “stunning” was not mine; it was used by Allan Mitchie, who was the staff member of the THECB who coordinated and ultimately became an advocate for the application.

Finally, the Mitchell Family — George and Sheridan — have supported our efforts in so many ways. We would not have any program without the vision of George and unwavering encouragement from Sheridan.

I am sure I have left out names, and I apologize in advance.

cheers, nick

P.S. I attach photos from the panel meeting at Cook’s Branch in October 2003.

(From left:) George P. Mitchell '40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

(From left:) George P. Mitchell ’40, Ed Fry, Wendy Freedman, Rocky Kolb, Olga Kocharovskaya, Cynthia Mitchell, Tod Lauer and Debbie Fry. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Cynthia and George P. Mitchell '40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Cynthia and George P. Mitchell ’40. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

George P. Mitchell '40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Robert Kirshner. (Credit: Edward S. Fry).

George P. Mitchell '40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

George P. Mitchell ’40 and David Lambert. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

"I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend -- meeting of the minds?" an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

“I just like this picture of Stephen Hawking and friend — meeting of the minds?” an excited Suntzeff quips. (Credit: Edward S. Fry.)

Lights, X-rays, Breakthroughs!

It seems only fitting that as I headed to my recent interview appointment with Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee for a story to announce a research breakthrough involving batteries that the one in my cell phone was down to 20 percent. And that midway through my third question, he had to scramble for a power adapter because the one in his laptop was dying.

The folks who constantly remind us that science is all around us aren’t exaggerating. Batteries are one of the most ubiquitous and vital examples as the fuel for our cell phones alone. All the more reason Dr. Banerjee’s news is something to write/text home about.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee and chemistry graduate student Katie Farley.

Banerjee and a team of collaborators that spans the better part of the North American continent have directly observed for the first time the distorted, electron-trapping structure within cathode material that causes the everyday delays we experience when charging or discharging batteries. They were able to do this with the help of powerful soft X-ray microscopes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a massive facility equipped with an equally massive light source the size of five football fields, along with a beamline that can be focused down to the nanoscale.

“People here use all kinds of different x-rays and such, spanning a big part of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Banerjee explains. “This is basically a humongous light source that gives you intense beams of light you can get at any energy. My group especially likes to work on soft X-rays, which are kind of like your biological X-rays but very intense, well-resolved beams.

“This facility is one of the few places in the world that has such a beam that you can shrink down. So you’re not only taking an X-ray of an object, you’re shrinking it down — taking an X-ray image down to about 30 nanometers pixel size. That’s really what allowed us to see what we did. It’s a very powerful microscope that’s one of its kind, and it allows us to solve these problems.”

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

The STXM facilities at the Canadian Light Source Spectromicroscopy beamline. (Credit: Canadian Light Source.)

So, what powers Banerjee’s lab? In a word, energy and related research of all different flavors, with Canadian oil being one of the most prominent. One Canadian company in particular funds a large part of his laboratory (the bulk of the rest being the National Science Foundation) for specifically designed surfaces research, and from the videos he showed me, boy, is it cool, in addition to patent-pending. He says it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed him and his students to explore intriguing horizons outside the bounds of normal academic science.

“We have all kinds of crazy projects that have nothing to do with basic science,” Banerjee says, the sheer joy readily apparent in his smiling face and eyes. “So, yeah, a wide variety of industrial sponsors support the rest of my lab apart from the NSF and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which funded a recent three-year research project on solar energy. I also have a Department of Defense project. But it’s a large lab, so you need all different kinds of support and projects.”

Banerjee at the bench.

Banerjee at the bench.

Speaking of all different kinds, Banerjee clued me in to two interesting tie-ins related to the battery project. For starters, the X-ray technology used is predicated on Baez mirrors — as in Albert Baez, the father of 1960s American folk singer Joan Baez.

“Her dad actually was one of the people who invented ways for handling these x-rays — trivia fact,” Banerjee says. “It’s Baez mirrors that go into it. My dad used to listen to her.”

Banerjee also noted that these big light sources his research requires are few and far between. Before his team moved to the CLS’ Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope (STXM), they ran their initial experimentation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — a facility since replaced by the NSLS II, built by Texas A&M physicist Steven Dierker, husband of Texas A&M Dean of Science Meigan Aronson, just prior to coming to Texas A&M.

Yep, it’s a small, cool world after all. Trippy!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A postscript, courtesy of one of Banerjee’s Canadian Light Source collaborators, CLS Spectromicroscopy beamline scientist Jian Wang:

“Also very interesting that Prof. Banerjee’s last Nature Communications paper using CLS STXM and other techniques and computation was published on June 28 in 2011, exactly five years ago. It has been one of the best papers for our beamline, and I believe the current one will also have great impact on the relevant field.”

My kind of date with destiny. Way to go, Dr. Banerjee, and keep on truckin’!


Curiouser and Curiouser

“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this ‘something’ cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory. The census doesn’t count it. Nothing counts without it.” — Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

Robert Fulghum is right: Some of the most important things in life, you learn in Kindergarten. Or in my case, from one of my children’s Kindergarten teachers, longtime South Knoll Elementary School’s Sandy Felderhoff, whose email signature for as long as I’ve known her reads as follows:

“Children may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you make them feel.”

Like Sandy, I’m one who firmly believes in the power of words and feelings, not to mention of retaining and nourishing one’s inner child as a major key to staying hopeful, humble and curious. It’s one of the big reasons I feel such a kinship with teachers and also here in the Texas A&M College of Science, where curiosity is an unspoken job requirement. I believe in it so strongly, it’s our primary marketing tagline: Be Curious.


Several months ago, Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff and I were discussing the concept as an aside to the press release we were working on to promote a Brazos Valley Museum of Natural Science photography exhibit featuring two glass plates on loan from Carnegie Observatories that were taken by world-renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble. I told Nick that, in addition to the press release, I envisioned a blog on the value of curiosity, perhaps as a sequel of sorts to one I’d written a couple years back involving 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient Dudley Herschbach. Here was Nick’s reaction:

“Sure! Dudley is amazing and one of those scientists who has never lost his interest in everything, including seeing humor in scientists’ curiosity. I wish he were here [at Texas A&M] more, because he is one of the most interesting and enjoyable scientists I have met. The Nobel Prize did not destroy his inner child — perhaps it amplified it!”


As is often the case with Nick and I via email, the conversation continued to the point that I realized I had enough material for at least two blogs — this one and another I thought best reserved for National Teacher Appreciation Week to showcase the value of those gifted with the powerful ability to inspire long after the final exam.

I believe in Nick’s case, it takes one to know one. As usual, he explains it best below using both example and anecdote, helping me circle back precisely to where we began — memory and associated emotion, one of the most effective forms of lifelong learning simply because it so often effortlessly enhances and even eclipses the original subject at hand.

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Dudley and I share something in common beyond an appreciation for curiosity. We were both undergraduate math majors at Stanford, separated by about 15 years. He even had one of my math professors. And he is really one of my heroes now.

Although I did not know him until I came to Texas A&M, he was always the ideal I had in mind of what a professor should be. In that sense, he was like my thesis advisor Bob Kraft, who passed away last year, or another mentor I had — Bob Williams, who was director first at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and then the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). They all had different personalities, but each of them shared a lot in common outside of science — humor, culture, empathy and personal discipline.

Bob Kraft was special. At one point, we were observing and began to chat about music. He had studied classical guitar and loved all sorts of music (except Russian classical music of the 19th century. Go figure). I had taken classes in music as an undergrad in which we read scores of symphonies and such and, from the perspective of a conductor, got to see the rich parallel structure of music and the history behind it. I also had a Russian family that took me to the opera (which I still really do not like) and the symphony (which I do). Kraft knew a lot more than I did, but he was intrigued that a grad student would know stuff like this. So he asked me if there were others who were interested and could read conductors’ scores. A number of grad students could — most grad students in astronomy played some sort of musical instrument. So we got together a group of about six of us, and every two weeks for a semester, we would meet at his house. His wife would cook a great meal; we would get a lecture on wine (on which he was an incredible expert); and then we would go to his living room, where he had a great stereo system, and listen to (1) a Mozart piano concerto, (2) a Sibelius symphony and (3) a Beethoven string quartet. He would dissect the music: “Here is the second theme, but coming in in the bass in a minor chord. . .” I was enraptured. I did not like string quartets, and I still don’t, but the study of the music was fascinating. He managed to get one credit for the “class,” and he gave us a second class a year later.

Now, imagine I would do the same today — invite students over, have wine, talk about music. It would be great, but I am sure there could be Title IX problems and legal issues about drinking, etc., and definitely no credits. But to me, that was what the academy was — an almost spontaneous explosion of learning by someone who was a master.

cheers, nick

Mayors for Monarchs

While most people throughout the Brazos Valley were busy in early December making preparations for the rapidly-approaching holiday season, Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson was having visions of greater numbers of Monarch butterflies in his head, thanks to timely assists across Aggieland, from mayors to general citizenry.

Read more in Wilson’s own words regarding his holiday wish that’s now coming true, courtesy of College Station Mayor Nancy Berry and Bryan Mayor Jason Bienski and their respective pledges to work with Wilson and within their blended community to help save a global Monarch population in decline.

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“I pledge. …” I most often hear these words when I am standing inside a classroom in a school somewhere and The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America is being recited first thing in the morning by a teacher and students, each facing a flag in their classroom, a hand over the heart. This is an expression of allegiance to a flag (Colonel George Balch, 1887).

But now, I am hoping to hear an additional pledge (National Wildlife Federation, 2015) spoken. It is a pledge that requires action on the part of mayors and citizens throughout these United States, united in an effort to save the annual migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus Plexippus) from the state of Michoacán in Mexico to the Midwest states, northernmost states and on to Canada. This is achieved in three-to-four generations as the migrating Monarchs arrive in the spring from Mexico, funneling through the critical milkweed habitat that is Texas, lay their eggs on milkweed plants and die. The offspring mature and fly north to Oklahoma and Kansas, lay eggs and die. The next generation will repeat this effort, reproduce and die.

It is the fourth generation on which the species pins its hopes, for they must multiply magnificently. The adults must feed voraciously on nectar to build up fat reserves. The adults must enter sexual diapause before a mass migration is triggered in late fall, at which point they head south to Mexico. Each butterfly has the ability to fly the 2,000 miles to reach the state of Michoacán, an area they have never been. It is an area that their great grandparents left in the spring as part of the largest insect migration in the world — a migration that is under threat. It is a miracle of a migration.

It will take a miracle to sustain it. The Monarch population used to number 1 billion in the early 1990s. There has been a precipitous decline to 33 million in 2013, recovering slightly to 57 million in 2014 and, optimistically, to 100 million in 2015. The main cause is lack of milkweed, which is the only food source for the nascent Monarch caterpillars. It is critical that habitat is restored or created where milkweeds and other wildflowers that serve as nectar sources for all butterfly species, bees and other pollinators will thrive. That is where the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge comes into play. The mayors who sign do so, agreeing to take specific actions. Actions speak louder than words. You can learn more about those here.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson, pictured with a tagged Monarch butterfly within his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-sponsored People's Garden, located across the street from College Station's Wolf Pen Creek Park. (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson, pictured with a tagged Monarch butterfly within his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-sponsored People’s Garden, located across the street from College Station’s Wolf Pen Creek Park. (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

It was to that end that I led a group of delegates to bring the Monarch Pledge to the attention of Mayor Nancy Berry of College Station, Texas. Mayor Berry and David Schmitz, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, made a receptive audience. They were willing to be educated in the biology of both the Monarch butterfly and of native Texas milkweed species of which there are about 30, the more common in the wild being Antelope Horn (Asclepias asperula) and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis). The two species most often found in private gardens are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias Curassavica), the latter needing to be cut back in the fall before the Monarchs migrate through the Brazos Valley.

Mayor Berry listened, then questioned both the delegation and Mr. Schmitz to decide upon the feasibility of acting on the actions recommended. Then she took action. She will sign the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. She will issue “a proclamation to raise awareness about the decline of the Monarch butterfly and the species’ need for habitat” on January 28, 2016, at the scheduled City Council meeting. Because of Mayor Berry’s enthusiastic support, College Station will be joining 48 other mayors to date nationwide who have stepped up and said, “I pledge. …”

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Mayors’ Monarch Pledge Delegation Members

  • Dr. Craig Wilson, Monarch enthusiast, USDA Future Scientists Program Director and Senior Research Associate, Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE), College of Science, Texas A&M University
  • Ms. Ann Boehm, a concerned citizen (I prefer the term proactive citizen) passionate about environmental preservation
  • Dr. Christine Merlin, Assistant Professor of Biology and Monarch researcher, Texas A&M University
  • Dwight Bohlmeyer, Master Naturalist and Program Manager, Salter Farm Educational Research (SaFER) Program, Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, Texas A&M University
  • Charla Anthony, Brazos County Horticulturalist and Master Gardener Coordinator, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
A newly-emerged Monarch, testing its wings in Dr. Craig Wilson's College Station-based USDA office, which features many treasures, including a stuffed sloth from Brazil visible at top left of frame. "It was gifted to me by a friend who received it 50 years ago from an old sea captain (pirate!)," Wilson said. "I keep it close by me to remind me what happens when one is slothful." (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

A newly-emerged Monarch, testing its wings in Dr. Craig Wilson’s College Station-based USDA office, which features many treasures, including a stuffed sloth from Brazil visible at top left of frame. “It was gifted to me by a friend who received it 50 years ago from an old sea captain (pirate!),” Wilson said. “I keep it close by me to remind me what happens when one is slothful.” (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

Expanding Y[our] Horizons

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson has made a career out of science education, outreach and inquiry, inspiring countless school children across this state and nation to learn more about math and science and the many related possibilities through hands-on projects and presentations.

This past Saturday, he made his third consecutive appearance at Expanding Your Horizons, an all-day, workshop-structured conference for 6th grade girls intended to open new doors of interest and opportunity while also encouraging them to stay actively involved in math and science. Beyond making them aware of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career opportunities, the annual event also provides the girls with a chance to meet female role models in related fields.

For his part, Craig says he learns as much as he teaches — typical, given the astute observer and encourager that he is. As the ultimate lifelong learner, he has agreed to share his educational observations via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring a broader audience if not horizon.

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Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his "Expanding Your Horizons" audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his Expanding Your Horizons audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Expanding Your Horizons . . . better known by its acronym “EYH.” You might imagine an expansive horizon, the sun sinking in the west with a myriad of colors filling the sky before darkness descends. A lone rider is riding away into that sunset in silhouette. Who is the rider? From our infatuation with Westerns, one assumes it is a cowboy. But why not a cowgirl? Perhaps it is she who has just saved The West? Why not?

EYH is designed to change that mindset from both without and within. The “Your” refers to 6th grade girls. The “Horizons” is not girls seeing a sunset but seeing science as a possible career. The “Expanding” is encouraging and helping them to look up, to look out and to look above and beyond. Just as the Orion spacecraft is looking to one day take humans to Mars, to break the shackles of low-Earth orbit where we have been trapped since 1972, so it is that EYH wants to help girls to go in science where too few girls have gone before.

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung -- a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung — a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Why is that? These girls know nothing of this, although their parents might. There are various theories, but that is unimportant on this particular Saturday. The question to be asked is, “Why have these young girls come today?” I did not ask, but I suspect that it may be because of parental interest, for each has to come with a chaperone. They have to be brought to the College of Science on the Texas A&M University campus, and 153 have made it today. This is good, because this means that their parents see this as important. They are giving their girls options. They are helping to expand their daughters’ horizons.

Today, what do the girls look like? They look interested. They look interesting. They look like potential scientists. I start my first session. They do not sit back and spectate. They participate. This is good, because this is half the battle. The other half is for them to ask questions. This is difficult, because this is not easy for girls or boys. It used to be second nature. It came naturally when they were younger. It is in the nature of scientists to inquire, to observe and to then ask questions about what they have seen. That is the way science is done, and I try to model that and have the girls see that science is much more than book learning. It is about active engagement. It can be fun. But they have to see that it is important and that they can do it as well as if not better than anyone else.

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut's calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut’s calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

I run three sessions. At the end of each, I am encouraged. These girls have what it takes. They have the right stuff to become scientists. Sadly, not enough girls or boys see it that way. We are not getting enough students to pursue science in college. The STEM fields need them. The world needs them.

The world needs answers. She is beset by problems. We need problem solvers to step up and help her. Why not these girls? They have stepped up today. They have given up a Saturday for science. Today, they have expanded their minds. They have seen that they are not alone. Each has taken a small step for a girl but a giant leap towards a scientific horizon that they may have thought was beyond their reach.

This Texas A&M College of Science program is a small step in the right direction. It tells each girl, “You can EYH.” Yours and ours.


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.

Turning the Tide

Anyone who knows Tim Scott ’89 or has heard him present to general audiences (particularly current or prospective students as associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Texas A&M College of Science) knows that one of his go-to points of inspirational reference is the starfish story, a classic tale by Loren Eiseley about motivation, intrinsic reward and end results.

As many times as I’ve heard him tell the story, I don’t recall ever hearing nor even pondering the starfish’s perspective. Until earlier this month, when Scott forwarded the following email from a former student, Alvin Lira ’13, a 2014 Texas A&M bioenvironmental sciences graduate and current Legislative Support Specialist with the Texas A&M University System Office of Federal Relations in Washington, D.C.

Lira has agreed to share his words via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring other students who may find themselves in his 2012 shoes, not to mention possible benefit from knowing there is light at the end of what at present might appear to be a mighty dark tunnel — and that there are caring people like Tim Scott who are more than happy to help them visualize it even when they might not be able to see it for themselves.

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AlvinLira_LinkedInHello, Dr. Scott,

Not too long ago, I was a biology student at Texas A&M. In 2012 I met you under very unfortunate circumstances due to the academic troubles I had encountered during my first few semesters at TAMU. I was struggling in most of my classes due to a variety of personal issues, and I was at risk of being placed under academic probation. You asked me to meet with you, and I remember thinking about transferring to a different university and changing my course of study before our meeting. While I was in your office, you dissuaded me from this decision and asked me to find a major I would enjoy at TAMU. You told me you would do everything you could to help me get into the department I had chosen in order to finish my studies. You mentioned how many first-generation students from the Rio Grande Valley, like myself, struggle early on and eventually leave TAMU, and you did not want to see someone else miss out on the education that A&M can provide. Soon after, you came through on your end of the deal, and you helped me get into the bioenvironmental sciences degree program.

It was the first time at TAMU that someone had taken the time to truly help and guide me through my struggles. Coming from my background to TAMU, I never really had someone to aid me in any education-related issue. Having someone who put time and effort to help me succeed completely changed my mindset. After speaking with you and seeing how helpful you were, I felt more comfortable reaching out to others for advice and guidance. Within two years after our conversation, I had changed my major to bioenvironmental sciences, learned how to study and find resources, began mentoring at-risk students, got three internships in a row (one of those in D.C. working on Agriculture & Natural Resources Policy), and graduated from Texas A&M (I ended my last three semesters above a 3.25 GPA and my last two semesters above a 3.5 GPA)! After graduating, I went on to work for a state agency for a few months, and I am now in D.C. working for the Texas A&M System’s Office of Federal Relations.

I cannot tell you how much those 20 minutes with you influenced me. You definitely played a huge role in my decision to stay at Texas A&M, and the opportunities that were given to me at TAMU resulted from my decision to stay. I may have not graduated with the highest GPA in my class as a result of my early struggles, but I took advantage of every opportunity given to me afterward, and I did very well in bioenvironmental sciences. I wrote so much, but I simply and truly just wanted to say thank you. I hope that you encourage other first-generation students to pursue their dreams and to never give up. Sometimes it just takes one person to believe in you to change things around. I hope you are doing well and continuing to impact student’s lives. Take care.

Alvin Lira

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Of course, anyone who knows Tim Scott also knows he’s as gracious and geunine as he is generous. He conservatively estimates he answers at least 100 emails from students each day, and his response below to Alvin (spoiler alert: it includes a starfish reference) speaks volumes about a lot more than undergraduate education or potential career advice.

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What a tremendous gift you have given me today! I am blessed beyond measure. One of my favorite stories is the man walking on the beach throwing washed-up starfish back in the ocean (http://www.esc16.net/users/0020/FACES/Starfish%20Story.pdf). I feel like that is my calling in life. Thank goodness I had the good sense to reach out to you to help you understand your full potential. As we discussed, you went on, graduated and are accomplishing the dream. Your job now is to pay it forward, and it sounds like you are doing just that. Also know how much you brought to the table. You were open, accepting, trusting and worked hard. With those attributes, you can do anything you want to do. Thank you for your note today and for not giving up. I am in DC from time to time related to grants, and maybe we can connect when I am there.

Warm Regards,
Tim Scott

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There are perhaps few greater potentially valuable efforts than making and taking the time — Tim Scott back then to help yet another individual in need, and Alvin Lira present-day to prove that investment (Scott’s and his) paid off. As does saying thank you. I bet the starfish would agree.