I Am Just a Teacher

The following is a guest post from Patricia Oliver ’11, a 10th grade chemistry and 9th grade Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas. A 2011 graduate of Texas A&M University and a member of the aggieTEACH Program, Oliver earned both her bachelor’s of science degree in university studies (2011) and a master’s of education degree in education curriculum and instruction (2012) at Texas A&M. Earlier this month, she was honored with the 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award — a prestigious honor that includes a $5,000 personal award as well as $5,000 for Oliver to spend on her classroom.

Patricia Oliver '11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Patricia Oliver ’11 (right), accumulating extra classroom experience as a Texas A&M undergraduate and aggieTEACH participant. The program, a collaboration between the College of Science and the College of Education and Human Development, has helped Texas A&M lead the State of Texas in number of university-certified math and science teachers produced each year for nearly a decade. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

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I am a just teacher. Every year, there comes a point when I contemplate that statement. When people ask me what I do, I automatically answer, “I am a teacher.” And to any non-teacher, that translates to: I talk to students, I grade papers and then I go home. Anyone can do that.

There are many examples of this that all teachers can relate to. One that springs to mind is when a man I was talking to said, “Oh! So you just went to college to get your Mrs. degree?” after hearing I was a teacher. Or it’s commonly assumed that I teach elementary. People are generally shocked when I tell them I teach high school chemistry, often responding with, “Wow! You must be smart, then!” Does that mean if I taught anything else, I am not smart?

The title of “teacher” doesn’t scream intelligence to non-teachers. It is sad that society views the teaching profession in that way. It makes every teacher feel inferior. People’s views of my profession make me second-guess myself all the time. I never think I’m working hard enough. Doing enough. Providing enough. It’s stupid, isn’t it?

This year, I was awarded the STEM innovation teaching award. I had students come hug me and tell me that I was the reason they walked across the stage. But even in those moments of validation, I think I’m not deserving. I feel guilty that I’m being praised for a job well done, because I don’t think I did anything amazing. It’s just my job. I am just a teacher.

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver '11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

2011 Texas A&M University graduate and West Mesquite High School science teacher Patricia Oliver ’11 with her 2015 Texas Instruments Foundation Innovation in STEM Teaching Award. (Credit: Leah Felty.)

Today, while sitting at lunch at a conference with 2,000 other teachers during my vacation time, I received a text from a former student who recently graduated:

“Ms. Oliver, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for me! You’ve always been there when I had a problem or I needed somebody to talk to. You’ve impacted my life for the best, and I can’t thank you enough for everything! You’ve looked out for me and guided me in the right path. I love you so much, and I know you might hear this from a lot of students, but I honestly mean it. You’re like a mother, sister, best friend and mentor to me. I honestly don’t know where I would be without your guidance. I’m honestly going to miss you so much, but I’ll still, hopefully, go to feed the homeless. Thank you, Ms. Oliver, for everything! I love you from the bottom of my heart! You were and forever will be my favorite teacher.”

The message was sent completely out the blue. I immediately started to cry. When I asked why she sent the text, she responded, “I was just thinking about my high school years and, well, you were in most of it.” My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous! I didn’t pay enough attention to you! I couldn’t possibly mean that much to you.” I am just a teacher.

Then I realized something … never once did she talk about all the chemistry she learned! She didn’t mention all the papers I graded or how the immediate feedback I gave her was so influential! Funny, isn’t it?

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

Patricia Oliver, showing off her hopefully contagious love for chemistry in her West Mesquite High School classroom. (Credit: Patricia Oliver.)

I am more than just a teacher. Like my student said, I am a “mother, sister, best friend and mentor.” I am a counselor, sounding board, advice-giver, mediator and thought-provoker. I change lives.

I am so much more than a teacher, and I am proud.

I could go on forever. But I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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.)

Driven by Nature

Cross-country road trips present the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander. The possibilities (much like the road) are endless, particularly if you’re a scientist.

Meet Dwight Bohlmeyer ’84, who earned both a B.S. in marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1984 and an M.S. in genetics from Texas A&M University in 1989. A former department head for the Division of Natural Science (2009-2014) and a longtime biology instructor (1997-2014) at Blinn College’s Bryan campus, he recently joined the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, where he manages the Salter Farm Educational Research Program.

Dwight and I met this past fall by way of Monarch butterflies and related marketing opportunities. He’s a glutton for all things STEM education, and in addition to having a keen eye for photography, he has the science background to make it beneficial beyond the beauty. If you follow us on Facebook, chances are you’ve probably seen some of his work.

In fact, it was via Facebook that I first learned about his latest project, a daily nature photography challenge to capture five species a day throughout 2015 for a total of 1,825 species by December 31. He dreamed it up as a rather unique New Year’s resolution while filling mental space during his return trip to College Station from Missouri, where he was visiting family for the holidays.

Even though I know these things are all about stretching one’s limits (which I like to think I accomplish by default as a full-time working mother of three), I think Dwight’s really outdone himself here and that the results will be well worth following. And we can all do just that at FIVEx365, the WordPress blog he’s set up to help document his results and keep him accountable like the disciplined scientist he is. He even has rules, which he outlines in the first entry.

And to think, all this time, I’ve been jamming out to mixed CDs and XM Radio during my extended travels. Get the picture?

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

Tradition in Action

I learned something new about the late George P. Mitchell ’40 last month.

Yeah, that George Mitchell, the same entrepreneurial Texas A&M University distinguished alumnus, energy pioneer, visionary philanthropist and larger-than-life Texan I’ve been covering at least once every six months or so for more than a decade, typically in relation to a new gift or result of a previous gift to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy.

Amazingly enough, I only interviewed him once during that entire time, in 2005 for the cover story for the College of Science’s first and only issue of DISCOVERY magazine, which fell victim soon afterward to budget cuts. And truth be told, that solitary occasion was more of a sitting-down-to-breakfast-at-the-same-table group scenario anyway.

The 2005 interview. Yes, that's my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

The 2005 interview. Yes, that’s my fuzzy, lilac-colored shoulder in the right foreground. And the crepes were just as fabulous as then-Physics Department Head Ed Fry said they would be, too. (Credit: John Lewis / Texas A&M Foundation.)

Bottom line: I thought I had read if not written the proverbial book on him. Go figure I was wrong and that I’d missed one of his best stories yet — one involving a 60-year Aggie tradition, at that. I think it’s one of my new favorites right up there with the Aggie Ring, Muster and Midnight Yell.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell '40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

THIS JUST IN: For the past 60 years, legendary Houston businessman and oil and gas pioneer George P. Mitchell ’40 has been honoring Aggie petroleum engineers with same inscribed gold watch he received as the top senior in 1940.

Beyond bearing all the hallmarks of his humble, behind-the-scenes style, the news came with a twist befitting his sharp business mind and quick-witted side. In contrast to his generosity to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Mr. Mitchell was notorious for deflecting those who encouraged him to consider supporting worthwhile causes in engineering — not because he didn’t see their value, but because, as a numbers/logistics man, he saw how many prosperous Texas A&M engineers there were besides him to champion such efforts. His classic fallback response on such occasions? “Talk to Claytie” — a playful reference to Texas A&M graduate Clayton W. Williams, Jr. ’54, president and chief executive officer of Midland-based Clayton Williams Energy Inc. and former Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee.

Alas, the ultimate secret within a secret: He’d been supporting the top Aggie engineers in his home department all along. Well played, Mr. Mitchell; well played.

On that sunny summer 2005 morning in The Woodlands, I was in awe. I still am. I guess wonders the likes of George P. Mitchell ’40 never cease, even in death. Talk about breaking news that knows no embargo.

GPM

Game-Changing Gambles

The Giant Magellan Telescope picked up Texas-sized momentum last month with a $50 million pledge from the University of Texas. Although it wasn’t our announcement, I found myself nearly as excited as I was on July 22, 2011, when I received the following email from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff:

Shana, I don’t know if we can announce this yet, but this is a huge achievement! Ask Darren about when this can be made news.

The following news, relayed by Darren DePoy, from the latest GMT Board meeting included the following:

“The GMT1 primary mirror is now at 50nm rms figure. The goal is ~30nm (I think), but even at this level it is the best figured/polished large aspheric optic ever made and probably could be used as is. This is extremely good news!”

This is fantastic! The technology developed by Roger Angel has worked, and we now have a green light to start the other mirrors.

This made my day!

cheers nick

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

I’m definitely no scientist, but I’ve always found the GMT’s design beautifully intriguing and absolutely genius because of its originality and flexibility. The scientists behind it had the forethought (no doubt because they knew just how hard a financial sell it would be) to make it operational in stages, allowing for results (pretty sweet ones) even if it never raises enough funds to be fully completed. The fourth mirror represents that critical stage — the turning point. With UT’s pledge, it’s as good as cast, ensuring that, even if the worst comes to pass, the world at least will have more than leftover parts and a shell of a dream (see Texas Superconducting Super Collider) to show for all the hard work and previous investment.

In January, the GMT cleared two major hurdles, passing both its detailed design review and being approved to enter the construction phase. Of course, approval is one thing; having the financing to do so is quite another.

They say timing is everything, and Texas’ bold move couldn’t have happened at a better one. I can’t help but think of George P. Mitchell ’40 and how happy he would be to finally see the day when his home state got off the dime (figuratively and literally), following his own $33.25 million lead in that vital international leadership regard as he saw it.

Mitchell believed in the GMT when few else beyond the project’s originators did. Thank goodness for people like him — an individual not only with the financial wherewithal but also the vision to see the GMT’s potential just as clearly as the scientists behind it. Truly remarkable and heady stuff. And all the more fitting that it’s a pledge from one of his home institutions that likely puts it over the construction hump. Whoop!

So many said it would never get this far. And that such a risky design relying on not one but seven parabolic mirrors that put the double-capital Ps in precision polishing (in addition to being unprecedentedly huge) would never work.

I think as the GMT enters construction, its marvel will become more apparent. It’s hard to fundraise in the abstract, long-term, but once the project’s partners have a tangible object and definable, measurable progress underway, it will be far easier to visualize the possibility-laden bandwagon onto which these institutions are imploring donors as well as global science to jump.

Oh, and that first mirror and all its precision-polishing-representing-pioneering-scientific-achievement glory that Dr. Suntzeff was so ecstatic about in his email? It’s named for Mr. Mitchell. Oh, the places it will go and things it will help see!

The Giant Magellan Telescope's first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona's Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively. GMT1/"George" (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile -- a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT's seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

The Giant Magellan Telescope’s first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona’s Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively.
GMT1/”George” (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile — a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT’s seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

You Are Enough

HemingwayQuoteDear Student,

You almost walked out on a Team Exercise today because you weren’t prepared, and you didn’t want to freeload. I admire that, but I asked you to stay and to learn, because the point of the Team Exercise isn’t the grade; it’s to help the members of the team to better understand the lesson.

At some point we will all walk in unprepared, and have to ask our team to help us out. That’s why some of the hard stuff is Team Stuff, rather than individual. Because I think that having you work together will cause more learning than if I just preach it at you.

I still felt terrible because you did today. And I questioned myself and what I was doing.

I talked to you for while late this afternoon, and there are other things going on in your life. This class isn’t easy for you, and logistics lately have been difficult. I get the feeling there are other things too. You apologized to me, but no apology is necessary. This is my job. I am here to try to help you learn. I know that other things get in the way. I know how they get in the way. I’ve lived that. I just wish you knew it, too. You are worthy of being here. Worthy of my effort. Worthy of the help from your team. Worthy of being taken seriously. Worthy of help. Maybe worthy of better than I am capable of giving you.

ValueI know that you are the type of person who wants to be the one to help others. If another came to you unprepared, or unable to get something, or struggling, you’d be proud to be the person to help them out. You’d treat all their problems with loving kindness. That loving kindness that you’d so easily give to someone else is the loving kindness I want you to give yourself right now.

Just hang in there. Just keep trying. And seeing the high level of frustration and pain I saw in your face today, just in case, I want to say: If there comes a point where you realize or decide that this is not for you, I want you to know that is okay, too. You are still worthy and worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like we are deep in a dark tunnel with no way to climb out. And I can’t even tell you how to get out, except that you have to just keep at it.

I didn’t have the exact right words to say to you. I can only hope that the ones I had were enough to plant this idea, for it to grow and blossom later. You are enough. Just as you are. Deserving of respect and love and help. If you can’t trust yourself to judge that, I hope you can trust me.

Sincerely,

Dr. Linhart

LoveLeaf

(Credit: Alex Eastman)


Life Forces and Legacies

Last week Texas A&M University hosted a familiar face and cherished friend in one Robert M. Gates, 22nd United States Secretary of Defense and 22nd President of Texas A&M, who was here on campus to discuss his new book, DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. As expected, Dr. Gates packed Rudder Auditorium and had his audience hanging on his every warm and oftentimes humorous word.

Two Texas A&M presidents removed and two jobs later, Dr. Gates remains a man much revered in Aggieland, if not for progressive plans like faculty reinvestment, then for more student-centric feats like first-year grade exclusion and the university studies degree. (Or, in my case, as the guy at the helm when journalism died, but that’s another subject, one for which I’ve mostly forgiven him. Mostly. And I even understand the dairy center, given that yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of Dad and Mom selling off our own herd and ending our family’s days in the milking pits. In short, it was time for both.)

His visit reminded me of another revered Aggie, George P. Mitchell ’40, who was a big fan of Dr. Gates and his energy when it came to Mr. Mitchell’s alma mater and its future. Understandably there as well, considering Mr. Mitchell invested as big as anyone in those dreams, adding his monetary muscle to fuel the dream for Texas A&M Physics.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

That admiration was mutual, as evidenced by this quote from Dr. Gates upon hearing of Mr. Mitchell’s death on July 26, 2013:

“George Mitchell was a great man and a great benefactor of Texas A&M University. Through his generosity, dramatic improvements were made possible in many areas, including science research and teaching at Texas A&M, particularly in physics. Thanks to his philanthropy, world-class facilities and significant enhancements for faculty and students alike brought international renown to the university. His gifts also extended to athletics, particularly tennis. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from him while I was president of the university. He will be greatly missed.”

These two powerful men and their visionary motivations coincided and collided in a
marvelous and near-magical way, creating the best possible hiring world and a climate of excitement and forward momentum that proved so attractive in 2006 as to actually land such an established star as Nick Suntzeff, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, to lead Texas A&M’s new astronomy program.

Thanks in large part to Dr. Gates’ and Mr. Mitchell’s dual dreams, the future is gloriously bright for Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Texas A&M University and the overall state of Texas. Despite being gone in vastly different extremes, both will be forever remembered in Aggieland, if not for enabling sweeping recruiting successes and other tangible program-wide gains, then for negotiating two beautiful buildings — architectural showpieces and the first on campus to be built through a unique university-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.

Here’s a bit of the rest of the story on that story, as told by Joe Newton, Dean of Science and inaugural holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Endowed Chair in Statistics, who reflects on a pivotal meeting involving Dr. Gates and Texas A&M’s most generous benefactor:

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George P. Mitchell, 1940 Texas A&M University distinguished petroleum engineering graduate, the largest benefactor Texas A&M has ever had, developer of The Woodlands, and the leading figure in hydraulic fracking (among a host of other amazing accomplishments), passed away on July 26 at the age of 94.

Lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as dean of the Texas A&M College of Science, I was privileged to participate in his philanthropic efforts to build fundamental physics and astronomy at Texas A&M. In the process, he became a friend. I flew on Continental Express with him. I ate at Chick-fil-A with him. Somehow he thought I had power. He would call me to tell me to fix things. Sometimes I even could. His passing has made me very sad. I cannot believe this life force has left us.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

I also had the honor of knowing former Texas A&M President (and CIA Director and Secretary of Defense) Robert M. Gates. These two men came together in Mitchell’s Houston office on Aug. 14, 2005, in a meeting that changed the face of Texas A&M. It was my honor to be there, and I would like to pay tribute to both of them by describing the meeting.

Both men had already played a large role in the development of fundamental physics and astronomy on campus; Gates with his reinvestment program designed to bolster teaching and research efforts by hiring a large number of new faculty, and Mitchell with his philanthropy that created an institute named in his honor, that helped us build a new astronomy program and attract great faculty.

Ed Fry, the department head at the time (and a dreamer of the first order), had developed a remarkably close relationship with Mitchell. Fry thought that Mitchell would be receptive to a request to help fund two buildings on campus. The first would be a “signature building” architecturally to house the Mitchell Institute; the second would for the first time consolidate all of the department’s faculty and classes in one place.

The task of convincing the university to supply the matching funds that Mitchell always required fell largely to me. Mitchell routinely drove a hard bargain, but the driving premise behind his trademark matching requirement was to ensure the maximum benefit of every dollar contributed — his or the university’s — to the broader cause or project. A major component of this particular project was that the department would make no claim on space it would vacate, so that the university would in fact receive a net gain with its matching funds.

After a series of meetings with various university officials, especially Gates, it was agreed that Gates and a few others (including Fry, Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 and College of Science Director of Development Don Birkelbach ’70) would go to Mitchell’s office in downtown Houston to make “the big ask.”

There was a sense of history when we walked into the conference room. Mitchell, as usual, started by asking about projects in which he was interested, including the Giant Magellan Telescope. Then his attorney, Barry Levitt, suggested we talk about the buildings. The rest took perhaps five minutes. Both Gates and Mitchell had great respect for the other. There was a true sense of good will.

Gates began by saying, “I don’t want to insult Ed or Joe, but a physics building has not been one of our top priorities.” In his typical wry manner, Mitchell interrupted Gates with, “Yes, I’ve noticed.” At which point everyone laughed. “But because of all you’ve done,” Gates continued, “we will contribute $2 million toward a building to house the Mitchell Institute, and I have a suggestion for you: I have identified $20 million in cash, and if you agree to the legacy proposal we have prepared for you, we will use the first $20 million of your funds to match what we will do.”

Mitchell responded that there were problems with the proposal, but that perhaps he could do $3 million per year for five years. Gates, without batting an eyelash, countered: “The $20 million really straps me; how about you do 10 years?” Mitchell came right back at him, suggesting, “How about $2 million for 10 years?” After a pause, Gates continued to barter, “$2.5 million for 10 years would split the difference.” Then Ed Fry jumped into the fray with, “It would really help to do it in five years — how about $5 million for five years?” Mitchell said, “Same amount of money, so OK.” The deal was done!

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Later, Mitchell’s total contribution for the $82.5 million buildings actually reached just over $36 million.

The rest is history. It took many, many meetings to complete the two beautiful buildings, but I will never forget the day these two legendary men agreed to something that greatly enhanced Texas A&M. Ultimately, with the fundamental work being done in these buildings and the resulting renaissance for Texas A&M physics and astronomy, they have indeed changed the world.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell '40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell ’40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

A Bittersweet Benchmark

On January 19, 2008, Texas A&M University lost one of its absolute best absolutely too soon: Presidential Professor John L. Hogg, a beloved chemist, champion of undergraduate education and science outreach, and all-around life force of graciousness and good will.

Last summer on a casual jaunt across campus for an errand, I noticed an unfamiliar maroon bench outside the Texas A&M Chemistry Complex that I’d apparently missed for the better part of five years — not unlike its namesake in the case of so many.

BenchThey say every person has a story, and so does this bench, as told here by longtime Texas A&M Chemistry administrator Ron Carter, associate department head and friend of John Hogg:

Dr. Hogg’s 2008 spring class had just started earlier in the week, and his students were very saddened when they were informed of his passing. Various faculty members stepped in to teach his class and take over his undergraduate advising duties and other roles within the department. While we all handled what had to be done, the students stepped up with their own approach, unbeknownst to anyone that I am aware of to this day. Toward the end of the semester, I received an anonymous telephone call, informing me a memorial gift in the name of Dr. John Hogg had been delivered to the front steps of the Chemistry Building. I went outside, and although no one was in sight, there in the bright sunshine was a shiny maroon memorial bench sitting at the base of the grand staircase leading up the Chemistry Building with an inscription on it honoring the memory of Dr. John Hogg. It was a very overwhelming moment to know his students cared and appreciated him so much that they had come together to purchase a lasting memorial in his honor. We have never received a note or letter from anyone claiming credit for his memorial bench. The Department of Chemistry and the College of Science subsequently provided the funds to have it permanently installed under one of the large oak trees at the main entrance to the Chemistry Building where he once sat and talked with students.

PlaqueSix years later, an anonymous gift as altruistic as the man himself continues to pay quiet but constant tribute regardless of weather or season to the memory and the ongoing impact of the beloved chemist well-known for shouldering many a worthwhile cause of great consequence with precious little fanfare while also counseling generations of Aggies toward career excellence in chemistry and inspiring anyone fortunate enough to enter his orbit along the way.

Between the bench and the stately oaks that shade it, it’s a picturesque metaphor for a man most at peace among his students, his colleagues and his chemistry who is clearly and dearly missed by all three.

As colorful and exciting an individual as his trademark tie-dyed lab coat, Dr. John Hogg and the Chemistry Road Show program he created introduced more than 2,000 people each year to the wonders of chemistry, physics and general science with the help of fire, explosions, weird polymers and super cold materials.

As colorful and exciting an individual as his trademark tie-dyed lab coat, Dr. John Hogg and the Chemistry Road Show program he created introduced more than 2,000 people each year to the wonders of chemistry, physics and general science with the help of fire, explosions, weird polymers and super cold materials.

Heart of the Matter

I got the rare opportunity a few months ago to sit in on a video shoot with one of our fairly new and absolutely dynamic professors in the Department of Chemistry, Karen Wooley. I’ve never been so glad that I for once seized the day, because soon after leaving my usual seat, I found myself sitting on the edge of quite another.

For proper context, I’ve had the privilege of writing a few press releases on Dr. Wooley’s work, but in all cases (mostly due to her busy travel schedule and the basic convenience of mine) those exchanges occurred via email. Suffice it to say in-person is invaluable and that I had no idea what I was missing. To be in her presence is to know the pure joy she radiates — about her science, her students and broader lab group, their shared “ah-ha” moments big and small in the name of curiosity as catalyst of discovery, the overall give-and-take of knowledge generation, being at Texas A&M University, etc.

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

I learned three things in that hour, and to the surprise of a gal who struggled through two years of premed before changing majors to journalism, even a little chemistry in the process:

  1. Karen Wooley enjoys her work, and there’s a lot of it to love. The sheer volume of projects she has going on would make your head spin. And that’s before she rattles off the myriad federal agencies and industry leaders who fund and support it. In short, she believes — in herself, her group, her department/university and her profession’s potential — and that contagious confidence not only shows, it produces results. And more grants. And more breakthrough discoveries. And more excitement. Talk about a pretty picture that needs no storyboard!
  2. Karen Wooley gets frustrated. Newsflash: Scientists are people, too. Even though I know this and try my best to convey it in every story I write, I have to admit I never fully thought about the everyday struggles involved in and incumbent upon being a research group leader. While I joke that I only get to write in my spare time, the same holds true for high-flying chemists, whose responsibilities as de facto CEOs of what amounts to a small corporation likewise take away from their true love — actual bench time. There’s no “i” in team. Nor is there one in “laboratory” or “research.” Interesting parallel.
  3. Karen Wooley has trouble defining success. After nearly a solid hour of providing non-stop detail on the countless projects and personnel that encompass Team Wooley (and revealing that some of the best breakthroughs indeed happen by accident — or, to put it more accurately, under the expert watch of someone with the right combination of experience, knowledge and curiosity necessary to first recognize and then to play out the possibilities), it was a wrap. I saw my window and jumped, rendering Dr. Wooley speechless for the first and only time that afternoon with one spontaneous question: “How do you define success?” Granted, it was neither in the pre-shoot list nor entirely fair. The trite job-interview equivalent of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which always makes me chuckle as I think of the stock “in-your-job” answer that runs through my mind but for once not out my mouth. For the record, my standard answer is “happy.” And although Dr. Wooley never said as much, she didn’t have to, considering it was obvious to all present in the room.

A wrap, indeed, and all in my ideal kind of day’s work.