Science Comes Full Circle in Chile

It’s for good reason people look forward to Fridays. In addition to marking the official end of the work week (sometimes mercifully), they represent a last opportunity of sorts to close the deal.

I found myself at just that point in both respects last Friday, when I was hard at work, prepping a draft of a lengthy feature story that actually turned into two stories summarizing the Texas A&M Astronomy Group’s role in one of the biggest discoveries in astrophysics history — the first neutron star collision observed in both sound and light. This one had legs for days and as such was both a writer’s dream and nightmare in one fell swoop.

Ever since I’d found out about it in late August, I had cautioned myself and my experts that we and any media we hoped to target would be best served by concentrating on an angle unique to us. Boy, did we have that in spades, considering Texas A&M astronomer Jennifer Marshall happened to be the only astronomer present at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile observing at the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope at the time for the Dark Energy Survey. Did I mention she was using the world’s most powerful digital camera, the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, for which Texas A&M astronomer Darren DePoy served as the project scientist and for which Texas A&M’s Munnerlyn Laboratory also provided a key sub-component, a spectrophotometric calibration system known as DECal?

I digress as usual. In prepping the draft story in our news database, I realized I needed to find the perfect photograph equally unique to our story — preferably something to which not everyone else within the 400-scientist, 26-institution DES collaboration would have access. As fate would have it, I remembered a photograph I had stashed away awhile back, acquired somewhere in my internet/social media travels: an absolutely stunning shot of CTIO and Blanco, with the Milky Way Galaxy magnificently resplendent overhead.

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The Milky Way as seen over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope, home to the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera and some of history’s first images of a binary neutron star merger, taken by Texas A&M University astronomer Jennifer Marshall. (Credit: NSF ACEAP ambassador Matt Dieterich / Website and Instagram)

As I pulled it up on screen, I was relieved to find it was just as glorious as I remembered. At the same time, however, my mind wrestled with two competing realizations: what I knew I had to do and just how long the odds of success in that endeavor were. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought. So I keyed in the photographer’s name, Matt Dieterich, and clicked on the link to his website. I dashed off a quick email using his online form and hoped for the best while I continued prepping the story.

Several hours later, Matt responded, and within the course of a few emails, a deal between strangers was sealed. As a self-described big fan of astronomy education, Matt was kind enough to lend his beautiful photograph to our publicity efforts. In turn, I agreed to send him the link to the story once it went live the following Monday.

I left the office that evening sure of two things: that I got the better end of our arrangement, and that there indeed are good people left in this world who do what they do simply because they are passionate about it and because it’s the right thing for a good cause. How’s that for a FridayFeeling-worthy hashtag?

Here’s where the story gets even better, if not full circle. As so often happens in life if not also science, Matt revealed to me once the story officially broke on Monday that the reason he got to see and document CTIO in the first place was courtesy of the National Science Foundation-funded Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program. Go figure that NSF is also one of the main funding sources behind the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detected the ripples in space-time generated by the cataclysmic collision and issued the August 17 alert that kick-started the whole universal history-making process in motion.

Three cheers for fundamental science, breakthrough discoveries and beautiful images, on top of 11th hour teamwork and the kindness of strangers. There’s a lesson here far bigger than astrophysics, folks.

Thanks and gig ’em, Matt! In addition to making one heck of an NSF ACEAP ambassador, you hold a special place in our news archives and maroon-bleeding hearts. Rest assured you’ll always have a friend in Texas A&M Science.

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Follow Matt on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/MattDieterichPhotography/.

Year in Review: Undergraduate Statistics Program

This weekend as part of August commencement ceremonies, Texas A&M University will award diplomas to the largest summer class in its 140-year history — a group that includes the first two graduates of one of its newest degree programs, the bachelor’s of science in statistics. Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney, one of two faculty advisors for the program, agreed to summarize his thoughts on the program’s historic first year — 12 months that helped establish a firm foundation for both the students enrolled and the Department of Statistics, as well as within a broader profession with the powerfully appealing potential to impact so many others.

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In addition to serving as a faculty advisor for the undergraduate program in statistics, Texas A&M statistician Dr. Alan R. Dabney is one of two university faculty members appointed to 2016 University Professorships in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence (UPUTE) at Texas A&M University.

 

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Statistics currently is one of the hottest career options around! A few key indicators: LinkedIn has listed statistician as one of the top 5 “Hottest Skills” sought by employers in each of the past two years; CareerCast named both statistician and data scientist as among the top 5 professions for two consecutive years; U.S. News & World Report ranks statistician as the top job in business, top job in STEM and No. 17 on their list of 100 Best Jobs overall; and the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked it as the 9th fastest growing occupation between 2014 and 2024.

In response to the growing demand for statisticians worldwide, Texas A&M University introduced a brand new undergraduate degree program in fall 2016. While the Department of Mathematics has offered an applied mathematical sciences (APMS) degree with specialization in statistics, the new bachelor’s of science degree in statistics offers a unique opportunity for Aggies to kick-start their statistical careers and set themselves up in a rewarding vocation.

If you’re considering a career in this multidisciplinary field, read on to find out more about the program, the successes of our earliest graduates and where we’re headed.

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After providing fundamental statistics instruction for the past five decades in support of hundreds of undergraduate degree programs across Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M Department of Statistics began offering its own bachelor’s of science degree in fall 2016.

Bachelor’s of Science in Statistics

For the first time in history beginning last fall, Texas A&M undergraduate students have the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree in statistics!

The program is delivered by an already distinguished department recognized as one of the nation’s top graduate program providers. As such, the bachelor’s of science in statistics has been designed to rigorously prepare students to enter the workforce or continue their studies in graduate school.

Through newly developed classes, the program introduces students to the theoretical and applied fundamentals of statistics and data science. However, because statistics is such a multidisciplinary and collaborative profession, the bachelor’s also requires students to complete four classes in an outside area of specialization. This sets students up to confidently enter a workforce where collaborating with non-statisticians will be an important part of their jobs.

While the department has outlined some popular areas for this outside study — including business, math, computer science, biology, engineering and pre-med — students are given the flexibility to choose their own paths of specialization. In many cases, if specialization classes are carefully chosen, students can also graduate with a minor to add to their employability as a statistician.

In the final year of study, students are then required to apply their skills to solve substantial, real-life problems in a capstone project under the direction of a faculty member. The capstone is intended to draw on all completed courses and provide a comprehensive exercise in statistical application. We expect it to be excellent preparation for both a career as a professional analyst and for conducting fundamental research.

One notable highlight of the new program is the introductory survey class STAT 182 that shows students how statistics is used in the modern world. Last year, guest speakers were invited to address the class each week to inspire our future statisticians with real-life stories. Among these speakers were renowned statistician Nate Silver from fivethirtyeight.com; senior statisticians from Google, Facebook, Biogen, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; recruiters from Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and other industry juggernauts; and several distinguished professors, both from our own department and around the world. This class gives our students a highly valuable peek behind the scenes at cutting-edge statistics in the real world. Screencast recordings of the guest speakers from this past spring semester are available on YouTube.

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Statistician and FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver (left, front of room) fields questions from students and Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney (right, front of room) in the Texas A&M Department of Statistics during a March 2017 visit to Texas A&M.

Scholarships in Statistics

Although it’s early days for the new statistics undergraduate program, the department has already managed to secure a number of scholarships to enhance the educational experiences for our top-tier students.

Four students enrolled in the bachelor’s of science in statistics — Jose Alfaro, Steven Broll, Caroline Lee and Xin (Thomas) Su — have received $2,500 awards for use during the course of the 2017-2018 academic year. Two of these scholarships are sponsored by Shell Oil, while the other two come directly from the Department of Statistics.

To learn more about the scholarships available to statistics undergraduates, click here.

Internships in Statistics

Another valuable feature of the bachelor’s of science in statistics is the opportunity to obtain internships.

Two students spent their summer gaining paid, hands-on experience in dealing with genomic data sets, courtesy of Advanta Seeds, an international agronomic and vegetable seed company. A third student is set to work with the Texas A&M Office of Undergraduate Studies to learn from student feedback on academic advising experiences, while another will work with the University Honors Program to develop predictive models for identifying at-risk students. Finally, a fifth will work with a faculty member in the College of Nursing to explore and analyze scores on nursing standardized tests.

Additional internship opportunities are in constant development.

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Career Options for Statistics Graduates

Career options for graduates with a bachelor’s of science in statistics are almost endless! Graduates will be able to pursue a career in any of the numerous industries in which there is a need for statisticians. Possible venues include businesses ranging from small to large, governmental agencies, hospitals, the tech industry, the pharmaceutical industry and universities.

In addition, our graduates will be well-prepared to continue their studies in graduate school.

To learn more about statistical career options, see the American Statistical Association website.

A&M Undergraduate Statistics Graduates

After the first year of operation, we’re proud to announce the graduation of two bright and gifted students from the bachelor’s of science in statistics program. Here’s a little about their journeys and experiences at Texas A&M:

Tessa Johnson

Tessa didn’t come to Texas A&M, planning to major in statistics. Instead, she chose a field that she enjoyed — mathematics — and would allow her to study the many different things in which she was interested.

As one of the first two graduates of this new degree program, Tessa says she found the experience to be invaluable. She enjoyed the fact that the program allows you to take your study in almost any direction that you’d like.

After graduating with outstanding grades and a double major, Tessa was awarded the prestigious James B. Duke Fellowship to continue her study of statistics in the Ph.D. program at Duke University. She feels that Texas A&M has prepared her very well for grad school and hopes that the department there allows for the same kind of flexibility for student-directed research.

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Tessa Johnson ’17 (left) visits with Texas A&M statistician Alan Dabney, one of two faculty advisors for the undergraduate program in statistics. Johnson and Sharon Wang ’17 each received two of the most versatile and powerful undergraduate degrees across the campus and nation on August 11: a bachelor’s in applied mathematical sciences and the first bachelor’s in statistics awarded in Texas A&M history.

Sicheng (Sharon) Wang

Sharon took a few statistics classes before enrolling in the new program. After enjoying them, it felt like a natural move to add a statistical major.

The thing she says she enjoyed most about the new program was the ability to be mentored by Texas A&M’s top-level statistics professors. Not only did she find them to be excellent educators, but she was also impressed by their willingness to offer extra help at any time.

Graduating with exceptional grades, Sharon’s been admitted to the data science Ph.D. program within the Department of Computer Science and Engineering here at Texas A&M. This move will take her one step closer to her goal to become a professor in an area that’s both challenging and a passion of hers.

For any freshmen who are considering pursuing their own bachelor’s of science in statistics, Sharon recommends trying out a few statistics courses beforehand. She also suggests talking to the program advisors who are more than happy to talk with students about the many different data-driven career options they can pursue.

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Sicheng (Sharon) Wang, pictured with her Texas A&M diploma.

The Future of Undergraduate Statistics at Texas A&M
We have 35 current majors and an additional 35 incoming freshmen and transfers in the fall semester. Due to the large amount of interest in statistics among students and parents, these numbers are expected to steadily grow. As the program grows, here’s a sneak peak at the department’s future plans.

Undergraduate Students Association

Just as the graduate program has an active student association, we are in the process of forming the Statistics Undergraduate Student Association (SUSA). SUSA will serve to connect our students with each other, the graduate students and the faculty, in addition to providing opportunities for career development through job talks and recruiter visits.

Dedicated Academic Advisor

In June, the Department of Statistics welcomed a dedicated undergraduate academic advisor, Alyssa Brigham. Alyssa is available to help students decide which classes to take, manage student interactions with the university and advise on career opportunities and preparation.

Honors Program

We also plan to develop an honors program for high-performing statistics undergraduates. This will involve the creation of at least four dedicated honors classes in core areas of the degree program to teach and refine skills at the highest level.

Combined Bachelor’s and Master’s Program

Another option for future high-performing statistical students will be to complete a fast-tracked, combined B.S. and M.S. degree. This will allow students to complete both the undergraduate and graduate degree programs in five years, when it would otherwise take six.

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Why Texas A&M for Undergraduate Statistics?

As you can see, the new bachelor’s of science in statistics presents students with a great opportunity to gain early entry into a promising career path. But all that aside, why choose Texas A&M for your study? Why, indeed:

  • Highly ranked statistics department – The new undergraduate degree has been developed by a department that’s already built a solid reputation in the statistical world. We’re renowned for offering students access to a wide breadth of real-world problems in a vast array of application areas, including public health, engineering and spatio-temporal applications, such as climate change, business analytics, forensics, astronomy and many more. Graduates from the department are highly sought after and respected in both academics and industry.
  • Excellent curriculum – Texas A&M’s program is comprehensive, rigorous and highly flexible. It has been designed to prepare undergraduates on a level comparable to that of many master’s of science programs.
  • Invaluable connections – With established connections to local businesses and other university faculties, the undergraduate program allows you to network and gain experience in working with a wide variety of potential employers. Our contacts include oil and gas companies, banks, cancer research centers, national laboratories and other federal agencies, and leading researchers around the world.
  • A&M = a great university – With a solid reputation, strong traditions and community, there are countless reasons why you’d be proud to call yourself an Aggie.

To learn more or inquire about enrolling in the bachelor’s of science in statistics program, visit the degree overview webpage.

Thanks and gig ’em!

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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.

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Improving STEM Education: It’s About Time

The following is a guest post from Robert Wilson ’89, a former 3rd grade science teacher at Bryan Independent School District’s Blue Ribbon-recognized Johnson Elementary School. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M and longtime science educator, currently is Director of STEM Classroom Products for Galxyz’s Blue Apprentice, a new app that is putting the interactive adventure into elementary science and making international headlines, including for a recent partnership with Popular Science to create an entire line of game-based K6 science resources.

Although Wilson may no longer be head of the class at Johnson, his heart clearly remains with his students and singularly invested in their best interests, particularly with regard to the S in STEM.

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

(Credit: SAHMReviews.com)

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Sometimes we put too much faith in a system without understanding all that is involved. I support our teachers and administrators and respect the job that they do for our children every day. However, the legislative constraints in which they work are having a negative impact on our students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. If we are to improve STEM education as a nation, we have to take a long hard look at what is happening within classrooms at the elementary level concerning the amount of time that teachers are teaching science, along with topic selection.

Do you have a child in elementary school? How much science instructional time are they receiving?

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Food for thought follows, with accompanying citations:

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

“The recommendations for improvement of science education from the NRC indicate that the elementary years are an important time to capture students’ interest and motivation for science study and that time for science instruction is critical (NRC, 2007, 2012). A review of some 150 studies of children’s attitudes toward science found that interest in science for some children tends to decline from age 11 onward (Osborne, 2003), and thus elementary grades instruction in science provides a key time for building interest.”

“The current federal requirement of annual reporting on adequate yearly progress in mathematics and reading for all students produces a strong incentive for schools to focus more instructional time on mathematics and reading, which can result in less class time for science, social studies, and other subjects.”

Sandholtz, J. H., & Ringstaff, C. (2014). Inspiring instructional change in elementary school science: The relationship between enhanced self-efficacy and teacher practices. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(6), 729-751.

“In contrast to daily instruction in mathematics and reading/language arts, only 20 percent of classes in kindergarten through grade 3 (K-3) receive science instruction on most days, and many classes receive science instruction only a few days a week or during some weeks of the year (Banilower et al., 2013). In the past decade, the amount of instructional time spent on science has declined rather than increased. In 2000, K-3 teachers in the U.S. spent an average of 23 min a day teaching science (Weiss et al., 2001), but in 2012, K-3 teachers spent an average of 19 min on science instruction (Banilower et al., 2013).”

Ness, D., Farenga, S. J., Shah, V., & Garofalo, S. G. (2016). Repositioning science reform efforts: Four practical recommendations from the field. Improving Schools, 1365480216650312.

“Combined, prior science education reform efforts have failed to recognize the impact from the environmental press on learning. More recently, the constraints with which teachers have grappled are increased pressure – resulting, in part, from time constraints for assessments — and an overwhelming focus on mathematics and literacy at the elementary levels (Farenga et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2008; Ravitch, 2013). As a result of high-stakes testing, too little time is allocated toward the instruction and assessment of the science curriculum. Teachers spend more time on mathematics and reading at the elementary level to fulfill requirements on these exams. As a result, science learning, knowledge, and motivation suffer (Anderson, 2012, p. 119). Suggestions to improve and increase content should be proposed by individuals who have spent a considerable amount of time working or teaching in K to 12 classrooms — a task that might provide a better understanding of the environmental constraints that are found in the K to 12 setting.”

This might give you a little more perspective on why I left the science classroom to work for Galxyz, Inc. Technology is rapidly changing how we educate our children. Blue Apprentice is a fun way to learn science and increases the amount of time students spend focused on STEM — time the students are not receiving in the classroom.

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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.

PassionatelyCurious

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!”

Einstein_Curiosity

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

Creative Logic

I took a Facebook quiz last week that pseudo-scientifically confirmed my suspicions: I’m becoming more analytical and order-driven versus creative and imaginative in my older age. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of being a parent or working among scientists for the better part of the past 15 years, but clearly, it’s taking its toll. Yep, there are no two ways about it. I’m growing up.

If it's on Facebook, it has to be true, right? ;-) Here's hoping, anyway -- me and my mom!

If it’s on Facebook, it has to be true, right? 😉 Here’s hoping, anyway — me and my mom!

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean I have to abandon all hope, especially when I’m surrounded by people who cultivate curiosity for a living. People like Nick Suntzeff, who can copy me on a recent announcement about a community photography exhibition and inspire not one but two story ideas. While the rational side of my brain tells me I’m already hopelessly behind, the creative side insists. And remembers that secondary idea when I finally find the time to execute it exactly a month later on a Sunday morning while drinking coffee and chilling in the recliner and avoiding laundry. Pretty cool by any mental stretch, not to mention one of the biggest positives about smart phones.

But back to that spinoff idea. Nick and I were discussing how cool it is that there are two glass plates taken by world-renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble right here in Aggieland through May — the obvious lead and primary story. However, one of the reasons I started this blog is to have a ready outlet for those secondary stories, ideally first-person wherever possible. Considering Nick is a champ in this category, another classic on curiosity is born!

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History's "Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography," showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History’s “Capturing Time: The Story of Early Photography,” showcases rare and beautiful vintage cameras, photographic equipment, printed materials and photographs, including two original Hubble glass plates on loan from the Carnegie Institution for Science. (Credit: Carnegie Institution for Science.)

I’ll let Nick take it from here with his initial response to my dual pitch — a reaction that comes packed with the traditional bonus lesson or three. Enjoy!

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Sure, anything to help motivate people to attend. If someone said that, say, that one of the petri dishes Salk used in discovering the vaccine for polio were on exhibit, I would definitely go to the lecture and exhibition! But most scientists, curiously, have no interest in anything else except their narrow fields. This is strange because we often hear that scientists do what they do because they have not lost their child-like interest in figuring out stuff. To me that means everything, including other scientific fields, the humanities and the like.

For instance, in the lecture in ASTR 101, I ask the question, why do we have the Olympics every four years? Well, obviously because the Greeks did. But why did the Greeks adopt four years? We all just think, well, why not? Or, who cares? But I think that it is an interesting question. And it turns out to have an interesting answer. It is because the Greeks were concerned/annoyed that the Sun and the Moon don’t have similar cycles. The Sun takes 365 (plus a bit) to go around the sky once relative to the stars, but the Moon takes 29.5 days in its orbit or 354 days to complete 12 orbits. That is, the cycles are off by 11 days, and this screws up the calendar such that the full moon does not fall on the same day each month. This is not an important problem to us today, but for a society which included number worship in their pantheon, it was really annoying. So they looked into how many solar cycles and lunar cycles it would take so that the Moon would end up being full on the same day of the month. There are various ways of solving this, but one way to notice that is, if you wait eight years, the calendar repeats itself pretty accurately. So the Greeks used an 8-year cycle for their civil holidays (that is, you only have to have eight calendars because the ninth will be the same as the first. So don’t throw away your calendars!). The number eight became an important number in their calendar, and the half-cycle became the Olympic cycle.

Later, another Greek astronomer came up with a better cycle of 19 years called the Metonic cycle, and for his discovery, Meton of Athens was awarded an Olympic laurel wreath. Cool! An astronomy event in the Olympics! I certainly would qualify for a bronze medal in writing memos.

Anyway, I just love this stuff. And while I can’t get many other scientists excited about it, I will never stop trying.

cheers, nick

 Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram's Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)


Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram’s Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r). (Credit: Wikipedia Commons.)

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.

Learning

Down-Home Research

One of the things I enjoy most about video production is that it gets me out of the office. Don’t get me wrong, working in the luxury of air conditioning can be really nice in the summer, but anyone can go a little stir-crazy if they spend every single day at a desk. But every now and then, my job takes me places, and during production of our most recent Labors of Lab segment, it took me back home.

Laura Schwab, a senior biology major at Texas A&M who studies aquatic insects, is the star of our latest installment. As I was beginning the storyboarding process for her episode, Laura’s faculty advisor, Dr. David Baumgardner, invited me to film her and a few other students as they trapped insects at the Navasota River. Well, it just so happens I’m originally from Navasota, so this would be a homecoming of sorts for me. Sign me up!

Users are responsible for securing permission from the copyright holder for publication of any images. Contact communications@science.tamu.edu.

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Now, let’s be clear: The Navasota River isn’t what you would call a “pretty” river. It’s muddy, and there’s usually no shortage of algae. But it is buzzing with wildlife, especially the aquatic insects the students were so hoping to capture. And even though I grew up in that area, I’d never actually been near, or in, the Navasota River. This was a shoot I was truly looking forward to, even on a Saturday.

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Laura turned out to be an excellent choice for a Labors of Lab spot, and it was quickly apparent that she was Dr. Baumgardner’s right-hand person. Upon our arrival, they immediately divided up the students and waded into the river, where they embarked on separate excursions. While Dr. Baumgardner led two of the students off to catch insects in the river’s current, Laura and two other students went searching for snag, the random sticks and natural debris that protrude from calm parts of the river that often serve as nesting grounds for many water bugs.

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It was here that Laura’s natural leadership shined. She carefully chose which area of the river they would scour for snag, all while explaining to her team the reasons for her selection and demonstrating the proper way to collect a specimen. Whenever they found a particularly mossy stick that looked like it might be serve as a decent home for insects, they carefully doused the end of it in an alcohol solution and secured it in a Ziploc bag.

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It was fascinating to watch. In the videos I produce, I often only film people talking about their research and, usually, I’ll stage scenes of people pretending to work on their research so it appears as if they’re actually doing something fascinating in the final video. Never have I actually had the chance to film genuine research in progress — until now. The scenes I filmed at the river that day were some of my best, in my opinion. Undergraduate students doing real research, having real fun. You can’t fake that.
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Plus, there’s no place like home.

Oh, and speaking of that spot, watch Laura in action and hear her thoughts on doing field work for Dr. Baumgardner’s lab in our latest Labors of Lab episode below:

The Graceful Monarch

What a difference a year makes. Consider the following essay, sent to me one year ago to the day by Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher and Monarch butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson:

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“We are under attack!”

This is not Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941, but rather College Station, Texas, on the morning of October 15, 2014. The incoming waves are not Japanese warplanes but Monarch butterflies. The colors are not those of the Rising Sun — red and white — but the unmistakable orange, black and white markings that set the Monarch apart as our most recognizable and beloved butterfly and the Texas state insect.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

Looking east, they appear as if by magic out of the risen sun. ‘Poof’ — one appears. ‘Poof’ — another — and ‘poof’ — another! As you scan the horizon one moment, the sky is empty until, seemingly out of nowhere in the next magical moment, ‘poof’ — the next wave announces its arrival. It is more of a ripple than a wave, as they appear in ones or twos. But the tide is building, and one has hopes for a butterfly tsunami.

Am I being too optimistic? The sad stories of the precipitous decline in the number of Monarchs has seen pessimism take hold, and it is hard to shake. Yet here, borne upon morning’s first rays, is a glimmer of hope. The sun shimmers off the diaphanous wings, their colors enhanced by the combination of sunlight passing through them and the reflective, refractive capacity of wing scales that serve to protect them like the roof shingles they resemble.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

They float up and over the USDA People’s Garden as if drawn by some Svengali. However, one should not associate the Monarchs with evil. The indigenous peoples of the Monarchs’ homeland in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, have, since time immemorial, considered the returning butterflies to be the souls of their deceased relatives returning to Earth. The butterflies’ arrival coincides with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They are honored with feasts, celebrations and elaborate ofrendas (offerings). It is a time of celebration, and it feels like that today at the USDA office, where even many of those working diligently inside are drawn outside to be a part of this spectacle.

Scientists know that the Monarchs are following a time-honored path. But what are the triggers for one of the world’s greatest and longest insect migrations? To help contribute to that research, I net six Monarchs and donate them to a research lab on the Texas A&M campus, where they will be used to improve the genetic diversity of the live lab colony of Monarchs. I have fellow observers tag and release several more as part of a citizen scientist project to learn more of the migration routes and timetable.

A nest of Monarchs.

A nest of Monarchs.

I lose count of the number flying by. I am up to 150, but there were many more that I missed. I only saw a total of 12 last spring when the grandparents of these butterflies had passed through Texas en route to their breeding grounds in the Midwest and Canada, where conditions this year appear to have favored good reproduction rates despite loss of habitat and reduced acreage of milkweed plants that nourish their caterpillar progeny.

Anecdotal reports of these increases had reached me and then, in a rare coincidence, a giant swarm of migrating Monarchs resembling a giant butterfly showed up on radar for a short time on the afternoon of Friday, September 19, 2014. The suspicion was that these were hundreds of Monarchs flying at between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, heading south over Southern Illinois and Central Missouri, the radar signals suggesting that the ‘targets’ were flapping, flat and biological. It is entirely plausible that the Monarchs we see today were part of that swarm.

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

I watch as some of my transient friends settle on a false willow to rest, feed and recharge with nectar alongside a myriad of honey bees. All seems right with the world. The Monarchs have uplifted our souls.

I feel liberated and not under attack in the least.

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When I emailed Craig yesterday in present time in the hope that another inundation was underway across Aggieland, he informed me that sadly wasn’t the case. “The Monarchs have been pushed west by easterlies, so more are in Colorado than usual,” he said. “The southerly winds have prevented them moving south. But this Northern cold front should help push them south now. I saw three yesterday at my Holleman Drive garden.”

All is not locally lost, however. Craig reports that students from Texas A&M biologist Dr. Christine Merlin’s research group helped plant milkweed at three Bryan elementary schools — Johnson (3rd grade), Henderson (5th grade) and Mary Branch (5th grade) — in their school gardens as part of a National Science Foundation grant she has for which he contributes the outreach component. In addition, Craig says he has 80 Mary Branch 5th graders coming to study in his USDA People’s Garden on October 27 — a day on which he has high hopes for catching and tagging at least one Monarch.

Much like Monarchs, I hear hope floats. Sure is pretty in slow motion, as seen in this video produced by fellow land-grant institution University of Minnesota: