Light My Fire

I’ve been to my fair share of External Advisory & Development Council meetings during the past decade, but this one took the cake. Well, make that melted dark chocolate.

Each fall meeting marks the addition of a few new members — names and faces that I try my best to mentally file along with the customary group of longtime favorites I so enjoy seeing on a biannual basis. While newcomers are always recognized at some point in the meeting, I don’t recall any of them previously being allowed to make short presentations as part of the induction process.

Based on last month’s experiences, let’s just say the bar’s been raised on what I personally hope is a new tradition.

Each meeting typically is broken into morning and afternoon sessions, separated by one break per session as well as lunch. When we returned from said lunch, I immediately spotted an array of products stacked against the base of the speaker podium — the first indication we were in for a treat on top of the delicious cheesecake we’d just been served as dessert. Beyond the fact that they looked slightly similar to the MREs (meals ready to eat) I’d seen in a previous work life in which one of my supervisors was ex-military, I quickly dismissed them as the venue possibly peddling some new coffee samples or something equally innocuous.

Mistake No. 1.

As Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci, the first of two new members in attendance, took to the podium to briefly describe his company and related work, I couldn’t help but notice as a wait-staff member methodically went seat by seat, row by row to distribute individually prepackaged toothpicks. Mildly intriguing, but then again, we’d just finished lunch, so. … Back to the presentation at hand.

Lynntech's Tony Ragucci presents his company's research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Lynntech’s Tony Ragucci presents his company’s research capabilities and focus areas, which span an impressive array of science and engineering disciplines and deliverables.

Too late! I’d glanced to my left, toward the end of our row of tables, where I zeroed in on four small plates with sliced bananas and strawberries?!? Granted, EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76 was seated there, so perhaps he had merely requested an extra dessert or two, which wouldn’t be out of the question, right?

By this point, my spidey senses were beyond tingling. Thankfully, Dr. Ragucci was hitting a most interesting stride, so I immersed myself in learning all that I could about condensed matter physics and some pretty sophisticated materials science and engineering, along with related fabrication. Mind sated, curiosity abated. Although he couldn’t disclose the company’s clients by name nor discuss specific information about the proprietary projects and products, that merely added myth to the mystery for me. After all, exclusivity is one of the council’s biggest draws, and it comes bundled with a palpable sense of curiosity that permeates the entire room.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci's presentation, RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker's podium.

During the lunch break prior to Ragucci’s presentation, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach clearly had been busy, as evidenced by the products assembled in front of the speaker’s podium.

After Dr. Ragucci concluded his presentation, Dr. Beckerdite introduced our second new member, RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach. He began to talk about batteries, a subject I could readily identify with not as a scientist but as a parent responsible for three kids ages 11 and under and, more importantly, keeping a steady supply of AA, AAA, 9-volt, C and D batteries on hand at any given moment as well making sure that all cell phones and electronic devices are charged.

RBC Technologies' Adam Laubach explains his company's Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

RBC Technologies’ Adam Laubach explains his company’s Safe Heat product line featuring the Rapid Splint.

I’m pretty sure the entire room was as surprised as I was when Mr. Laubach and Dr. Beckerdite began distributing via the first person in each row a variety of rectangular-shaped items adorned with shiny, bright-orange packaging. After polling the group to see if anyone was in orthopedics, he then asked each row to peel back and remove an adhesive strip from the first item — a thin, roughly 3-inch X 12-inch board resembling the look and feel of spongy corrugated cardboard. And to wait for a couple minutes as the product heats up (wait, what?!?)

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) '74 and Albert Gallatin '61 inspect their row's allotment of RBC products.

(From left:) EADC members Dr. Donald Fleming, Jr., Col. USMC (Ret) ’74 and Albert Gallatin ’61 inspect their row’s allotment of RBC products.

Long story short, he then proceeded to set Dr. Beckerdite’s pretend forearm fracture, using what in the course of a couple minutes had morphed from a lifeless cardboard wafer into a warm, entirely flexible and moldable splint which hardened as it cooled before our eyes into the equivalent of a rock-solid cast! In true salesman-esque, but-wait! fashion, there was more —- smaller, bright-orange, rectangular packets containing dark chocolate (which, once warmed, we drizzled over the fruit and then used our handy-dandy toothpicks to eat), hand lotion and wet wipes. There was even one for macaroni and cheese, but given that this product still is in the final testing phases, it was empty. The intriguing takeaway there for me is that it’s named after Mr. Laubach’s daughter —- further proof of that softer side of science I’ve always loved.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite '76, getting his "injury" set by Adam Laubach.

EADC Chair Dr. John Beckerdite ’76, getting his “injury” set by Adam Laubach.

All in all, show and tell -— much less science -— doesn’t get much better than warm comfort food and portable medical supplies. Nor does the fact that, at their core, scientists are humans. One of the best varieties, in my book: those who are highly motivated to improve the future. Sometimes, it’s a direct route. Other times, it involves detours -— years that all too quickly turn into decades of hard work that doesn’t always pan out, save for in the occasional, sobering realization that it’s time for a new direction.

In RBC’s case, they continued to dance with the one that brought them (batteries), secure enough in their extensive knowledge and experience to take two steps back before breaking into what looks to be one heck of a technological tango from here.

Ultimately, those rectangular packages harbor a lot more than some spectacular self-heating technology for a variety of commercial and societal uses. To me, they are a perfect metaphor for science and scientists who, on the surface, often appear pretty ordinary if not downright non-descript. However, given the right catalyst, the sky’s the limit as to where their innate inspirational fire, once activated, will take them and, by default, our world.

As for me, I think a field trip to Science Park at Research Valley (where both Lynntech and RBC are located) definitely is in order. Just in case, I’m bringing a fork.

Laubach serves up one of the day's most popular Safe Heat products -- melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Laubach serves up one of the day’s most popular Safe Heat products — melted dark chocolate drizzled over sliced strawberries and bananas.

Click to see additional photographs from the Fall EADC Meeting, held October 24 at Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, Texas.

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

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

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)


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.

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

Leaders With Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU

I’m one of of the faculty mentors for the Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU program, which I originally talked about here. Two of our five students are working with me on a project this summer. We are a three-woman dream team!

We are studying mathematical models of how organisms coexist and compete while using the same resources in an ecosystem. There are a variety of ways that organisms use resources. For example, plants need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and without sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients, the plant will die. On the other hand, humans can get energy for daily activities from carbohydrates, protein or fats. If we don’t have carbohydrates, we can substitute some protein or fat and get by; for the sake of providing us with energy, we need any one of these, but we don’t need all. Modeling has been used with multiple organisms using one type of nutrient utilization, but not a lot with multiple organisms having multiple ways of utilizing nutrients. That’s what we are working on.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Thus far, we’ve reproduced some results from existing models with a common type of nutrient utilization; in particular, we’ve shown how one organism can outcompete others for the same resources, and how two organisms can coexist even though they both utilize the same resources. We are working on learning some of the background science of how organisms use resources and the equations and mathematics associated with this. We are performing a literature review to familiarize ourselves with what research has been done in the past and has been published recently. We are learning what types of questions scientists are interested in and have answered in the past, and also figuring out where we can make a novel contribution. And, given that we are a mathematics program, it won’t surprise you to learn that we are developing the equations we need to make the modifications required to the model we have so that we can do something new.

The other three students in our program have interesting problems to work on as well. Two are working on mathematical models for how atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs and how diet and exercise might improve arterial health. One student is working on mathematical models for controlling invasive species; personally, I am hoping he will find a way to mitigate the spread of fireants.

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.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

It’s summertime in Aggieland, and one thing that means is an influx of students from across the United States participating in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grants at the university. The Math Department is only one of many National Science Foundation-funded REU sites at Texas A&M. The Math department has been running an REU site every summer since the program was started in 1999.  This summer, we have 14 students, 8 women and 6 men, with us for 8 weeks.  Five students are participating in the program in Number Theory, five in Mathematical Modeling in Biology, and four in Algorithmic Algebraic Geometry.  The Algebraic Geometry group is supplemented by two local undergraduates.

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

Students generally have lectures and homework to deal with for the first two weeks of the program. This familiarizes them with the foundational mathematics they will need for the research problems they’ll be working on.  By the middle of the second week, they are given research problems and get started trying to solve them.

This past Friday, the last day of the second week of the program, all the students and mentors in our REU got together for lunch. Students gave short presentations describing their research problems. At the end of the fourth and sixth weeks of the program, we’ll get updates from everyone on their projects. At the end of the eighth week of the program, we have a Minisymposium, where all our REU students present their results.