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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Observational History

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

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

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

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

Dear All,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cheers, nick

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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.

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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!”

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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

Timely Finds

I found a stash of old CDs yesterday — mostly time capsules from past work lives and far more creative days, given that they predated the birth of my three children and social media, among other milestones and competing distractions. There in a folder on one was this forgotten little ditty, inconspicuously labeled as “Essay_Final.doc” and date-stamped March 5, 2004:

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Brotherly Love

As a communicator for three Texas A&M University colleges, I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of former students for gift-related publicity purposes. It’s a process that never gets old.

When I made the telephone call last spring to set up a photo shoot with Blue Bell Creameries’ Edward and Howard Kruse, I knew I was in for a special treat — and not just the free ice cream sample kind.

We arrived in Brenham on a cold, blustery morning, blown in by winter’s last gasp raging through a countryside already wrapped in a gloriously beautiful (if not warm) coat of bluebonnets. As we stepped into the House that Blue Bell Built, I immediately felt at home, from the building’s hardwood floors to its cheerful receptionist, who directed us to the main conference room for the shoot.

As we discussed placements and camera angles, a tall well-dressed man entered the room only seconds behind his smile. “Ed Kruse,” he said, taking my hand and noting the Aggie ring. “My brother, Howard, will be down soon. He’s tied up on the phone, and besides, he’s always late.”

While we waited, Ed gave us an overview of the company — a conversation that soon shifted to Texas A&M and the brothers’ student days. As Ed talked, we imagined what it must have been like to hitchhike to attend a university then only 10,000 students strong — all male and all proud members of the Corps of Cadets. And although Ed recalled that he and Howard had their share of fun, he assured us they both knew why they were there: to get their educations.

It’s a philosophy they’ve continued to live by. Both brothers firmly believe education is the solution to most problems. As strong advocates of Texas A&M’s undergraduate studies programs, they have funded endowments to benefit both students and faculty. Just as valuably, they give of their time, speaking to groups and volunteering as leaders for Texas A&M’s One Spirit One Vision Campaign.

In true president/chief executive officer fashion, Howard’s arrival marked the end of story time and a return to the business at hand. I thanked Ed for including us in his reverie, then helped the photographer position the brothers for their 15 minutes of fame.

As we did so, the photographer told them it would help if he could refer to them by heights — to which Ed replied, “Yeah, Howard’s used to me being the big brother. He followed me everywhere, even to A&M.”

It was the closest Howard came to an unforced smile the entire shoot.

After packing up our equipment, we headed to the gift shop for our samples. I don’t know if it was the novelty wooden spoons or the events I had just witnessed that made me think back to the simpler days of my own childhood when there was nothing I enjoyed more than the taste of ice cream — unless it was razzing one of my own siblings.

I guess some treats in life are universal after all.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

For those who are visual learners, here’s a partial scan of the resulting ad that ran in the Summer 2003 issue of Lifescapes magazine:

KrusesAd_AgProgram

My kids can attest to the fact that I’m a sucker for a good jingle. One that used to run on local radio stations proudly and melodiously proclaimed that “Blue Bell tastes just like the good old days.” Nice to experience an unexpectedly refreshing taste of mine and the reminder that I was a fan of first-person prose long before launching this blog.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, RIP, Ed Kruse. I’m certain Heaven’s a much sweeter place with you in residence.

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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monarch

“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

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:

Building Astronomy in Texas

This weekend, the Texas A&M Astronomy Group will host the statewide Building Astronomy in Texas (BAT) workshop within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on the Texas A&M University campus. At present, the tentative RSVP list includes more than 80 astronomers, students and research staff representing 18 different Texas universities.

Arguably a sweet spotlight by any standard, for us and the state, but I contend it’s merely an extrapolation of what the Texas A&M astronomers do best: learn about and from each other and then use that new knowledge to grow as people, as a program and as a profession.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a relevant case in point if not precursor: August 28. Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for the ASTRO group to host an all-day symposium the Friday before the fall semester starts. It’s organized and chaired by postdoctoral students, and each member of the group — from tenured professors to undergraduates — has the opportunity to give a 10-minute talk on his or her current research. This year, they ended the day with a new tradition: a group-wide dinner at Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall’s house. Check out this recap video for additional information on the symposium and further insight via first-person interviews:

When I was explaining to my husband about what they had planned for that day, from the postdoc-chaired symposium and group-wide presenting opportunity to the family-style dinner (not at a restaurant, mind you, but at the deputy director’s house), I said it reminded me of exactly how Bob Johnson –- er, make that Dr. Robert E. Johnson, AIA — treated me during one of my past professional lives in the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Bob himself interviewed and later hired me as a staff member in the CRS Center, established in 1990 by legendary Houston architecture firm CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott) as one of the then-seven research centers and institutes within Texas A&M Architecture. I knew nothing of Bob nor the field, yet from Day 1, he gave me full access to every facet of his operation, from the financials to the server records to the CRS firm archives. I saw exactly what he saw, because he saw us as equals. What an empowering view! Yes, it’s a calculated management risk, but wow, the rewards that can be realized for all parties when that trust is there, real and reciprocated.

The Texas A&M ASTRO group is there, and it’s as powerfully compelling and exciting to me as learning about the historic rise of another Texas juggernaut on the architectural scene was, then and now. One resulted in two chapters in a book, and the sky’s the limit for the other. Take it from someone who didn’t know a lick about architecture or astronomy.