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

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.


Observational History

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

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

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

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

Dear All,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cheers, nick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayors for Monarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* ~ * ~ *

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.)

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.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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:

Perfection to the Power of Two

I’ve long been impressed by the caliber of Texas A&M Science faculty and staff, professionally and personally. I guess that pretty much applies to their children, too.

Texas A&M astronomer Kevin Krisciunas recently alerted me to the fact that College Station High School’s Woody Wang, the son of Texas A&M astronomer Lifan Wang and Yuanjing Xu, scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT. An accomplished violinist (check him out here as a soloist his freshman year in 2012), Woody is also captain of his Brazos Valley Storm Hockey Club team, which he says is recruiting members (hint, hint…).

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

Woody Wang (Credit: Woody Wang, Facebook.)

When I texted Dean of Science Joe Newton to let him know, he informed me that the only other student he knows who has accomplished this spectacular feat is Texas A&M statistician Suojin Wang’s daughter Jessica Wang, a 2006 graduate of A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. Here’s more on Jessica from proud dad, Suojin Wang:

Jessica Wang (Credit: Jessica Wang, LinkedIn.)

Jessica Wang (Credit: Jessica Wang, LinkedIn.)

“In the year when she took SAT, it was the first time to have the writing part added to SAT. She took the old SAT too in that year and scored the perfect 1600 as well. She was later selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar. Jessica recently graduated from Yale University Medical School. She is now a residence doctor at UC San Francisco. She is dedicated to serving the underserved population.”

So, not once but twice in the perfect-SAT-score department for Jessica Wang. Doubly incredible!

Not sure if it’s something in the College Station water, but I’m making my three Bs drink up just in case.

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Interestingly enough, my follow-up correspondence with Kevin Krisciunas led to the following story regarding biographical details and the devil that sometimes lies in their proper documentation. Here’s more from the double-birthday-boy himself:

“I have two official, legal birth certificates — one for Sept. 12, one for Sept. 13. Made for some confusion when I registered for the draft.

“Back when I was born in Chicago, the births were supposed to be recorded on Standard Time. I was born at 12:04 a.m. on the 13th, and the first birth certificate (though it’s legal) was wrong. It said Sept. 13th at 11:04 p.m. The second one had the right day and right Standard Time. I don’t know the rules are still the same in Cook County, Illinois.”

Turning the Tide

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

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

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

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

AlvinLira_LinkedInHello, Dr. Scott,

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

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

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

Alvin Lira

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

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

Warm Regards,
Tim Scott

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


I Am Just a Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Boldly Go

I’m not usually one to encourage people to look to Hollywood for life inspiration, but every so often, it’s a shoe that fits.

As possibly the biggest sequel yet to Neil Armstrong’s one small step for mankind, the independent movie The Last Man on the Moon made its U.S. premier last Friday in Austin at SXSW. Par for my course, I found out the day after via this recap from KXAN-TV.

This exquisite documentary set for worldwide release in June tells the tale of Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 astronaut Capt. Eugene “Gene” Cernan, the 11th of 12 people in history to walk on the Moon and, as the final man to re-enter the lunar module Challenger on its last outing during what would prove to be the final Apollo lunar landing in 1972, also the last.

By all accounts out of Austin and other international cities where LMOTM has debuted, it’s a must-see production, both for its honest portrayal from Cernan’s all-too-humanly flawed perspective and for its breathtaking archival footage (apparently, even Cernan himself was impressed.) See for yourself in the official trailer below, as well as in this exclusive bonus clip released to coincide with SXSW:

Cernan is as genuine as they come and as equally unabashed in his support of future manned spaceflight as he was back in 1972. I love this related excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

As Cernan prepared to climb the ladder for the final time, he spoke these words, currently the last spoken by a human standing on the Moon’s surface: “Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

The timing is exceptional from my perspective, given that we’re less than two weeks away from Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger’s 2015 Physics and Engineering Festival-kickoff lecture on his yearlong Adrift series addressing the country’s past, present and future in space. In addition to marking the first date night for the hubs and I since our anniversary last August, this momentous occasion comes on the heels of some wonderful teachable moments during the past couple of weeks for our oldest son, whose 6th grade science class has been covering a unit on the U.S. space program. The grand finale? Watching the Ron Howard classic Apollo 13 — one of my all-time favorites — in stages. The movie features veteran actor Tom Hanks in the lead role of Captain James Lovell, one of three men along with Cernan and Jim Young to make the trek to the Moon twice, as well as Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the iconic NASA Mission Operations director whose “failure is not an option” motto guided the success of America’s flight program for more than 30 years.

(Speaking of mottos and models, watch this Cernan tribute and tell me you don’t have goose bumps afterward!)

Typical pre-teen that my son is, he’s been most impressed thus far by Kevin Bacon’s ability to play a wisecracking smart aleck in his role as astronaut Jack Swigert, he of “Houston, we’ve had a problem” fame who earned his seat on the doomed mission courtesy of Ken Mattingly’s (played by Gary Sinise) ill-timed exposure to measles. Me, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to mix business with pleasure and the ensuing discussions concerning the facts, failures, personalities and lessons surrounding the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs — history accentuated in many cases by his parents’ personal recollections. So interesting to see what resonates with our son, from the triumphs to the tragedies, and to contrast what we learned and sometimes witnessed through the comparative lens of his fresh eyes as a member of the generation I see as most ripe to fuel a Sputnik-esque resurgence.

Can’t wait to see how the movie ends for him once school resumes after spring break. As for the rest of the story, I see a family movie date in our future. Nothing like an inspirational summer learning opportunity for us all. 


Carpe Diem

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff may have missed out on the Stanford University Class of 1974’s 40th reunion this past weekend because of meeting conflicts, but he still got the chance to revisit his undergraduate past.

Nick arrived on the last day, showing up just in time to walk over with Redwood High School and Stanford classmate Mike Kast to see the student observatory the two built together in the early 1970s. Not unlike the Texas A&M Bonfires of old, the structure was equal parts commandeered and sheer will — no doubt part of the reason Nick makes such a good Aggie nowadays!

As usual, Nick tells it best in both photographs and captions, so I’ll let him take it from here!

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Mike Kast and I built this observatory at Stanford back when we were undergrads. Amazingly, it is still there and has not burned down, considering I did much of the wiring. The telescope and dome have been replaced, and it has been spiffed up a lot (like the rest of Stanford), but it is still there and still being used for a popular astronomy lab class. Sally Ride helped and was a student in the first lab class we had! The real catalyst was Dr. Walter Meyerhof, who was the Chairman of the Physics Department back then and had confidence that a bunch of green undergrads could do such a project. We took the pier from aeronautical engineering (sort of without exactly asking), the 100-year-old Leuschner Observatory dome from UC Berkeley, a B/C mount from a Southern California aerospace firm that had previously used it to track downrange missile tests, and furniture from somewhere we can’t remember now. Mike figured out how to replicate the key to the electronic lock at the gate to the road up the hill so we could get in and out without anyone at Behavioral Sciences noticing. I was told the observatory hill became a place where undergrads often go on first dates.


OK, if you are fortunate enough to know Nick Suntzeff or have read any of this blog’s previous entries involving him, you know that there’s more to the story and that it’s worth telling/reading. More from Nick on his and Mike’s friendship and their Stanford adventures:

It was nostalgic going back and seeing it. They actually have done some remodeling of the building, and it looks a lot better. It is weird what one remembers. Mike and I told each other stuff that we remembered, and basically, we remembered completely different events. It is not that he would remember some event, and I remembered it differently — rather that I generally had NO memory of what he remembered. So it was fun piecing together the story again.

Just a short prologue. Mike’s mother is Russian, and their family knew my family. His father was a vice president for Bechtel Corporation and, thus, a really important engineer. But his father was also really interested in astronomy. So Mike grew up around telescopes. He and I were best friends in high school, and my interest in astronomy grew, albeit slowly, because of Mike and his father.

We started Stanford together. My advisor was Dr. Meyerhof, the chairman of the physics department — a rather scary, serious German fellow, or so he at first seemed. He would come over to my dorm once a week to eat with his three advisees. Mike would come over, too, so there would be four of us with Dr. Meyerhof. The other two students sort of drifted away, and the dinners were just usually Mike, me and Dr. Meyerhof. At one dinner (and this both of us remember), Mike and I were talking about the fact that Stanford had no observational astronomy and no “real observatory.” And then, Dr. Meyerhof looked at us, and said, “Why don’t we build one?” That floored us. I was 17 and Mike 18, and this famous professor at Stanford is telling us we can build an observatory? How would we start? Where would we get funds? Geez, we were zit-faced freshmen.

But Meyerhof was serious. He had always wanted to have a traditional astronomy program (like what we are doing at Texas A&M) at Stanford, and he could not get a lot of interest with the administration and even with the physics faculty, who tended to look down on astronomy as “postage-stamp collecting” — the ultimate insult of a physicist to astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, etc. So he told us not to worry about funding, but to put together a plan. So we did. And he found money. And we started to generate interest among undergrads and graduate students in the project.

Three years later, it was done. The building was designed by an undergrad in architecture. Mike acted as the general contractor, and a SeaBee grad student in engineering did the major construction. We got volunteers to help build and outfit the building. We got companies to donate money and parts of the telescope. I was kind of the spokesperson and organizer, finding people and convincing them to help us. By the end of the 1972-73 academic year (that summer), we finished. Mike lived in the building for a year as he worked on it. In the first class taught (by me), Sally Ride was one of my students, and I had to give her a grade. (She got an A. Sally always got an A in everything she did.) The next semester, she was a teaching assistant at the observatory.

Meyerhof did not get the university to start an astronomy program, but he opened the floodgates to teaching astronomy, and new astronomy classes appeared after we left. Sally Ride’s thesis advisor, A.B.C Walker Jr., took the observatory under his wing and got significant further funding for it. There’s even a history page.

Looking back, it is amazing we got the thing done and still graduated. I graduated with the absolute minimum number of credits in four years and could not start taking grad classes as a senior like the other students in senior physics. But building the observatory was way more cool. Mike in his fourth and fifth year also built a solar observatory for Stanford, which is still working. That was a more serious professional observatory, near our student observatory, and is still used by the solar physicists at Stanford.

cheers, nick

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!),