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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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.)

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:

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

Snatch the Pebble, Get the Shot?

I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating: Science is all around us. In the best instances, it’s accompanied by statistics.

More than a decade of working for one of my favorite statisticians, Joe Newton — who’s known as the Data Dean around here for good reason — has taught me a lot, from Einstein_Educationvaluable critical thinking skills to appreciation of the bigger picture, especially in situations where it hasn’t necessarily been disclosed. From both him and experience (sometimes painful), I’ve learned the importance of caution; of maintaining both a cooler head and the healthy dose of skepticism necessary to withhold judgment as I attempt to gather and evaluate as much information and/or evidence as possible. More often than not, this process begins and so often ends with a single piece of information: methodology. The more statistically relevant, the better.

Apparently, neither Dean Newton nor experience has taught me tact.

This past week, yet another of my friends came down with the flu. I dutifully monitored her prognosis from a non-contagious distance (i.e., Facebook) and noticed that things were looking up by week’s end. Given that ours is a relationship largely based on witty banter, I decided to celebrate her recovery by sharing a flu-related post to her page — a fictitious admission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, she’s fluent in the sarcasm I thought was apparent, given the sensationalized headline and the “news” source — which I now know is approaching a stunning 1.5 million likes on Facebook, indicative to me of a whole other type of pandemic — but several of her friends didn’t get the shot (pun intended). One went so far as to post this fact-laden retort from Respectful Insolence. (Oh, the irony, considering how often I’m the one who gets this educational honor by virtue of my day job).

Properly armed with the full CDC transcript, I’ll let you be the judge as to the accuracy of both the headline and the content of that Natural News piece. However, on the subject of jobs, I think ScienceBlogs.com author Orac really does a nice one in his blog entry of explaining the context behind the flu vaccine and what an absolute (albeit science-based) crapshoot it truly is each year for the World Health Organization. Forget the College Football Playoffs, this one is a statistical nightmare. Well, maybe more like a Bayesian’s dream, if you get my drift (again, pun intended). Paging Bani Mallick or Val Johnson?!?

I'm usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

I’m usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

Incidentally, my dad religiously got his flu shot every fall, and while I don’t recall him ever getting the flu, I can’t say that exactly inspired me to follow his example. Despite the fact that I know the science is solid, the only year I actually did get the shot was the year I happened to be pregnant in the fall (read guilted into it). Guess what? My husband and I both got the flu that year, with a bonus: H1N1. He got antibiotics; I got saline/homeopathic remedies. And the call from the elementary school once we got home, informing us that our first-grader had managed to get a piece of playground pea gravel stuck in his ear.

There is value in not judging a book by its cover, regardless how eye-catching or appealing, and prudence in looking before you leap, no matter how compelling the pitch or bandwagon. And in knowing your audience, even when among friends. Probably the capacity of your ear canal, too.

But in the final analysis where I’m concerned, all the hand-washing, ounces of prevention and apples a day won’t keep the sarcasm away. It’s hardwired. Jury’s still out regarding my own progeny, save for their mastery of dubious playground magic tricks.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

And the Beat Goes On

One of my favorite questions beyond “Why Texas A&M?” for the many faculty, researchers and students I encounter in the course of this job is, “Why science?”

Texas A&M biologist Deborah Bell-Pedersen recently scratched the surface of this topic for the latest issue of Spirit magazine. She then agreed to take it one step further and more personal for our blog, delving into the earliest motivations behind her 30-plus-year career in higher education and fundamental research in circadian and fungal biology.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus's genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

A member of the Texas A&M Biology faculty since 1997, Deborah Bell-Pedersen is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of circadian and fungal biology. In addition to helping to sequence the genome for Neurospora crassa (bread mold), her laboratory made the first DNA chips containing the fungus’s genes, which led to major insights into its biological clock.

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My path to becoming a research scientist was not a straightforward one. Although science and math were always my favorite classes as a student, I wanted to work to save the animals on our planet through conservation efforts and to find ways to limit our negative impact on our environment.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that few people have ever heard of. In this small community, I could easily see how our growing population and lack of concern for building in new areas was negatively affecting local wildlife populations. So in my first two years of college, I majored in wildlife conservation.

It wasn’t long before I became concerned that I was not really learning what I thought I needed to in order to achieve my goal. I figured to really have an influence on conservation efforts, I would need a solid understanding of the biology and ecology of the organisms I so deeply wanted to protect. That’s when I began studying biology.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them  that drew her into biology as a possible career.

Beyond her basic curiosity about bench research, Bell-Pedersen says it was her love of animals and strong desire to protect them that drew her into biology as a possible career.

In my junior year, a friend who was working in a research lab would tell me all about the experiments he was doing to uncover the mechanisms for how cells divide. This caught my attention because I assumed that scientists already knew nearly everything about cell division. While our textbooks made it seem like all of the problems had been solved, we really didn’t know much about what controls cell division. That’s when I decided to try my hand at research, and during my senior year I carried out a research project in cell biology. I found it incredibly exciting to be designing my own experiments to get answers to problems that no one had ever previously studied. On top of the thrill of basic discovery, the research also had important implications in animal and human health.

I was hooked and continued my journey toward a career in research and teaching. Along the way, I have found joy from continuing to make basic discoveries in biology, some of which now appear in textbooks and have potential for the development of new approaches to treat cancer.

As a career, I would say there is nothing better. The research we are doing will have a major impact on society; I learn something new every day; I interact with fascinating people from all different cultures; I travel all over the world to speak about our work at meetings; but probably the most rewarding aspect is my role in training students to be our next generation of research scientists, many of whom will make important new discoveries themselves.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen's Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Neurospora crassa samples growing in Bell-Pedersen’s Center for Biological Clocks Research laboratory. The bands in the tubes indicate the daily rhythm of spore formation in the fungus.

Research scientists do work long hours, but for me, doing experiments and analyzing data is fun and more like a favorite hobby than actually working. Despite these long hours, I still find time to maintain my childhood interest in animals and pretty much have my own zoo — one rescued dog, one cat, two miniature donkeys and one horse. I take riding lessons twice a week on my horse, Tea and Crumpets, to learn dressage.

In addition, I have also always enjoyed music. People are always surprised when they come to my office and hear anything from opera to hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I do play the piano a little and in recent years, I have started learning to play the violin.

In many ways, I think playing music is a lot like conducting research. Both are a lot of fun, require creativity and concentration, and have the potential for long-lasting impact on society.

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Yeah, Bell-Pedersen is onto something here, and go figure that there’s actual science behind it, too. Watch it, then get to work and/or go play!

Six Degrees of Nick Suntzeff

Lest anyone think fundraising is the only obstacle to getting next-generation telescopes (such as the Giant Magellan Telescope in which Texas A&M University is a founding partner) off the ground, the New York Time’s Gerald Brown recently weighed in on another area of tough, at-times-touchy sledding — drawing the line between spirituality and science.

As Brown explains, this age-old debate most recently played out in Hawaii and on YouTube, among other venues, concerning a protest by Native Hawaiians that disrupted the October 7 groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

As with all things astronomical, I forwarded the NYT link to Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who grew up in California, studied at Stanford University and at Lick Observatory and also spent 20 years as an astronomer in Chile, where he helped co-discover dark energy in between helping to save Alan Alda’s life, among other feats. Nick offered his two cents in the usual colorful manner I’ve come to both expect and love.

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I agree this is a great article. I, too, have been part of controversies about native claims to mountains as sacred sites. The mountains of Junipero Serra, Cerro Tololo, Quimal, Cerro Toco and Kitt Peak come to mind as having been claimed to be sacred. Quimal, which is perhaps the best mountain in Chile for astronomy, definitely is a sacred mountain, and we did not try to study it, except to verify that it did have burial sites on the summit. Kitt Peak is also sacred, but it is not an important site in the Tohono O’odham culture as is the Baboquivari Mountain to the south.

The article expresses the delicate point that indigenous peoples have been totally screwed by western expropriation of their lands, and fighting any fight to show their plight is totally understandable. In the case of Hawaii, the astronomers initially did not reach out to the Native Hawaiians and alienated them early on. There is not a small amount of support among the Native Hawaiians for astronomy, but we were late in including them in the discussions.

Ah, yes. I have many stories about the native beliefs versus astronomy, including meeting Ansel Adams a few times. …

I have always been uncomfortable with this issue since we are sympathetic to native beliefs, yet are often vocal against similar beliefs in mainstream religion. I am very glad George Johnson brought that up in his article. Few people have ever touched on that point of conflict.

cheers, nick

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Yep, there he goes again, creating another story within a story. Nick’s the master of a well-placed tangent, and by this point, he should know I’m an absolute sucker for those. Move over, Kevin Bacon; you’re been replaced by six degrees of Nick Suntzeff, and I’ve got to know the rest of the story on this one!

“You’ve met Ansel Adams?!?” I incredulously reply. “Of course you have! Why am I surprised by anything at this point? Tell me more.”

And, true to form, Nick does — about the legendary artist and then some. As I’ve said time and again, the man’s a walking history book and a born educator.

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The quick answer: Ansel Adams lived near Santa Cruz and Monterey (I’ve forgotten where). Around 1975, Lick Observatory was involved in building a new telescope that would be even larger than the Palomar 5-meter. They (Dr. Merle Walker) studied mountains in California and Mexico and found that the best mountain was Junipero Serra Peak, the tallest mountain in the central coast range of California that is more than 5,000 feet while only about 10 miles from the coast. He did an onsite survey measuring the turbulence and found it was an outstanding peak.

As the highest mountain, it was claimed to be a sacred mountain by the local Native Americans. The problem was that there was no evidence anywhere that this mountain was sacred. The local Indians claimed an oral tradition, but again, there was no evidence for this until after the astronomers were interested in the mountain. The mountain is inside a wilderness area, so it is protected and would take a special permit to build there.

So, just like Hawaii, there was a problem between astronomers and the locals. I hiked the mountain once (it is a tough climb), and I thought it was one of the most beautiful mountains in California in the springtime. It is so high that the forest there is an isolated stand of sugar pines, which are common in the Sierras. The mountain has permanent snow in the winter, so the top of the mountain is alpine country like the Sierras. There is only one other mountain — Cone Peak — nearby that also has a few sugar pines. The pines are dying fast, and the forest will be lost in the near future.

I am not sure how, but someone knew someone who knew Ansel Adams, who was an avid amateur astronomer. He supported the building of the observatory (provided that it had minimal impact on the mountain). So I was roped into being a chauffeur for him, taking him to maybe two public meetings. His mere presence there made a big impact.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

He was a private sort of person, so I did not get to know him well. But I did find out that, along with his famous photos, he also had some sort of telescope and took astronomical photos for fun. I imagine these were all destroyed along with the original photographic plates and negatives when he died (a common thing photographers do). I would have liked to see some of his plates. Since I also took photographic plates for astronomy (yes, I am that old), we talked mostly about the techniques of astrophotography.

I have never heard of anyone talking about his astrophotography.

cheers, nick

P.S. This is really old history, and I wish I remembered more details of our conversations. His Wikipedia entry does mention his interest in astronomy, and they have the fact which I never knew that his father was the treasurer for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is the other professional astronomy group in the U.S., that unlike the American Astronomical Society, includes amateur astronomers as members. He was treasurer from 1925-50, a major position which would have put him in the Executive Council of the ASP.

See also:
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/an-ansel-adams-encore/

And here’s a fascinating primer on the artistry behind the icon, authored by a pretty good photographer in his own right, the Eagle’s Dave McDermand.

quote-adams

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)


I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)


If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

A Royal Reign in Peril

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson made international headlines once again last week with his dire predictions concerning this year’s Monarch butterfly numbers, which are at an all-time low across the Brazos Valley and nationwide.

Ever the idealist, Craig appeals below to the altruistic nature lover in all of us with a personal pitch that harkens back to another resilient Lone Star State crusader, Lady Bird Johnson, whom we have to thank for one of Texas’ proudest, most beautiful and time-honored rites of spring — Texas wildflowers.

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In the fall of 2013, the number of adult Monarchs migrating through College Station that were netted and tagged was one-fifth of the number in 2012, coinciding with the data gathered nationwide showing that numbers were way down. This has been confirmed at the overwintering sites in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where numbers were at historic lows. The combined areas sheltering Monarchs totalled only 1.65 acres, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996. We now await the arrival of the first adults of the spring migration north, suspecting that they will be fewer in number. Last year, the first recorded sighting in College Station was on March 19 in the USDA People’s Garden on Holleman Drive that is open to the public.

Monarch Butterflies have reigned supreme amongst insects with a long distance migration that is the marvel of scientists, an increasingly aware population of civilian scientists and the public in general. But their reign is under the severest of threats since records have been kept, with numbers plunging so low that they may have reached a point where recovery may be impossible, in spite of the reproductive resilience of insect species that lay enormous numbers of eggs.

Who or what is to blame? There are a number of culprits. As the adults migrate south, they have to consume large quantities of nectar from wildflowers that are fewer in number because of use of herbicide in large-scale crop farming, especially in the Midwest, the biggest threat. In addition, more land has been brought into cultivation that formerly would have supported wildflowers and other wildlife. Then there is the severe drought and wildfires. Each of these events — individually and in combination — depletes available flowers and their nectar, which the Monarchs drink and then convert into lipids to help the butterflies survive overwintering.

What can be done nationwide? Large-scale farming is not going away, so a practice of leaving some crop acreage free of pesticides (note that this term is inclusive of herbicides and insecticides) needs to be increased. Perhaps interstate wildflower corridors could be established that would extend Lady Bird Johnson’s vision for the verges of Texas nationwide. Likewise, mowing of these same verges should be left until after the wildflowers have bloomed and seeded. This would also help the establishment of milkweed plants that are the sole source of food for Monarch larvae (caterpillars) during the migration north.

What can be done locally? Citizens can plant milkweed and other butterfly attractant plants in their gardens — simple actions viewed by some as futile, but every little bit helps, and it raises awareness. Since last spring, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden (the Texas A&M campus’ first rooftop garden located at the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and open to the public) has been planted with more than 400 milkweeds, and four Bryan elementary schools also have established Monarch butterfly gardens. Sadly, the harsh winter means that the milkweeds have yet to start growing, so there may not be enough foliage to feed any Monarch caterpillars that do emerge from eggs.

The situation is dire.

THIS JUST IN: There’s an excellent front-page feature story on the subject by John Rangel in today’s Battalion.

Monarch_DamagedWing

If I Had a Million Dollars

As we put the wraps on the first week of a new semester here in Aggieland, there’s a lot of good news beyond the resolution of 2012 Heisman Trophy-winning sensation Johnny Manziel’s future at quarterback.

By all indications, both incoming freshmen and their families have reason to feel secure about their educational investment, thanks to far bigger breaking news than who’s under center this season. In case you haven’t heard, Texas A&M ranks as the top university in Texas (second overall to Rice University, which is private) and fourth in the nation among public institutions for return on investment for a degree, according to AffordableCollegesOnline, a national website that tracks college pricing and, as the name suggests, overall affordability. Matter of fact, after all their algorithms are said and done, that choice to attend Texas A&M could translate to being $1 million richer. Holy future bargaining, Bat Man!

Aggieland_AerialView

Judging from local real estate sales to traffic (vehicle and foot), the secret of Aggieland’s allure appears to be out – or at least well on its way. Another study from SquareFoot.com pegs College Station as the second-fastest-growing college town in the country behind Raleigh, North Carolina, one of three anchors in the coveted Research Triangle. In fact, the home of Texas A&M University is expected to top 100,000 during the next couple of months, and that’s not even taking into account the weekend swell for home football games.

Yep, by all accounts, it’s a good time to be a Texas Aggie. Of course, I thought so 25 years ago when I fell in love with the place my older brother called his collegiate home while I was here for a summer honors program. I applied later that fall, was accepted, enrolled for my freshman year in 1989, and never looked back. Now that I’m still here and raising my own family, I have to admit, it’s one decision in life that I’ve never regretted, let alone even second-guessed. The older I get, the more I realize that’s the kind of peace of mind money can’t buy.

Thanks and gig ‘em, Aggies!