Analyze This

In this day and age when an organization’s communications efforts are considered only as good as the tracking metrics put in place to validate them, I am most decidedly old school. While I get that analytics have their place and are here to stay as a valuable strategic tool, I firmly believe even the best metric can never trump good old-fashioned gut instinct.

In essence, when it comes to quality communications, you know it when you see it. In the case of the Texas A&M Division of Research, I routinely do.

Because the Texas A&M College of Science has the largest amount of fundamental research funding on campus, our two communications offices often have quite a bit of agenda overlap and, therefore, lots of opportunities for collaboration in reaching our broader marketing and communications goals.

Director of Communications and Public Relations Susan Wolff and her entire team’s collegiality knows no bounds. Believe me, I’ve extensively tested them — team and bounds — especially during the past few belt-tightened years. Thankfully, individually and collectively, this group subscribes to a singular purpose: providing an invaluable service role for campus units in need of central resources or signal amplification, from governmental relations and federal-funding radars to general societal awareness. Texas A&M Science has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of their goodwill, punctuated in both b-roll and stand-alone pieces for feature stories and news releases from their videographers, sundry retweets and elevated online placements from their social media and web developers, and on-the-fly assistance for professors in need of video or artistic services from their graphic designers and illustrators.

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

Jeff Gustafson, in his element. (Credit: Amy Richards.)

The first scenario is how I came to meet Jeff Gustafson in spring 2013 as the videographer in charge of a memorable and most fruitful shoot in Texas A&M chemist Karen Wooley’s laboratory. Admittedly, even prior to that March 7 shoot, I was intrigued by two things: He was a graduate student in the Department of Visualization’s master’s of visualization sciences degree program, and he preferred the nickname “Goose.”

True to form, I arrived on set just as Goose was wrapping up color and lighting testing with Susan, who was serving as Dr. Wooley’s stand-in. He moved fluidly about the tight scene, pausing between equipment adjustments and final checks to introduce himself, punctuating that first impression with a warm smile and a firm handshake. For the most part, I was able to contain myself and simply observe, but in what amounted to a moment of foreshadowing, I did spontaneously extend the shoot when I blurted out an extemporaneous follow-up question after what was supposed to be the final one in the two-hour session.

That day, Goose graciously kept the cameras rolling. In the subsequent days, neither he nor any other member of the Good Ship Research Communications has stopped humoring me in a variety of ways big and small. The resulting videos — oil-absorbing nanoparticles and anti-biofouling polymer coatings, among others — speak well enough for themselves, but for me, the proof is in the many projects in between that day’s final shot/cut and the present.

Which brings me to this sweet bonus — a stylized compilation of cuts from shoots in various Texas A&M Science labs by Goose and fellow videographers Eric Burke and Bhakti Duran, complete with some editorial nudges from Susan. The timing, the touches, the colors, the precision, the overall synergy and synchronicity . . . I am absolutely blown away.

My gut says it’s a perfect mix of art and science. Susan and her crew simply call it a gift to Texas A&M Science. Fitting, considering that’s precisely the word I would use to describe them with regard to this campus and its communications.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Good communicators know it’s a delicate balance of all three. Here in Texas A&M Science, I’m privileged to lead, follow and get out of the way of some of the very best.

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

An artistic take on detecting dark matter, developed for a related 2014 press release by Division of Research Communications graduate assistant illustrator Rachel Wang. (Credit: Rachel Wang.)

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.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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

Light My Fire

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

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

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

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

Mistake No. 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

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.

Epilogue

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

Core Competency

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, one of the many perks of my job is having experts at my fingertips. With a simple email, phone call or Facebook message, I can get instant feedback concerning the day’s top headlines, scientific and beyond.

Take for instance last week’s reports celebrating discovery of oceans of water beneath the Earth’s surface. I happened to catch a radio snippet recapping the Huffington Post’s version of the story as I was heading solo to the grocery store on a rare Friday vacation day. (Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are as to what qualifies as vacation for this full-time working mom of three ages 10 and under. But that’s another story with neither experts nor answers!) Intrigued, I first Googled the story to find out where it originated (Northwestern University), then emailed my friend Wolfgang Bangerth, a Texas A&M mathematician and author of a modeling software program, ASPECT, that is designed to develop, among so many other things, clearer pictures of Earth’s interior.

Besides being a computational scientist and modeling genius, Wolfgang is no slouch when it comes to geophysics — or any engineering-related branch of science, in my experience. While I knew this would be right up his alley, I didn’t realize he was in South Korea at the time teaching a weeklong workshop. Distance certainly didn’t affect his ability to advise nor my efforts to produce a press release on the subject with his copious help.

(Here’s an example of Wolfgang’s ASPECT-driven work — convection in a 3D box. Reminds me of those cool optical illusion-type puzzles you got as a kid or the nifty gel-based paperweights you sometimes see in science-types offices!)

For me, curiosity is right up there with a sense of humor and vocabulary prowess in the way of appealing attributes, but I do so love it when others share my enthusiasm for a spur-of-the-moment idea, PR-related and otherwise. Wolfgang certainly went the extra mile (pun intended) to bring this one to fruition, paying me and other communicators what I consider to be the ultimate compliment during a side discussion concerning my use of the formal “Dr.” title with him out of habitual respect:

“It’s a title. I got it by doing my job, not by being particularly brilliant. As for respect, you are doing a fantastic job, too, and I do respect that just as much. At a university, we’re a team. You can’t do your job without us, and we can’t do it without people like you. I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat each other as equals.”

Well said as always, my wise friend. Let the record show (at least in this piece) that I’m recovering nicely.

Thank you, Wolfgang, for the global assist and the team affirmation. Awesome to the core!

Another bonus of being friends with such world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Another bonus of being friends with such a world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

You Are Enough

HemingwayQuoteDear Student,

You almost walked out on a Team Exercise today because you weren’t prepared, and you didn’t want to freeload. I admire that, but I asked you to stay and to learn, because the point of the Team Exercise isn’t the grade; it’s to help the members of the team to better understand the lesson.

At some point we will all walk in unprepared, and have to ask our team to help us out. That’s why some of the hard stuff is Team Stuff, rather than individual. Because I think that having you work together will cause more learning than if I just preach it at you.

I still felt terrible because you did today. And I questioned myself and what I was doing.

I talked to you for while late this afternoon, and there are other things going on in your life. This class isn’t easy for you, and logistics lately have been difficult. I get the feeling there are other things too. You apologized to me, but no apology is necessary. This is my job. I am here to try to help you learn. I know that other things get in the way. I know how they get in the way. I’ve lived that. I just wish you knew it, too. You are worthy of being here. Worthy of my effort. Worthy of the help from your team. Worthy of being taken seriously. Worthy of help. Maybe worthy of better than I am capable of giving you.

ValueI know that you are the type of person who wants to be the one to help others. If another came to you unprepared, or unable to get something, or struggling, you’d be proud to be the person to help them out. You’d treat all their problems with loving kindness. That loving kindness that you’d so easily give to someone else is the loving kindness I want you to give yourself right now.

Just hang in there. Just keep trying. And seeing the high level of frustration and pain I saw in your face today, just in case, I want to say: If there comes a point where you realize or decide that this is not for you, I want you to know that is okay, too. You are still worthy and worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like we are deep in a dark tunnel with no way to climb out. And I can’t even tell you how to get out, except that you have to just keep at it.

I didn’t have the exact right words to say to you. I can only hope that the ones I had were enough to plant this idea, for it to grow and blossom later. You are enough. Just as you are. Deserving of respect and love and help. If you can’t trust yourself to judge that, I hope you can trust me.

Sincerely,

Dr. Linhart

LoveLeaf

(Credit: Alex Eastman)


Life Forces and Legacies

Last week Texas A&M University hosted a familiar face and cherished friend in one Robert M. Gates, 22nd United States Secretary of Defense and 22nd President of Texas A&M, who was here on campus to discuss his new book, DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. As expected, Dr. Gates packed Rudder Auditorium and had his audience hanging on his every warm and oftentimes humorous word.

Two Texas A&M presidents removed and two jobs later, Dr. Gates remains a man much revered in Aggieland, if not for progressive plans like faculty reinvestment, then for more student-centric feats like first-year grade exclusion and the university studies degree. (Or, in my case, as the guy at the helm when journalism died, but that’s another subject, one for which I’ve mostly forgiven him. Mostly. And I even understand the dairy center, given that yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of Dad and Mom selling off our own herd and ending our family’s days in the milking pits. In short, it was time for both.)

His visit reminded me of another revered Aggie, George P. Mitchell ’40, who was a big fan of Dr. Gates and his energy when it came to Mr. Mitchell’s alma mater and its future. Understandably there as well, considering Mr. Mitchell invested as big as anyone in those dreams, adding his monetary muscle to fuel the dream for Texas A&M Physics.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dr. Robert Gates, signing the historic paperwork to finance construction of two landmark physics buildings at Texas A&M University.

That admiration was mutual, as evidenced by this quote from Dr. Gates upon hearing of Mr. Mitchell’s death on July 26, 2013:

“George Mitchell was a great man and a great benefactor of Texas A&M University. Through his generosity, dramatic improvements were made possible in many areas, including science research and teaching at Texas A&M, particularly in physics. Thanks to his philanthropy, world-class facilities and significant enhancements for faculty and students alike brought international renown to the university. His gifts also extended to athletics, particularly tennis. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from him while I was president of the university. He will be greatly missed.”

These two powerful men and their visionary motivations coincided and collided in a
marvelous and near-magical way, creating the best possible hiring world and a climate of excitement and forward momentum that proved so attractive in 2006 as to actually land such an established star as Nick Suntzeff, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, to lead Texas A&M’s new astronomy program.

Thanks in large part to Dr. Gates’ and Mr. Mitchell’s dual dreams, the future is gloriously bright for Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy, Texas A&M University and the overall state of Texas. Despite being gone in vastly different extremes, both will be forever remembered in Aggieland, if not for enabling sweeping recruiting successes and other tangible program-wide gains, then for negotiating two beautiful buildings — architectural showpieces and the first on campus to be built through a unique university-private partnership involving substantial donor funds.

Here’s a bit of the rest of the story on that story, as told by Joe Newton, Dean of Science and inaugural holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Endowed Chair in Statistics, who reflects on a pivotal meeting involving Dr. Gates and Texas A&M’s most generous benefactor:

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

George P. Mitchell, 1940 Texas A&M University distinguished petroleum engineering graduate, the largest benefactor Texas A&M has ever had, developer of The Woodlands, and the leading figure in hydraulic fracking (among a host of other amazing accomplishments), passed away on July 26 at the age of 94.

Lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as dean of the Texas A&M College of Science, I was privileged to participate in his philanthropic efforts to build fundamental physics and astronomy at Texas A&M. In the process, he became a friend. I flew on Continental Express with him. I ate at Chick-fil-A with him. Somehow he thought I had power. He would call me to tell me to fix things. Sometimes I even could. His passing has made me very sad. I cannot believe this life force has left us.

George P. Mitchell '40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

George P. Mitchell ’40 and Dean of Science Joe Newton at the 2006 Sterling C. Evans Medal ceremony.

I also had the honor of knowing former Texas A&M President (and CIA Director and Secretary of Defense) Robert M. Gates. These two men came together in Mitchell’s Houston office on Aug. 14, 2005, in a meeting that changed the face of Texas A&M. It was my honor to be there, and I would like to pay tribute to both of them by describing the meeting.

Both men had already played a large role in the development of fundamental physics and astronomy on campus; Gates with his reinvestment program designed to bolster teaching and research efforts by hiring a large number of new faculty, and Mitchell with his philanthropy that created an institute named in his honor, that helped us build a new astronomy program and attract great faculty.

Ed Fry, the department head at the time (and a dreamer of the first order), had developed a remarkably close relationship with Mitchell. Fry thought that Mitchell would be receptive to a request to help fund two buildings on campus. The first would be a “signature building” architecturally to house the Mitchell Institute; the second would for the first time consolidate all of the department’s faculty and classes in one place.

The task of convincing the university to supply the matching funds that Mitchell always required fell largely to me. Mitchell routinely drove a hard bargain, but the driving premise behind his trademark matching requirement was to ensure the maximum benefit of every dollar contributed — his or the university’s — to the broader cause or project. A major component of this particular project was that the department would make no claim on space it would vacate, so that the university would in fact receive a net gain with its matching funds.

After a series of meetings with various university officials, especially Gates, it was agreed that Gates and a few others (including Fry, Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis ’67 and College of Science Director of Development Don Birkelbach ’70) would go to Mitchell’s office in downtown Houston to make “the big ask.”

There was a sense of history when we walked into the conference room. Mitchell, as usual, started by asking about projects in which he was interested, including the Giant Magellan Telescope. Then his attorney, Barry Levitt, suggested we talk about the buildings. The rest took perhaps five minutes. Both Gates and Mitchell had great respect for the other. There was a true sense of good will.

Gates began by saying, “I don’t want to insult Ed or Joe, but a physics building has not been one of our top priorities.” In his typical wry manner, Mitchell interrupted Gates with, “Yes, I’ve noticed.” At which point everyone laughed. “But because of all you’ve done,” Gates continued, “we will contribute $2 million toward a building to house the Mitchell Institute, and I have a suggestion for you: I have identified $20 million in cash, and if you agree to the legacy proposal we have prepared for you, we will use the first $20 million of your funds to match what we will do.”

Mitchell responded that there were problems with the proposal, but that perhaps he could do $3 million per year for five years. Gates, without batting an eyelash, countered: “The $20 million really straps me; how about you do 10 years?” Mitchell came right back at him, suggesting, “How about $2 million for 10 years?” After a pause, Gates continued to barter, “$2.5 million for 10 years would split the difference.” Then Ed Fry jumped into the fray with, “It would really help to do it in five years — how about $5 million for five years?” Mitchell said, “Same amount of money, so OK.” The deal was done!

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Groundbreaking for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building. Mr. Mitchell (hard hat), Dr. Gates and Joe Newton are pictured at center, along with several other Texas A&M professors and key administrators.

Later, Mitchell’s total contribution for the $82.5 million buildings actually reached just over $36 million.

The rest is history. It took many, many meetings to complete the two beautiful buildings, but I will never forget the day these two legendary men agreed to something that greatly enhanced Texas A&M. Ultimately, with the fundamental work being done in these buildings and the resulting renaissance for Texas A&M physics and astronomy, they have indeed changed the world.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell '40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Dean of Science Joe Newton and George P. Mitchell ’40 prior to a November 2012 event celebrating his $20 million legacy gift to his namesake George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.

Heart of the Matter

I got the rare opportunity a few months ago to sit in on a video shoot with one of our fairly new and absolutely dynamic professors in the Department of Chemistry, Karen Wooley. I’ve never been so glad that I for once seized the day, because soon after leaving my usual seat, I found myself sitting on the edge of quite another.

For proper context, I’ve had the privilege of writing a few press releases on Dr. Wooley’s work, but in all cases (mostly due to her busy travel schedule and the basic convenience of mine) those exchanges occurred via email. Suffice it to say in-person is invaluable and that I had no idea what I was missing. To be in her presence is to know the pure joy she radiates — about her science, her students and broader lab group, their shared “ah-ha” moments big and small in the name of curiosity as catalyst of discovery, the overall give-and-take of knowledge generation, being at Texas A&M University, etc.

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

I learned three things in that hour, and to the surprise of a gal who struggled through two years of premed before changing majors to journalism, even a little chemistry in the process:

  1. Karen Wooley enjoys her work, and there’s a lot of it to love. The sheer volume of projects she has going on would make your head spin. And that’s before she rattles off the myriad federal agencies and industry leaders who fund and support it. In short, she believes — in herself, her group, her department/university and her profession’s potential — and that contagious confidence not only shows, it produces results. And more grants. And more breakthrough discoveries. And more excitement. Talk about a pretty picture that needs no storyboard!
  2. Karen Wooley gets frustrated. Newsflash: Scientists are people, too. Even though I know this and try my best to convey it in every story I write, I have to admit I never fully thought about the everyday struggles involved in and incumbent upon being a research group leader. While I joke that I only get to write in my spare time, the same holds true for high-flying chemists, whose responsibilities as de facto CEOs of what amounts to a small corporation likewise take away from their true love — actual bench time. There’s no “i” in team. Nor is there one in “laboratory” or “research.” Interesting parallel.
  3. Karen Wooley has trouble defining success. After nearly a solid hour of providing non-stop detail on the countless projects and personnel that encompass Team Wooley (and revealing that some of the best breakthroughs indeed happen by accident — or, to put it more accurately, under the expert watch of someone with the right combination of experience, knowledge and curiosity necessary to first recognize and then to play out the possibilities), it was a wrap. I saw my window and jumped, rendering Dr. Wooley speechless for the first and only time that afternoon with one spontaneous question: “How do you define success?” Granted, it was neither in the pre-shoot list nor entirely fair. The trite job-interview equivalent of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which always makes me chuckle as I think of the stock “in-your-job” answer that runs through my mind but for once not out my mouth. For the record, my standard answer is “happy.” And although Dr. Wooley never said as much, she didn’t have to, considering it was obvious to all present in the room.

A wrap, indeed, and all in my ideal kind of day’s work.