Dallas' Big Thinkers
We gave the world the microchip and the margarita machine. Here are six cool scientists whose brains are making waves.
Proving Einstein Right | Dr. Russell Hulse
Regental professor and associate vice president for strategic initiatives at UTD, former principal research physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Nobel laureate (physics, 1993)
Russell Hulse was just 23 years old when he found the first binary pulsar. He couldn’t believe the story made the New York Times and his hometown newspaper, and he was floored when he won the Nobel Prize for the discovery 19 years later. Hulse and his doctoral thesis adviser, Joe Taylor, were awarded the prize “for the discovery of a new type of pulsar, a discovery that has opened up new possibilities for the study of gravitation.” His has been called one of the top scientific discoveries of the 20th century. So what does it mean?
“Most people are aware that Albert Einstein brought very revolutionary insights to the world, including the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity,” Hulse says. “The general theory of relativity had some of the most astounding insights and rethinking of the way the world was put together, that the universe was not the planet. Some of the predictions were such that they were hard to verify.”
A binary pulsar is essentially a precise clock in orbit around a star. It helped prove a laundry list of Einstein’s predictions. It is, as Hulse describes it, “nature’s gift to us in terms of being a natural lab for testing the theory of relativity.” Specifically, it provided observable evidence that gravitational waves are real.
As a boy growing up in New York City, Hulse brought all manner of scientific gadgets into his family’s apartment—microscopes, a chemistry set, various electronics testing equipment. At one point, he developed an interest in amateur rocketry. “Understandably, that never went too far,” he says. “I never got beyond lovingly drawn plans.”
His apartment didn’t have the space he wanted, but the city did have the museums. He spent hours at the American Museum of Natural History. His parents took him until he was old enough to jump on the subway himself. He focused on physics and astronomy at the Bronx High School of Science, although at home he spent his time on electronics and radio astronomy.
“During the era that I went to high school, there wasn’t anybody there who could help me with my radio astronomy project,” he says. “I was pretty much on my own. On the one hand, that instilled in me a real do-it-yourself approach. On the other hand, I really could’ve used some help and advice.”
Hulse became a visiting professor at UTD in 2004, while retaining his position as a principal research physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Hulse founded UTD’s Science and Engineering Education Center, which works with young students who have a fascination with science, just as Hulse did when he was growing up. He got the idea for the center on the flight home from the Nobel presentation in Stockholm.
“One of the things that just popped into my head was that when I was kid, science was an important part of my life,” he says. “It’s such a fantastic thing to know and understand how the natural world works. I wanted to help a new generation of kids appreciate wonder and beauty and the excitement of science and the natural world around them.”
Undiscovering a Killer Comet | Dr. David Meltzer
Chair of the department of anthropology at SMU’s Dedman College, proved a culture of people didn’t die from the impact of a comet
In the summer of 1971, David Meltzer’s mom was looking for something to get her 15-year-old son out of the house. She asked him his plans. He said he was going to watch TV. “That,” she said, “isn’t good enough.” She read that archaeological excavations would begin the next week in the Shenandoah Valley. She convinced the project director that he needed to take her son. The next week, Meltzer had shovel in hand at the Thunderbird Paleoindian site.
He continued for four summers and is now a world-renowned archaeologist. Meltzer has recently been in the news for disproving a theory that a comet crash killed a culture, but his career research focuses on the first people who came to North America at the end of the Ice Age. It appears they adapted at breathtaking speed.
“What I’m trying to understand is what were the challenges they faced?” he says. “What happened the first time a wayward Siberian encountered a rattlesnake? How did they do all this while figuring out this utterly new landscape?”
In the midst of this research, which got him elected to the National Academy of Sciences, comes the “silliness” of the comet. A
controversial theory was put forth in 2006 that the ancient Clovis culture of North America was killed by a comet crashing. Meltzer and his colleague Vance Holliday were honored for the Undiscovery of the Year by the Archaeological Institute of America after refuting the concept with archaeological evidence proving the population of North America didn’t drop when the comet allegedly hit.
Though he made headlines, he’d rather talk about worthwhile topics—like climate change. His research into how humans dealt with drastic change in the past makes him concerned about our future. Had his early Americans encountered the climate change we are in store for,
they could have just moved. We’re locked in.
“We don’t have nearly the options we as a species had in the past,” he says. “We’re going to have to figure out what our adaptive strategy will be and how we will respond. I know what we would’ve done 7,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago. What we’re going to do now and in the future, I don’t know.”
Building a Robot Jellyfish | Dr. Ray Baughman
Director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute and Robert A. Welch Chair of Chemistry at UTD
Earlier this year, Ray Baughman told NPR that he has created a special “multifunctional” yarn. Imagine a shirt that doubles as a battery or a soldier’s uniform that could cool him in the battlefield. It’s all machine washable, and it could be on the market within five years.
Baughman’s focus is in the field of nanotechnology, where his work involves energy and artificial muscles. Baughman has “60 or so” U.S. patents. He is proudest of the time-temperature indicator he patented that changes color not just as a product ages but as it is exposed to different environments (because milk will spoil faster at room temperature than it will at 40 degrees). The World Health Organization estimates the device will save 140,000 lives by removing ineffective vaccines from the market.
With his wonder yarn, Baughman created a way to twist and spin carbon nanotubes—called biscrolling—to create something that has the density of air yet is stronger than steel. He’s also working with the U.S. Navy to build a robotic jellyfish that can roam the ocean to collect data about temperatures, pollutants, and activities of foreign powers.
Baughman’s childhood started on a turkey farm in rural Pennsylvania. “We were so far out in the country that, until I was 6, all my friends were turkeys,” he says. By the time he was 7, he knew he wanted to be a scientist.
At the end of his freshman year in high school, he showed up drenched with rain at a lab at the University of Pittsburgh, looking for a research job. George A. Jeffrey hired him, and Baughman worked there throughout high school and his undergraduate years. That experience influenced his tenure at UTD, when he created the George A. Jeffrey NanoExplorers program, working with local high school students who want to spend their summer studying nanotechnology.
Baughman earned his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon and his doctorate from Harvard. He came to UTD in 2001, at the suggestion of Dr. Alan MacDiarmid, who later joined the UTD faculty. The two were drinking whiskey in Australia after a trip to Stockholm, where MacDiarmid had received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the first organic conducting polymer. Baughman, who invented the second polymer, decided to move his family to Texas. To prepare his kids for the transition, he sang them “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
“I love ideas. I love discovery. I love collaboration as a professor,” he says. “I love inspiring students to share my love of discovery—in an academic sense but also discovery in the sense of inventions.”
Hunting Orchids in Dallas | Dr. Marcy Brown Marsden
Chair of the biology department at the University of Dallas, past member of the Oxford Round Table, and participant in Al Gore’s Climate Project
Marcy Brown Marsden wanted to be a veterinarian. But when a professor pointed her toward ecology, she realized she could combine her love of animals and the outdoors by working in the field. Her first experience came when she was a college junior, studying seabirds in Alaska. “When you enjoy being on an island with three people for three months and doing lab work—every day, all day—you were meant to do that,” she says.
She continued her work with seabirds on Alcatraz Island, where people going to visit America’s most famous prison stumble into a wildlife lesson. This is where Brown Marsden is at her best, where her introverted science geek meets her social, teacher extrovert. “Some scientists are absolutely great working in a quieter, less interactive environment,” she says. “I’m not one of those.”
Her day starts with a 3-mile bike ride to the University of Dallas. She’s researched the black-capped vireo, an endangered bird that prefers a scrub grass habitat like that found at the Cedar Ridge Preserve in Cedar Hill. Vireos are coming through but not staying. She’s researched why.
She also serves as the chairman of the city of Irving’s parks board, and she wants to know why Dallas County is home to an unusually high number of endangered orchids in the Hexalectris genus. Dallas, she says, is special from an ecological standpoint. Gems like the painted bunting are right there if we are looking. “People think if you want to see amazing species, really neat birds, and really neat plants, you have to go to Costa Rica or the tropics,” she says. “I’m troubled by that, because we emphasize that nature is elsewhere. For me,
nature is here.”
Her work with The Climate Project, a grass roots offshoot of Al Gore’s climate change work, involves speaking about her favorite subjects. She went through a selection process in 2007. She met Gore, and Cameron Diaz was in her training group.
“I experience nature in the same way people experience a beautiful work of art or amazing piece of architecture or a poem in a book,” she says.
Beating Diabetes | Dr. Roger Unger
Professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center
Everyone in Roger Unger’s father’s family had been a doctor. It only made sense that he’d go premed when he started at Yale. He can’t remember considering any other option.
Unger grew up in Westchester County, outside of New York City. His father, Lester J. Unger, was a well-known doctor who invented the first direct blood transfusion instrument. While in private practice after medical school, the younger Unger had a friend who changed the course of his career—and, potentially, the lives of many living with Type 1 diabetes.
His patient, a star tennis player in the ’50s, was having a difficult time managing his diabetes during the latter sets of long matches. Unger traveled with him to a major competition, trying his theory that glucagon injections could keep blood sugar levels stable. “At that time, glucagon was considered a contaminant of the insulin extraction procedure, and I felt that was very unlikely,” he says. “I felt it was a true hormone, and I wanted to prove it.”
He has been working on, in, and around that concept ever since.
Since Frederick Banting discovered insulin as a treatment for Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in 1922 (before that, it had a 100 percent fatality rate), not much has changed. It was such a miracle that nobody wanted to mess with it. Consider this: we discovered insulin five years before Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. And we’re still treating diabetes the exact same way.
During his studies, Banting extracted glucagon, which has the opposite effect of insulin. Unger’s work in the ’60s and ’70s showed that a lack of insulin was accompanied by an excess of glucagon. If you suppress the glucagon, you don’t need insulin, Unger says.
“The treatment from the time of Banting until today is to replace the insulin and ignore the glucagon,” Unger says. “The problem with that strategy is if you give enough insulin to suppress the glucagon, you are giving too much to the rest of the body. Now what we’ve done is suppress the glucagon and then give low levels of insulin instead of the seesaw, roller-coaster, up-and-down glucose levels that are characteristic of every Type 1 diabetes patient. We get perfectly normal glucose levels, just like a nondiabetic.”
He is now in the middle of a two-year study that is translating his work with animals to humans. If successful, there will be a large-scale national study, and, eventually, he’ll take what he’s learned to Type 2 diabetes research. If it doesn’t work, he jokes that he’ll join the witness protection program.
“I don’t want to jinx it, but all I can say is we are very hopeful,” he says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be wasting our time. I’m hopeful that all of this work is going to make a big difference for diabetes patients. Until I know whether it will, there’s sort of a chronic suspense. If it’s no damn good, what did I do all of these years?”
27-Million-Year-Old Pollen | Dr. Bonnie Jacobs
Associate professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU and blogger for the New York Times
Bonnie Jacobs’ favorite place to go as a kid was the American Museum of Natural History. She also had a thing for Egyptian artifacts. During visits to the beach, she collected snails and shells, which her mother later discovered, usually by following the smell.
“Growing up, I didn’t know the difference between paleontology and archeology,” she says. “My parents, as wonderful as they are, didn’t know the difference either.”
She eventually became a noted paleobotanist. Earlier this year, she wrote for the New York Times’ Scientist at Work blog, chronicling her work in Ethiopia, where she studies plant fossils to learn about the history of our changing climate. Her work there began years ago, when her husband, Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at SMU, got a job in Kenya. At the time, Jacobs was near the beginning of her Ph.D. research. This was before email. She worried about how she was going to transport boxes of manuscripts from Arizona to Africa. She worried that she wouldn’t finish her Ph.D. She even worried she wouldn’t find a good microscope.
When she arrived, though, she connected with a friend who was starting a project to document human evolution 15 million to 16 million years ago. She went on a field trip and later connected with a paleoanthropologist from Tanzania who wanted to find pollens 46 million years old. The goal of the projects is to assemble a climate and ecosystem history of tropical Africa for the Cenozoic Era. Jacobs is working on two sites in Ethiopia, looking at 22-million-year-old pollen at one and 27-million-year-old pollen at another.
“There is a time in that interval, 27 to 22 million years, when some records indicate there was significant warming on the global level,” Jacobs says. “Some records estimate ancient CO2 was actually the same as it is in modern times, but other records say it was on the rise. We’re living in a world now where changes are happening very rapidly. If we can understand a little bit better what happened in the past regarding ecosystem changes and what caused those ecosystems to change, then we could get some information to use now.”