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Secrets of the Universe

By Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff

University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Mitchell-Munnerlyn-Heep Chair in Observational Astronomy
Director, Texas A&M Astronomy Program
Private philanthropy allows Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, director of Texas A&M's astronomy program, to explore the depths of the cosmos.

As I reflect on how I have been so fortunate in my astronomy career, culminating in this dream job as a professor at Texas A&M University, I realize I am here because of philanthropy and foresight in forms large and small.

I began learning this lesson long before I became an astronomy professor. My first job was as a paperboy, where—while I would like to say I first learned the value of a nickel earned—I mostly learned never to take a paper route with a steep hill. My first real science job was staining lab samples and mixing chemicals in a pathology lab. I was only 16. 

When I entered Stanford University for a mathematics degree in 1970, it was expected that my tuition would be covered in equal parts by me, my parents and a state scholarship. My parents were not wealthy, and my financial situation worsened when my father became ill and then paralyzed from a World War II injury. With medical expenses, they could not muster up their one-third portion for my final two years of college. I thought it might mean an end to my education until I got a letter from Stanford informing me that I was awarded a scholarship. I’d never applied, so it was most mysterious at the time.

It turns out that Dr. John Manwaring, a physician and friend of my father’s—and the man whom I'd worked for as a 16-year-old in the pathology lab—donated the money anonymously. I learned the story much later, when my father told me that Dr. Manwaring was proud that I’d chosen science. What a wonderful gesture, and the first of many times that private philanthropy would intersect my life. 

Astronomer Edwin Hubble is renowned for determining that there are galaxies in the universe beyond the Milky Way and for discovering that the universe expands at a constant rate. This is one of the photographic plates he took in 1923 that he used in his measurement of the scale of the universe. The plate is on loan to Dr. Suntzeff from the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

After graduating from Stanford, I completed my graduate and postdoctoral education at observatories built by private donations for nothing else but the pure advancement of science. It was here that my interest in cosmology, supernova studies and astronomical instrumentation took shape.

My next job was as a staff astronomer for 20 years at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory based at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile. Two of our telescopes were built partially with private funding. While there, Dr. Brian Schmidt and I co-founded the High-Z Supernova Search Team that co-discovered dark energy—and consequently the universe’s acceleration—in 1998, a finding honored as Science magazine’s “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011. 

In 2006, under Texas A&M’s Vision 2020 program and then-President Bob Gates, the Department of Physics decided to begin an astronomy program, and I was hired to bring it to life. We now have nine faculty and teach more than 1,700 students per year. We are members of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) Project, which seeks to build the world’s largest telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Now titled the Department of Physics and Astronomy, we offer both a minor in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in astronomy. 

Astronomy at Texas A&M would never have happened without the philanthropy of Cynthia and George P. Mitchell ’40, the Mitchell Foundation, and the Mitchells’ daughter and son-in-law, Sheridan and Perry Lorenz. Through donations from the Mitchells and matching funds from the university, we are a 5 percent partner in the GMT. Four of our faculty hold endowed chairs funded either exclusively or in part by the Mitchells, who also endowed a lectureship in astronomy and a postdoctoral fellowship. My office is in the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, and part of my research funding comes from the Mitchell endowment to the institute.

Thanks to Mr. Mitchell’s vision, the GMT will be the first of three next-generation, ground-based telescopes to begin science operations. We will be able to peer deeper into the cosmos than anyone else. Who knows what we will find? Just as it was Mr. Mitchell’s dream to see the edge of the universe, it is my dream that Texas A&M astronomers will be among those who first find life elsewhere in the universe. 

I often get compliments on building our world-class astronomy program. But it wasn’t me. We can hire exceptional astronomers because of our membership in the GMT and because of the many Mitchell family endowments supporting astronomical research. And with great faculty, we can attract outstanding graduate students who will bring further prestige to our program.

Private philanthropy has afforded me the freedom to explore some of the universe's deepest secrets. Through the discoveries I help make, I hope I can repay some of the trust given to me by these men and women of vision.