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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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The Triple
Crown

The Triple

Crown

Texas A&M celebrates 30 years of being named a land-, sea- and space-grant institution. Here's how Aggie programs and researchers are fulfilling the mission.

By Jeannie Ralston

In 1862, the U.S. Congress instituted an idea that fundamentally reshaped higher education: It passed the Morrill Act to establish land-grant universities, thereby paving the way for Texas A&M’s beginning.

In the agreement, the U.S. government gave interested states federal land, which could be sold for proceeds to establish universities devoted to agricultural and mechanical education, plus military training. This opened up fields of study that created new technological advancements and made higher education accessible to those who wanted more practical training.

Eventually, the federal government added annual funding for upkeep and maintenance of the land-grant universities and something else—obligations. “Education, research and extension,” stated the directive in the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. The driving idea was that research done at land-grant universities should be shared with the public for the greater good.

In 1971, Texas A&M added to its land-grant designation by being named a sea-grant institution for its work in oceanography; the space-grant designation followed in 1989, recognizing the university’s commitment to space research. Only 16 other universities nationwide have achieved this triple crown of land, sea and space.

“Our service tradition and the land-grant mission permeate the entire institution,” said Mark Barteau, Texas A&M vice president for research. “We can capitalize on the application and translation of our discoveries into practical benefit across the board, whether they fit into land, sea or space. This gives us a chance to see that the work our faculty and students are doing has real-world impact.”

Land Icon
Sea Icon
Space Icon

In honor of three decades of serving the public as a land- , sea- and space-grant institution, here are 12 examples of Texas A&M programs and research that have impacted society and improved lives.

Land

How is Texas A&M fulfilling its land-grant mission?

READ EXAMPLES

Sea

How is Texas A&M fulfilling its sea-grant mission?

READ EXAMPLES

Space

How is Texas A&M fulfilling its space-grant mission?

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By Sea

How is Texas A&M meeting its sea-grant mission?

01

...by finding the best ways to protect our coasts

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02

...by conducting outreach to coastal communities and stakeholders

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03

...by training the stewards of our oceans and inland waterways

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04

...by researching our seafaring past

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By Land

How is Texas A&M meeting its land-grant mission?

01

...by improving health

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02

...by developing new food sources to combat malnutrition

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03

...by engineering more efficient crop management

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04

...by breeding better beef

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By Space

By

Space

How is Texas A&M meeting its space-grant mission?

01

...by helping us fly at superhuman speeds

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02

...by feeding our astronauts

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03

...by exploring Mars (or the closest thing to it)

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04

...by seeing into the depths of the universe

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How is Texas A&M meeting its land-grant sea-grant space-grant mission?

...by improving health

...by developing new food sources to combat malnutrition

...by engineering more efficient crop management

...by breeding better beef

...by finding the best ways to protect our coasts

...by conducting outreach to coastal communities and stakeholders

...by training the stewards of our oceans and inland waterways

...by researching our seafaring past

...by helping us fly at superhuman speeds

...by feeding our astronauts

...by exploring Mars (or the closest thing to it)

...by seeing into the depths of the universe

For more than 100 years, the people of Texas, particularly those in rural areas, have relied on Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county agents for solutions to better their lives. Recently, the extension agency has added a very important mission: helping Texans get healthier.

A new pilot program called Healthy South Texas combines the expertise of the Texas A&M Health Science Center with the reach of the Extension Service to promote preventative health in 27 South Texas counties, where rising obesity rates, emerging infectious diseases and limited access to health care create particular risks.

“We are doing for health what extension agents have done for agriculture for more than a century—essentially creating a new ‘crop’ of extension agents, poised to empower Texans to take control of their own health and wellness,” said Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp ’79 at the launch of the effort in 2015. Since then, more than one million community members, health care professionals, students and local officials have participated in workshops, screenings, consultations and other events. Through diabetes and asthma self-management, medication assistance and direct medical care services, the Healthy South Texas program has saved an estimated $58.8 million in state and individual spending. Look for the initiative to move across the state as more regions receive the benefits of grassroots health care.

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Cotton is one of the largest cash crops in the world, and aside from the fluffy white balls, the plants also produce seeds. Unfortunately, however, cottonseed has historically been unfit for people to eat due to the presence of gossypol, a toxic compound.

But using advances in biotechnology, Texas A&M soil and crop sciences professor Dr. Keerti Rathore and a team of researchers produced a cotton plant with gossypol levels in the seeds low enough for human consumption. Last fall, the plant was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “This means that cottonseed can potentially provide the protein requirements for 590 million people per year,” Rathore said.

“The kernels from the safe seed could be ground into a flour-like powder after oil extraction and used as a protein additive in food preparations or perhaps roasted and seasoned as a nutritious snack,” he added. Not only does his team’s success represent a major stride in combating global malnutrition, but there’s also another bonus: Making use of the cottonseed byproduct will help boost farmers’ incomes.

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Most farmers handle weed control by walking through their fields, looking for weeds. But in large-scale operations, this tremendously inefficient process equates to a massive game of hide and seek.

Dr. Muthu Bagavathiannan, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research weed scientist, is helping imagine a new era of “smart” agriculture. His plan is to give farmers a better-than-bird’s-eye view of fields through unmanned aerial vehicles. “Our goal is to use advanced sensor technology to detect weeds from above the ground and implement precision weed management,” he said.

Using drones and technology such as multispectral cameras, this new process should enable farmers to detect weeds sooner and more efficiently than with the naked eye. Algorithms are being developed to make identification easier, equating to savings in time and money for farmers. It will also allow them to use chemicals in a more directed way to better benefit the environment. “We are generating a database of critical, fundamental information about weed species characteristics,” said Bagavathiannan, “and ultimately, we will develop cost-effective technology.”

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In Texas history, cattle and cowboys alike have a mythic importance. While the cowboy might exist mostly in legend today, the beef business is as important as ever. Cattle and calves are the No. 1 cash agricultural commodity in the state, with a value exceeding $10 billion per year. What’s more, Texas is the No. 1 beef cattle state in the country, while the U.S. is the No. 1 beef cattle producing country in the world.

In recognition of the importance of beef cattle and Texas A&M’s vast expertise in this area, the Department of Animal Science recently established the 44 Farms International Beef Cattle Academy—a flagship program that will certify industry professionals, producers and researchers on the latest information in beef cattle production, quality and safety. All instruction is online and customized to the educational and professional needs of each participant. The first cohort of 13 students—from the U.S., Australia, Romania, the Dominican Republic and more—will complete the academy this August.

“Our goal is to be recognized as the world leader in beef production genetics, management and products,” said Dr. G. Cliff Lamb, department head of animal science. “We believe that beef cattle producers throughout the world will benefit from understanding the latest information associated with the production and preparation of beef. This will have a positive impact on the global supply of beef and help sustain an environmentally-minded, safe, high-quality animal protein for people throughout the world.”

Founded in March 2018, the academy received an important boost last fall when 44 Farms, based in Cameron, Texas, provided a lead gift to be the program’s sole sponsor.

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Hurricanes are a constant threat to the Texas coast. “Every time June rolls around, I get nervous,” said Dr. Samuel Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores (CTBS) at Texas A&M Galveston. “It’s like we’re playing Russian roulette with our future. I get up every day and think, ‘How can I save property and lives? What can I do as a researcher?’”

It turns out that Brody and his staff at the CTBS are doing a lot. They have created an interactive atlas that models flooding levels in communities along the coast and devised an engineering marvel—the Ike Dike—that would protect the greater Houston area from hurricane storm surges.

Most recently, Brody was also the lead technical expert on a report published by The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas called “Eye of the Storm,” which detailed the effects of the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history—Harvey. “It has been an honor to contribute to what is the definitive work on understanding the impacts of Hurricane Harvey and setting forth a state policy roadmap for making Texas more flood resilient in the future,” Brody said. The CTBS, which is looking to raise $5 million to continue its work, has also issued a report on the future of urban flooding and how to combat associated risks.

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At many universities, researchers often write papers, publish them and then move on to the next subject. But as a sea-grant university, Texas A&M doesn’t let the story end there. Just as the land-grant program calls for a system of county agents to bring agricultural advances to the farms, the Texas Sea Grant College Program, housed in the College of Geosciences, brings new developments in fishing, conservation and safety directly to those who can benefit from them.

“We have agents who live and work in coastal communities who act as honest brokers and trusted resources,” said Dr. Pamela Plotkin, director of the program and Texas A&M associate research professor in oceanography. For instance, one long-time agent, Gary Graham, was instrumental in getting fishermen to use turtle excluder devices that helped save the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle in the Gulf.

The Sea Grant Program even saves human lives. After people were dying in dangerous rip currents on the Texas coast despite a plethora of warning signs, program researchers determined that the signs, designed decades ago, were difficult to interpret correctly. New signs are in the works.

But information doesn’t just flow one way. Every four years, the program surveys people in coastal communities to find out what issues they need help solving. From red tides and water quality to aquaculture, the Sea Grant Program takes it all on.

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In 2014, chemical weapons in Syria were big news. The media was filled with reports on efforts to disarm the war-torn country. What didn’t make headlines was that the ship that safely disposed of the chemical weapons was crewed by U.S. mariners and captained by Rick Jordan '80, a graduate of the Texas A&M Maritime Academy at Texas A&M Galveston.

This is just one example of how the academy, one of only six maritime academies in the U.S., serves the public good. The academy trains cadets to operate oceangoing vessels safely and in compliance with pollution control laws. Every year, nearly 300 cadets study seamanship, navigation and marine engineering in addition to participating in summer training cruises to put their skills and knowledge into practice. “We also emphasize the Aggie core values,” said Rear Admiral Michael Rodriguez, superintendent of the academy. “We reinforce the notion that our core values are not just important on campus, but also matter at sea, in the corporate world or in a military organization.”

Rodriguez points out that academy graduates serve on vessels in the U.S. and worldwide that support the military, patrol our shores, and carry consumer goods, fuel and building materials. “Every day, our graduates are making contributions to our industry, our Navy and Coast Guard, and our country,” he said.

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In 1300 B.C., a ship sank in an area called Uluburun in Southern Turkey. For millennia, the ship lay at the bottom of the ocean, its cargo and secrets hidden from the world—until 1984 when the Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology Program (NAP) and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) began an 11-year excavation project.

“It has yielded one of the largest and richest assemblages of Bronze Age trade goods and raw materials ever found,” reported Donny Hamilton, director of the university’s Conservation Research Laboratory. “The finds provide significant insight into the Late Bronze Age maritime and terrestrial trade in the Mediterranean.”

Preserving cultural heritage is one way the NAP, part of the Department of Anthropology, serves the public. In addition to the Uluburun, which is the oldest ship ever recovered, the program has excavated the city of Port Royal, Jamaica, which served as a pirate haven until it sank into Kingston Harbor in a 1692 earthquake. Also recently completed was the conservation of La Belle, the ship captained by the famous French explorer La Salle. Sunk in Matagorda Bay in 1686, the reconstructed ship is now a major exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

The NAP has seven full-time faculty who oversee conservation labs and teach courses in ship design and construction, the history of seafaring, naval treatises and conservation of artifacts.

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How fast is Mach 5? The easy answer is roughly one mile per second. The mind-blowing answer is: fast enough to alter the internal structure of air molecules as an aircraft moves through the atmosphere.

As we set our sights on faster and farther air and space travel, scientists need to know how the viscous flow around an aircraft will impact safety and efficiency. The only way to test hypersonic speeds is through wind tunnels and computer modeling, and the Department of Aerospace Engineering is on the front lines of this research. The National Aerothermochemistry and Hypersonics Laboratory (NAL), based at Texas A&M, has installed a hypervelocity tunnel that generates high temperatures and high pressure to simulate shock waves and other types of disturbances that are encountered at high speeds.

“As vehicles travel through the atmosphere, they create shock waves. And as molecules go through these shock waves, they get excited, dissociate and chemically react,” said Dr. Rodney Bowersox, aerospace engineering department head and director of the NAL. “When things travel fast, they get hot; we’re looking at innovative ways to keep them cool.”

The data accumulated will be used to guide mathematical model development and prediction tools at high temperature conditions. “Once you have those tools, other folks can use them to design airplanes or space crafts,” Bowersox added. Because Texas A&M’s hypersonic tunnel can test speeds up to 15 Mach—basically 11,500 mph—it’s pretty clear that the sky’s the limit.

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Not many people would want to eat 7-year-old food, but if the food was prepared at the Food Technology Facility for Electron Beam and Space Food Research located on the Texas A&M campus, that’s a different story. Food prepared here is sterilized and stabilized by high-pressure, high-temperature technology called thermostabilization.

“The food has to be nutritious, visually appealing and taste as good or better than food consumed on Earth,” said Dr. Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research and principal investigator of the space food processing project on campus. “It needs to be free of organisms that could impair the health and functionality of astronauts, customized for each individual and packaged to meet space travel needs of reduced mass.” The center is meeting this need and exploring other technologies, such as electron beam food processing, to offer NASA and the private space industry options when designing meals for astronauts. Additionally, foods processed by electron beam can also be used for immunocompromised patients in hospitals and in emergency situations.

“We are trying to use electron beam technology to improve foods, make better vaccines, clean the environment, and enhance and sustain the food supply,” explained Pillai. “There is potential for stocking healthy vending machines, supplying food to hospitals, or responding to national emergencies where people need foods that are microbiologically safe and nutritious.”

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When NASA’s Mars 2020 mission lands on the red planet, two places on Earth will have a big stake in its success: College Station and Iceland. Dr. Ryan Ewing, an associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, is conducting research to prepare a rover and a drone for the terrain found on Mars, and Iceland offers the closest match.

Together with a team, he will spend three weeks in Iceland during summers 2019 and 2020 testing artificial intelligence (AI) technology with a rover. “Our rover will use AI to interpret the terrains,” he explained. “AI will be a key technology deployed for space exploration, but its uses for operating a robotic rover and informing science are not well tested.”

The Icelandic terrain offers many similarities to the Martian landscape: an abundance of igneous, basaltic rock and sediment; glaciers and fluvial systems similar to Martian ancient river systems; and wind-blown material similar to the sand dunes and ripples that cover Mars today. The rover and the drone will be outfitted with cameras and sensors that assess the terrain as they move over it.

“Scientifically, we are interested in how basaltic particles, which are rarer on Earth than on Mars, change as they are eroded and move through rivers and wind-blown sand dunes,” said Ewing. “Understanding this system can tell us how the Martian landscapes have evolved and if they could have hosted life.”

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Las Campanas Peak in Chile’s Atacama Desert is high and dry, which are two of the attributes that attracted astronomers when they were deciding where to locate the newest, most advanced tool for looking into space—the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). At 8,500 feet in altitude, Las Campanas Peak is expected to provide spectacular viewing conditions for more than 300 nights a year.

Texas A&M is part of an international consortium of universities that manages the GMT. “The birth of the universe as we know it—the stars, galaxies and the beginning of the formation of the elements on the periodic table—is just beyond the reach of present telescopes on the ground and in space,” said Dr. Nicholas Suntzeff, a distinguished professor and holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Chair in Observational Astronomy in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. “As the first giant telescope to peer into the sky, the GMT will map out the birth of these galaxies and stars.”

Construction began last fall, and once completed, the GMT will be equipped with seven 8.4-meter primary mirror segments, each weighing 20 tons. The GMT will be capable of collecting 70 times more light than the Hubble Space Telescope and will provide images up to 10 times sharper. Philanthropist George P. Mitchell '40 was an early supporter who donated more than $33 million to the project.

The GMT impact could be so profound that it changes much of what we know about human history and our place in the universe. “If there are rocky planets like the Earth with atmospheres that contain signs of life,” Suntzeff said, “we have a good chance of discovering them with this telescope.”

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Contact:

Dunae Reader '15

Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications/Spirit Editor