Suntzeff Lives United Nations Dream as Jefferson Science Fellow
COLLEGE STATION -- Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff has had his fair share of star moments, professional and otherwise. For starters, he played a key role in discovering three-quarters of the Universe, a mysterious substance known as dark energy that appears to be causing the Universe's accelerated expansion -- a breakthrough recognized with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. And he once helped save Alan Alda's life by connecting the former M*A*S*H television series star with emergency medical treatment when the actor was in Chile filming a program on the discovery of dark energy.
In 2010, Suntzeff took his service to the public to a global level, taking a brief break from academics to perform a yearlong stint as the United States representative to the United Nations' Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and Texas A&M's first faculty member selected to the prestigious Jefferson Science Fellowship Program.
Suntzeff, director of the Texas A&M Astronomy Program since 2006, was one of 12 individuals nationwide chosen to serve in the coveted U.S. State Department program, which was created in 2003 by the U.S. National Academies as a way for the government to tap into the latest expertise in the rapidly evolving fields of science, technology and engineering as they related to international diplomacy.
"When I was in high school, I had this idealistic dream of working for the United Nations," said Suntzeff, pointing to the world body's blue flag draped from the corner of his high-ceilinged office. "Although the U.N. can be dysfunctional and bureaucratic, it's just thrilling to be in the General Assembly and seeing one person per country having an equal voice. It really gives you hope for the future of humanity."
Fellows spend a year at either the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development and then return to their academic careers but remain available as consultants and for short-term projects to the government for the next five years. It's a way for the government to better integrate science into the decision-making process on foreign policy.
"I saw how Foreign Service Officers approached solving problems in the world, and it's very different than the way scientists do it," Suntzeff said. "I think there's a good friction between the way a scientist thinks and the way a diplomat thinks. And I think that friction will lead to a better foreign policy."
Suntzeff served as the Humanitarian Affairs Officer in the State Department Office of Human Rights. A part of his work included reviewing the scientific statements contained in U.N. resolutions. Though the science in the resolutions was generally not controversial, Suntzeff said it sometimes was inaccurate. In one case, a resolution was introduced following a devastating hurricane in the Caribbean to request increased international support for disaster response. Buried in the resolution was a statement about an increasing number of hurricanes in the Caribbean during the last 150 years. But Suntzeff, who has done climate work in addition to astronomy, found that the data was the result not of more hurricane activity, but better counting methods. So the U.S. ended up supporting the resolution, but with the caveat that it disagreed with the conclusion that hurricanes were more frequent.
"So I got to change the intent of the U.S. support of a U.N. resolution," said Suntzeff, who was based in Washington, D.C., from October 2010 to August 2011 as part of the fellowship. "That was kind of cool."
Suntzeff is hailed by colleagues as a gifted science communicator, and a large part of his duty during his fellowship year was better integrating science with foreign policy. He says scientists generally do a poor job of communicating their profession's value to the public and, given that childlike curiosity fades as humans age, scientists have a vested interest in helping their potential audiences recapture that sense of wonder.
"Scientists have to go back and realize that innately, we're all curious animals," he explained. "We shouldn't just use jargon and all these fancy words that we use in astronomy. It's just these cool ideas we should focus on. Like how we can see to the edge of the Universe, or what happens when you fall into a black hole and can't get out. They're childlike cool things that you just want to figure out."
Suntzeff's respect for community service began long before he became a scientist. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his parents were social workers and helped severely abused children.
Suntzeff earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Stanford University in 1974 and studied astrophysics and astronomy at Lick Observatory at the University of California at Santa Cruz, receiving his doctorate in 1980. He spent 20 years at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, before coming to Texas A&M in 2006 to lead the university's efforts to build a world-renowned program in astronomy and cosmology. At Texas A&M, he is the inaugural holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Endowed Chair in Observational Astronomy within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.
To learn more about Suntzeff and his experience as Texas A&M's first Jefferson Science Fellow, visit http://faculty.physics.tamu.edu/nsuntzeff/.
For more information on Texas A&M Astronomy, go to http://astronomy.tamu.edu/.
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About 12 Impacts for 2012: 12 Impacts for 2012 is an ongoing series throughout 2012 highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional examples, visit http://12thman.tamu.edu/.
Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, (979) 229-9597 or email@example.com