Artist's rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope reflecting the Chilean sunset. The $1 billion ground-based wonder currently under construction at Las Campanas Observatory is one of several international research collaborations involving Texas A&M University astronomers and graduate students. (Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope - GMTO Corporation.)


Roughly a decade after launching a new astronomy program and hiring one of the co-discoverers of dark energy to lead it, Texas A&M University is set to come full-academic circle this fall, offering its first master's and doctoral degrees in astronomy.

Texas A&M's new astronomy graduate program within the Department of Physics and Astronomy received approval this spring from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy Nicholas B. Suntzeff describes the move as "the last big piece" in the creation of a world-class astronomy program that already plays a key role in many of the globe's biggest research collaborations and experiments.

"We are now the second public university in Texas to have a Ph.D. program in astronomy," Suntzeff said. "The THECB did not debate the program; they adopted it without discussion and gave it a unanimous vote. Two of the THECB members looked at me and smiled, obviously pleased with the outcome."

See Suntzeff's email announcement to the astrophysics faculty in its entirety.

Texas A&M astronomer Lucas Macri authored Texas A&M's Ph.D. program application and spent copious time and energy promoting it both to university administration and ultimately to the THECB, which described it in a single quote-worthy word: "stunning." He says the new degrees ensure the complete package needed to successfully recruit potential graduate students previously impressed by Texas A&M's strong international research reputation but leery of banking on what amounted to a cautiously optimistic and logical progression that no one could guarantee would happen.

"Because we now are able to offer a Ph.D. in astronomy, we will attract a wider range of high quality students to our university, including students with undergraduate degrees in engineering and astronomy," Macri said.

For Texas A&M, the THECB vote is merely the latest milestone in a veritable scientific renaissance that began in 2002 with 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate George P. Mitchell's $1 million gift to establish the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy. Fourteen years, more than $88 million and two new buildings later, Texas A&M boasts a well-respected astronomy program built on strong research, innovative teaching and state-of-the-art instrumentation construction that was recognized last year with Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) membership selection.

Texas A&M officially arrived on the international astrophysics scene in 2004, becoming a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope with a $1.25 million lead gift from George and Cynthia Mitchell through the Texas A&M Foundation and matching from The University of Texas at Austin that brought both of the state's flagship universities into the groundbreaking project. In the 12 years since, the program has made steady progress toward its goal of establishing Texas A&M as a top institution in national and international astronomy circles, as well as in the classroom.

In the latter regard, Suntzeff recalls that when he arrived at Texas A&M as director of astronomy in 2006, the university was the only one among the nation's top 64 institutions that did not offer an introductory astronomy course. Moreover, the limited astronomy that was taught was mixed in with the physics curriculum and taught by physicists, not astronomers.

That changed in fall 2008, along with the department's formerly singular name (Department of Physics) in fall 2009 with THECB approval to add the disciplinary distinction "and Astronomy." In December 2009, the Mitchell Institute and George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Buildings came online to complement the recently renovated Charles R. '62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building dedicated in September 2008. After adding additional undergraduate astronomy courses during the 2009-10 academic year, the department most recently began offering an undergraduate minor in astronomy in fall 2014.

If the program's past is any indication, fall certainly represents a time of new beginnings for Texas A&M Astronomy. In this one's case, Suntzeff says there are many who share in the due credit, including university, college and departmental administrators; donors, industry friends and collaborators; and faculty from both the department and across the campus. However, he reserves his most effusive praise for his departmental colleagues, from the Astronomy Committee members that fueled the visionary ambition long before the program achieved official recognition, to his fellow professors willing to dedicate new faculty lines to astronomer hires and to embrace growth in spite of the chaos that often accompanies such change, particularly during trying budget times.

"I won't name names at the risk of leaving someone out, but the list is long and appreciated to a person," Suntzeff said. "Astronomy had many early advocates on this campus and across the globe who worked to accomplish what for so long seemed destined to remain an external review recommendation. I thank them for their help in realizing this dream for the benefit of our university, state and global professions.

"The astronomy program almost certainly would not be here without the strong and continuing support of The University of Texas at Austin and McDonald Observatory. George Mitchell kick-started the collaboration with his GMT gift, and I consider it our shared honor to continue to work together to achieve his vision."

In addition to their coursework, Suntzeff says potential graduate students can expect to work side-by-side with nine current Texas A&M astronomers and various research staff involved in some of the world's most prominent research collaborations, including the GMT, the AURA-managed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Dark Energy Survey (DES) and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), as well as astronomy at the Antarctic Plateau. Beyond building and designing astronomical instrumentation for these projects, students will have opportunities to work on a variety of international surveys delving into topics such as galaxy formation and evolution, cosmic distance scales, near-field cosmology and dark matter theory.

Graduate and undergraduate students alike also have the benefit of the Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy Teaching Observatory, ranked No. 3 in a 2014 survey of the nation's 25 Best College Astronomy Observatories, according to Michigan-based CollegeRank.net. The facility is managed by Don Carona, who designed the observatory and pitched the idea to the department's Astronomy Committee in 2002 and later oversaw its construction in 2003.

"Not only is the facility used as a student observatory for undergraduate classes, but graduate students also use the telescope as an optical platform to debug instrumentation with Don's help," Suntzeff said.

Macri sees the THECB's vote as an endorsement of not only Texas A&M's progress but also that of astronomy as a whole throughout Texas beyond the collaborative relationship enjoyed by its two flagships. Last fall, astronomers from across the state came to Texas A&M for the three-day Building Astronomy in Texas workshop focused on the growth of astronomy and related scientific collaborations throughout the Lone Star State. Representatives from 18 Texas institutions were in attendance, prompting a declaration of the "halcyon days of astronomy" from Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger in his recap article.

"It's great to see astronomy growing at so many campuses across the state, from Texas Christian University to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Texas A&M University-Commerce to Texas Tech University," Macri said. "The benefits of all these institutions working together to expand the frontiers of astronomy are far greater than any one program."

For more information about graduate degrees in astronomy at Texas A&M, visit http://physics.tamu.edu/students/prospective/grad/index.shtml.

To learn more about Texas A&M astronomy, go to http://astronomy.tamu.edu.

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About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world's leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represented annual expenditures of more than $866.6 million in fiscal year 2015. Texas A&M ranked in the top 20 of the National Science Foundation's Higher Education Research and Development survey (2014), based on expenditures of more than $854 million in fiscal year 2014. Texas A&M's research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit http://research.tamu.edu.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, (979) 229-9597 or nsuntzeff@tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Texas A&M astronomers are pushing the universal envelope in a variety of topical theoretical and experimental areas, exposing both graduate and undergraduate students to cutting-edge research projects and invaluable training opportunities in a wide range of observational techniques and technologies as well as instrumentation. (Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration)

  • The George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and George P. Mitchell '40 Physics Buildings, home to Texas A&M Physics and Astronomy since their official dedication in December 2009. (Credit: Richard Payne.)

  • In addition to a world-class astronomy program, Texas A&M University is home to one of the top three college astronomy observatories in the nation, according to the website CollegeRank.net.

  • In February 2009, the 81st Legislature of the State of Texas honored the state's two flagship universities with a joint resolution recognizing their cutting-edge research and outreach efforts in astronomy in celebration of 2009 as the official International Year of Astronomy. (Courtesy H. Joseph Newton.)

  • Nicholas B. Suntzeff

  • Lucas Macri

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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