School of Natural Sciences and Math Celebrates
its Roots in Research Center a Half Century Ago
Oct. 22, 2012
In 1962, a group of distinguished scientists arrived in North Dallas to undertake an ambitious experiment – to build a “Community of Scholars” in the Southwest to conduct fundamental research and provide graduate-level education in science and mathematics.
Their endeavors formed the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, a precursor to the University of Texas at Dallas. The first research divisions were atmospheric and space sciences, geosciences, and mathematics and mathematical physics. These soon were followed by a division devoted to molecular science and genetics. Together these programs formed the core that would become the university’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
During the next several months, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics will celebrate its Founders’ 50th anniversary in tribute to the dedicated individuals who laid its foundation. Several departments in the school will host public talks and other events for alumni and the campus community.
“The early 1960s were an incredible time to be a scientist,” said Dr. Bruce Novak, dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “The U.S. space program was booming, the structural intricacies of DNA had only recently been elucidated, and industry was eager for professionals with technological competence. The people who came here were dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Through both research and teaching, they created a hub of scientific leadership in the region and provided the catalyst for the tradition of learning that UT Dallas embodies today.”
The Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (GRCSW) and its research arm, the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS), received its charter from the state of Texas in 1961, spurred into creation by Erik Jonsson, Cecil Green and Eugene McDermott, the founders of Texas Instruments. Lloyd Berkner served as the center’s first president. The institution became the University of Texas at Dallas in 1969.
Research operations in SCAS began when Francis Johnson and the first of his colleagues arrived in April 1962 to establish the first research division – the Division of Atmospheric and Space Sciences. The center initially was housed at Southern Methodist University, until October 1964, when faculty and personnel moved into the only building on the new “campus” – Founders Building.
Dr. Wolfgang Rindler, professor in the mathematics and mathematical physics division, takes the roll for the first class taught by a SCAS faculty member on the TAGER television network on Sept. 5, 1967.
Dr. Rindler remains an active faculty member of the UT Dallas cosmology, relativity and astrophysics group.
“When I first came to Dallas, the future campus was farmland, with farms along Campbell Road,” said Dr. Brian Tinsley, a professor of physics who arrived at SCAS in 1963 from Christchurch, New Zealand, as a postdoctoral researcher studying the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
“There have been tremendous changes in technology since I started research, but the intellectual climate at UT Dallas has not changed – it has always been stimulating,” said Tinsley, who continues to investigate the relationship between solar activity and mechanisms of climate change at UT Dallas’s William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences.
The Division of Geosciences launched in September 1962 with the arrival of program head Anton Hales. In March 1963, Ivor Robinson joined the center as head of the Division of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics. The original three divisions of SCAS were organized under the Laboratory of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Another major research program, the Molecular Sciences Laboratory, got off to a rapid start in 1964 with the formation of the Division of Genetics, under the direction of Carsten Bresch from Cologne, Germany. That division added 14 new faculty members in its first year.
Robinson, a British mathematician with expertise in relativity theory and now a UT Dallas professor emeritus of mathematical sciences, recalled that his faculty recruitment efforts were successful despite the remoteness of the region.
“I recruited rather good faculty by looking to see what prospective members were interested in themselves,” Robinson said. “For example, I recruited relativity researchers of considerable promise by looking for them abroad. In America, promising young physicists largely regarded American civilization as consisting of two coastal regions with a rather large desert area in between.”
Assistant professors Dr. Frank Allum and Dr. Ricardo Palmeira display a cosmic ray experiment they designed that was carried on Explorer 41. That spacecraft provided real-time data on radiation hazards to Apollo 11 astronauts during their historic mission to the moon.
Dr. James Carter, professor emeritus of geosciences, joined SCAS in 1964 as a postdoctoral researcher. With expertise in geology, he traveled to New Mexico to help train Apollo astronauts in what to look for once they landed on the moon.
“No one had a firm idea what the astronauts would find on the moon, so we gave them a broad field research experience over a couple of days,” Carter recalled. “They were remarkable people.” When the lunar samples came back, Carter was among the scientists who analyzed them and characterized their properties.
Research related to space and atmospheric sciences comprised a large part of the center’s work in the early days, work that continues at UT Dallas. Dr. John Hoffman, professor of physics, has been building scientific instruments for satellites, planetary missions, and other space probes since he joined SCAS in 1966. His instruments have accompanied three Apollo missions to the moon, the Pioneer mission to Venus and the landmark Phoenix mission to Mars in 2008, providing key data to prove the existence of water on the Red Planet.
“When I moved here from Washington, D.C., I thought I’d give it five years,” Hoffman said. “That was 45 years ago! There was an atmosphere of congeniality, and we had a very good engineering group that was able to take my concepts and put them into a hardware package.”
Although the center initially granted no degrees, education was an integral component of its mission. SCAS faculty provided graduate and postdoctoral education, advanced training for industrial professionals, and research opportunities for undergraduates and high school students from across the country.
Today, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics offers more than 40 undergraduate and graduate programs in the departments of molecular and cell biology, chemistry, geosciences, mathematics, physics, and math and science education. Three Nobel laureates have been members of the faculty, and research areas are far-ranging, from cell biology and the geophysics of earth’s crust, to deep-space mysteries and nanotechnology.
“True to our roots, we continue to grow as a community of scholars who are passionate about research, about pushing the envelope of science and technology,” said Novak, who holds the Distinguished Chair in Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “Our faculty has always been committed to teaching the next generation of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and teachers. As UT Dallas has grown to embrace engineering, arts and humanities, business, and a host of other educational opportunities, the campus has preserved that same commitment our founding core of scientists had to the pursuit of knowledge, service and education.”
Ivor Robinson, UT Dallas professor emeritus of mathematical sciences, was the first head of the Division of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at SCAS.
Dr. Brian Tinsley, a professor of physics at UT Dallas who arrived at SCAS in 1963 from Christchurch, New Zealand, studies atmospheric dynamics.
Dr. John Hoffman, professor of physics at UT Dallas, has been building scientific instruments for satellites, planetary missions and other space probes since he joined SCAS in 1966.
An electron micrograph taken by the SCAS Biology Division in 1964 shows DNA from a bacterial virus.