I was pleased to read the story “50 years of UTD” in the Aug. 19 edition of The Mercury. I am proud to have been a faculty member for three-fourths of the time that UTD has existed and to have watched us grow in so many ways. Still, there are some important details that should be added. We know that the TI founders — Green, Jonsson, and McDermott — founded a little research institution on the prairie of far north Richardson which became UTD in 1969. Left unsaid in the article was what research was carried on at the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. Here are some details.
The first facility of the GRCSW was called the Laboratory of Earth and Planetary Science (housed in what is now the Founders Building). It consisted of three research groups: Geosciences, Molecular Biology and Space Sciences. The Founders wanted GRSCW to be a center for studying the Earth, life on it and space around us. UTD was founded the same year as we landed on the moon and UTD Geoscientists and Space Scientists were deeply involved in this research. For this reason, it makes sense that we took “Comet” as our mascot; the only sensible alternative would be “Lunatics.” The three original GRSCW research programs became the Geosciences, Biology and Physics departments that formed the nucleus of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. NSM thus provided the sturdy rootstock on which UTD was successfully grafted.
A few more historical details: UTD’s first degree? That was in 1972 (not 1973 as on the timeline), a PhD in Geosciences awarded to a Hispanic student, Jose Longoria, now a Professor at Florida International University. The first woman to get a doctorate at UTD, Maureen Steiner in 1974? She was a Geoscience student, now a retired University of Wyoming professor. The astronaut from UTD? That is Dr. Jim Reilly, who got his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and doctorate in Geosciences at UTD and who is now Director of the United States Geologic Survey. The Nobel Laureate who got his doctorate at UTD? That is Dr. Aziz Sancar, a student of Molecular and Cell Biology. UTD launches to Mars? That was a mass spectrometer, designed by physics professor John Hoffman, who also built instruments that NASA used to explore the atmospheres of the moon,Venus and Halley’s Comet.
Like a tree, UTD has grown up and away from its early roots in Geoscience, Molecular Biology and Physics.But the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics is the rock that we were built on;it’s in our DNA and in our stars.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute to celebrating UTD’s 50th anniversary. I wonder what the next 50 years will bring?
Robert Stern is a professor of geosciences here at UTD.