More than 500 of Texas A&M’s top donors ducked to avoid fast-moving volleyballs, served as assistants for an A&M chemist and waved from self-driving cars Thursday morning as part of the Texas A&M Foundation’s Exploration Day.
Held in the Hall of Champions on the west side of Kyle Field, the interactive event featured four stations at which some of the university’s financial supporters could observe — and in some cases experience — research happening at Texas A&M.
Donors applauded and wiped away tears as they heard the story of Werner, a dog who overcame a cancerous tumor with help from an interdisciplinary team of doctors at A&M’s Small Animal Hospital in the College of Veterinary Medicine. At the end of the presentation, Werner — whose doctors surgically removed the tumor and replaced a section of Werner’s skull with human-made bone created on a 3-D printer — came onto the stage wearing a 12th Man jersey.
Attendees witnessed a portion of the Chemistry Road Show, a program from the Texas A&M College of Science that takes science to children and teachers throughout Texas. They also listened as mechanical engineering professor Srikanth Saripalli detailed A&M’s work with autonomous vehicles, and heard from Aggie coaches and support staff on how they work to support their athletes through the field of sport science.
“We envisioned this event as a way to provide our most generous friends with a truly engaging and impactful campus experience,” Tyson Voelkel, president of the foundation, said in a statement.
A&M neurology resident Maya Krasnow delivered the presentation outlining the school’s work assisting Werner and removing his tumor. In her remarks, she described working with Werner as the highlight of her career to this point.
“After looking at the scan [of his skull], we determined that surgery was Werner’s only chance,” Krasnow said. “And for us, saying that there was no hope to [Werner’s owner] Andrea just wasn’t an option, regardless of how many times the tumor had been deemed inoperable.”
Krasnow said that work that happens in veterinary schools can have far-reaching impacts, not just for “our four-legged friends, but for humans as well.”
Among the hundreds of A&M donors in attendance was Karen McNeely, a member of the class of 1974. In attendance along with her husband, Kyle, McNeely said the annual event was a highlight of her year.
“I think it’s eye-opening,” she said of the event. “We’ve learned that it’s always a quality experience. It’s well organized, and they extend radical hospitality.”
A highlight for McNeely, she said, was the chemistry demonstration.
“I am delighted to learn about the Chemistry Road Show. We’re opening the eyes of children to the possibilities of STEM, and two, we’re getting the word out to the entire state about the quality and opportunity that happens at Texas A&M,” Karen McNeely said.
James Pennington, a chemistry professor who took over the road show about a decade ago, called on donors to volunteer and assist him in a variety of experiments. Attendees craned their necks and stood up to get a better view of the test tubes and beakers at the front of the room during his presentation.
“This is usually a presentation for kids, so I’m gonna ask you all a favor: Bring out your inner 12-year-old and come along for the ride,” Pennington said, to laughs from the attendees. “I hope to provide some information for you, but honestly, I’m really not expecting people to remember what I say. hope that what people remember when they see the Chemistry Road Show is the experience, and to take away a deeper appreciation for science and the joy of science.”
Next to two A&M self-driving vehicles, engineering professor Srikanth Saripalli got attendees laughing when he asked, “How many of you do not want to get into a self-driving car?” and dozens of hands went up.
Saripalli said research showed older people were less likely to trust autonomous vehicles. By the end of Saripalli’s presentation, a line had formed to ride in the self-driving cars on hand.
“Why self-driving cars? That’s the question I get asked most. One is safety,” Saripalli said. More than 90 percent of U.S. car-related fatalities were chalked up to driver error, he said. He also noted that most drives people make are within a five-mile radius of their home, and that those drives being automated could provide a health benefit for society.
“The life-saving estimates for driverless cars are on par with the efficacy of modern vaccines, which save 42,000 lives for each U.S. birth cohort,” Saripalli said.
Richard G. “Dick” Ghiselin, a donor and member of the A&M class of 1960, said he was impressed by the technology and research displayed throughout the event.
“This is characteristic of Texas A&M,” Ghiselin said. “They do things in a big way, and they also do things in a good way. The cutting-edge technology being applied at A&M is keeping up with everybody, if not leading everybody.”
A&M President Michael K. Young gave a keynote address following the presentations. In a statement, he expressed gratitude to the Texas A&M Foundation for their work planning the event and to the donors who attended.