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Campus Guide '17: What makes Tucson a great science city?

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Ian Green | The Daily Wildcat

Steward Observatory, located on the UA campus by the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. Tucson is home to many scientific organizations and companies, ranging from defense contractor Raytheon to UA’s very own Tech Park.

As UA has grown, Tucson’s reputation as a “science city” has grown too, with major discoveries and innovations occurring regularly. Some of the area’s science-landscape highlights include the UA Tech park, which works with inventors and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to market, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, considered one of the best in the world and the Raytheon Company, one of the top employers in the city and a significant defense contractor.

However, the placement of these institutions here begs a fundamental question: Why Tucson? What is it about the region that makes it a place conducive to research and innovation, whether it be in technology, geology, medicine or astronomy?

Part of the answer has to do with Tucson’s desert,  surrounding the city with an arid environment. In addition, the city has “inviting skies which are wide open, and ... fascinating plant and animal life,” according to Anthony Muscat, department chair of Chemical and Environmental Engineering.

“Whoever thought that the Colorado River Toad could live in the desert and come out to eat and breed only when it rains in the summer?” Muscat asked. Local flora and fauna like the unusual amphibian have spawned a wide range of environmental studies within the area.

Other aspects contributing to Tucson’s reputation for science and innovation are its clear skies and high mountains, which allow researchers to observe the stars and learn more about our solar system. Steward Observatory, within the Department of Astronomy at the UA, is one location taking advantage of these environmental attributes, allowing researchers to m aintain telescopes at five different mountaintops.

“The science and research we do evolved in part because of the unique location we are. For astronomy, we have very tall mountains that have low humidity and are great places for telescopes,” said Bruce Wright, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona. “We are in an arid region of the world, so we have become very skillful at developing arid land agriculture and technology and water technology.”

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However, while the environment plays an important role, much of Tucson’s strength as a city of science and innovation also comes from the people living here and the culture they create.

“I find that Tucson is science-friendly. Just look at how many people come to the lecture series sponsored by the College of Science at the University of Arizona, or go out on the mall to view an astronomical event through a telescope or take part in a maker event or go and visit the Desert Museum,” Muscat said.

Researchers in the area also contribute to the science-friendly culture, using the area as a base for explorations into numerous topics of study and making the effort to properly educate the public. Some sciences are more influenced by this culture than others.

“For engineering, I don’t really think it is the geography. It is more the long history of outstanding faculty and students and staff that drive our success,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, dean of the College of Engineering. “It is all about the people that are creative, hardworking, and fun to be around.”

There are several other aspects of Tucson that create a science-friendly atmosphere, such as military bases and the tech companies who choose Tucson as home for their research and development. Besides Raytheon, companies such as Paragon, Universal Avionics and Accelerate Diagnostics all work in the Tucson area and offer opportunities for UA students, as will be demonstrated at the annual Design Day showcase in early 2018. These companies lure business and technology to Tucson and contribute to its reputation.

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All of this seems to converge at the UA, which several people believe to be partially responsible for the popularity and prevalence of science in Tucson.

“The single best answer to your question about what makes Tucson so science-friendly is the presence of the University of Arizona. From its beginnings, it was particularly strong in the fields of anthropology/archaeology, astronomy, and mining geology and engineering,” said Jonathan Mabry, City of Tucson Historic Preservation Officer.

Since its establishment in 1885 as Arizona’s first university, the UA has crushed boundaries and made astronomical advances in a range of scientific fields.

“The University has really been the spark or the catalyst for our growth as a technology community,” Wright said, citing the College of Optical Sciences as an example of this growth. The college’s development and research spawned an industry around optics, with Tucson at the center.

Current STEM-minded individuals calling Tucson home hope that students will continue exploring and studying science both within the area and beyond. There is a shortage of scientists in the United States, and several fields are waiting for new blood to fill the ranks.

Muscat gives presentations on science and engineering to students in K-12 in hopes of inspiring a student to pursue a career in STEM. “The goal is the same: to get a girl or boy to think that they could become a scientist or engineer because it is a lot of fun,” Muscat said.

Tech Parks Arizona also hopes to encourage middle school students to learn more about science. Racing the Sun, a solar go-cart competition where students build and race their own go-carts, is one event that engages middle schoolers and teaches them skills applicable to STEM fields.

By beginning at the UA, professors and researchers alike agree that undergraduates are taking an excellent first step on their journey to a career in the sciences.

“There are great careers for students in these STEM areas. The University of Arizona is a top rate school, and there are a number of programs that can help students not only get their degree but move into industry and professional ranks,” Wright said.

In short, becoming a “science city” isn’t easy, but Tucson has managed to do so through a combination of unique environmental conditions, dedicated researchers, a science-friendly population and the presence of the UA. Luckily for students, this means that they will have a great many opportunities to make a mark in the city’s long-standing history of science and innovation.


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