MAKING A GLOBAL IMPACT IN
O-WEEK 2018 The 2018-19 school year kicked off in August, as hundreds of freshman engineers crowded into Martel Hall for a welcome from Dean Reggie DesRoches. He congratulated them on their acceptance to Rice, after which they attended a series of panels introducing them to our curriculum offerings and what it means to be Rice engineer. This year, we welcomed 302 freshmen. Of those, 205 are men and 97 are women, and 31 percent of the class is either African-American or Latino.
MESSAGE FROM THE DEAN This summer I had the chance to visit Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and Chikwawa District Hospital in Malawi to see, firsthand, the tremendous impact our faculty and students are making with Rice 360°. The low-cost medical technologies being developed are saving newborn lives in Africa every day. It was just another reminder why I’m so proud to serve the George R. Brown School of Engineering. Our students, faculty and staff never seem to lose focus that, when faced with the world’s complex challenges, our mission is to improve quality of life, security and sustainability here and around the world. Guided by Edgar Odell Lovett’s vision of “no upper limit,” the School of Engineering has earned a place among the top schools in the country by creating an environment in which our Rice community can collaborate and thrive. Nowhere is that collaboration more present than in the field of health and medicine; it’s truly one of the areas across our nine departments, in collaboration with the institutions of the Texas Medical Center, in which we continue to make profound impacts. In this issue, you’ll read about the Rice University-led team that hopes to create wearable and point-of-care microscopes to aid in the diagnosis and monitoring of nearly 100 health conditions, a student design team that won a competition in Sweden with their innovative indoor greenhouse and an alumna who has become a world leader in stem cell therapy. We’re also proud to announce the Neuroengineering Initiative at Rice, a movement of the world’s leading thinkers, challenged to advance our understanding of the brain. This important effort will require unprecedented multidisciplinary, multi-institutional collaboration, applying electrical engineering, bioengineering, medical and statistical approaches and more. We are also pleased to introduce two new associate deans to help fulfill our mission of elevating the Brown School of Engineering to be one of the pre-eminent engineering programs in the nation. Gang Bao, the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering, adjunct professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering, and CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research at Rice University, has been named associate dean for research and innovation. Renata Ramos, associate teaching professor in bioengineering, will serve as associate dean of academic affairs. Yvette Pearson, who previously served as associate dean for assessment and accreditation, has expended her role to include strategic initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion. In addition, Tracy Volz, former director and professor in the practice for the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, has been named director of the Engineering Communications Program. I’m thrilled to be working with Gang, Renata, Yvette and Tracy in these important roles. Thank you for everything you do to support engineering at Rice! Reggie Reginald DesRoches William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering
Rice Engineering Magazine is a production of the George R. Brown School of Engineering Office of Communications at Rice University. Dean Reginald DesRoches Associate Deans Gang Bao Yvette E. Pearson Renata Ramos Bart Sinclair Editor Carl Apple Writers Patrick Kurp Holly Beretto Graphic Design Donald Soward Contributors Jade Boyd Mike Williams Photography Jeff Fitlow Tommy Lavergne Brandon Martin Amanda Prestia Donald Soward Hospital photos: Piron Guillaume, Brussels Photos of Michelle Williams: Doug Kapustin
Send comments or letters to the editor: Rice Engineering Magazine Rice University MS 364 P.O. Box 1892 Houston, Texas 77251 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
CONTENT 4 6 10 12
Message from the Dean News New Faculty State of the School
HEALTH AND MEDICINE
16 18 20 22 23 24 25 26 30
Wearable hospital lab: NSF awards $10 million for bioimaging
Taking another look at evolution
34 35 36 37 38 41 44 45 46
First of its kind lab works to solve big data challenges
Tracking the germs left behind by Hurricane Harvey A mechanical engineer’s take on cancer Allying with viruses to help damaged hearts Helping make viruses the good guys Hunting epilepsy with math Finding soft materials for hard cases Neuroengineering Initiative at Rice Rice aims to transform healthcare with synthetic and physical biology
Building a nanoscale platform to control protein levels
New master’s degree in industrial engineering RCEL 2.0 pushes specialization, better access Vaxthus wins in Sweden Alumni Profile: Connecting physicians and patients Engineering alumni honored for ‘significant contributions’ Statistics alumna gets a star turn New REA president promotes continued collaboration REA gives more than $150,000 in scholarships at annual picnic
ALVAREZ ELECTED TO NAE
Engineering Professor Pedro Alvarez has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), one of the highest honors that can be conferred upon a U.S. scientist or engineer. The NAE cited Alvarez for his “contributions to the practice and pedagogy of bioremediation and environmental nanotechnology.” He is among the 83 new members, which brings the total U.S. membership to 2,293 and the number of foreign members to 262. He brings to eight the number of current faculty members at Rice elected to the NAE. Alvarez is the George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the National Science Foundation’s Energy Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment. He joined the Rice faculty in 2004. A native of Nicaragua, Alvarez received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 1992 from the University of Michigan. From 1993 to 2003 he was at the University of Iowa, where he served as associate director of the Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing. At Rice he served as department chair from 2005 to 2015. As a doctoral student, Alvarez started his research into bioremediation, a process that uses bacteria and other microorganisms to remove contaminants from water. He has authored two textbooks on bioremediation in soil and water. BP has used his research to develop hydrogeology models for evaluating the potential impact of biofuels on groundwater. Since joining Rice, Alvarez has pioneered research on environmental nanotechnology, including the risks posed to microbial ecosystem services by released nanomaterials and nano-enabled disinfection and microbial control. Alvarez is a fellow and former president of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors and an associate editor of the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology. According to Google Scholar, Alvarez’s publications have been cited more than 28,000 times. His h-index, a metric that measures a scientist’s productivity and citation impact, is 76, which means he has published 76 papers that have been cited at least 76 times by other research papers. He serves as honorary professor at Nankai University in Tianjin and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and as adjunct professor at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil. He serves on the advisory board for the engineering directorate of the National Science Foundation.
RICHARDS-KORTUM NAMED U.S. SCIENCE ENVOY The State Department has selected Rice University bioengineer and global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum to serve as a U.S. science envoy. She is one of five science envoys named this year and one of only 23 scientists ever selected for this prestigious position. Launched in 2009, the Science Envoy Program selects distinguished American scientists to promote the United States’ commitment to science, technology and innovation as tools of diplomacy and economic growth. Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and director of the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. As a science envoy for health security, she will focus on expanding access to American engineering research and curriculum to build engineering capacity and opportunities for U.S. collaboration in Africa. Richards-Kortum’s laboratory specializes in translating research in nanotechnology, molecular imaging and microfabrication to develop optical systems that are inexpensive, portable and capable of providing point-of-care diagnoses for diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. She also is leading an international team of physicians, engineers and business and entrepreneurial experts on a project known as NEST 360° (Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies) that is developing and implementing an integrated package of life-saving neonatal technologies aimed at preventing 75 percent of newborn deaths in Africa. NEST 360°’s relatively simple technologies, designed specifically for African hospitals, keep babies warm, help them breathe and aid doctors in diagnosing and treating infections and other conditions. Last year, NEST 360° won $15 million from the MacArthur Foundation (see sidebar). Richards-Kortum joined the Rice faculty in 2005. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Optical Society of America and the National Academy of Inventors. In 2016, she became the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win a coveted “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Richards-Kortum has a B.S. from the University of Nebraska and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from MIT. Dr. Peter Hotez, a fellow in disease and poverty at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, was named a U.S. science envoy in 2015.
Rebecca Richards -Kortum
NEST360° WINS $15 MILLION IN 100&CHANGE FINALS An international team of engineers, doctors and global health experts won $15 million for its work on NEST360° in the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100&Change competition, and will continue to raise money for its visionary effort to end preventable newborn deaths in Africa. NEST360° is a collaboration of Rice University, the University of Malawi, Northwestern University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and 3rd Stone Design of San Rafael, Calif. “Our whole team is committed to continuing our work to scale NEST (Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies) across Africa in order to save 500,000 newborn lives every year,” said Rebecca RichardsKortum, a Rice bioengineering professor who represented the team together with three others last Dec. 11 in NEST360°’s final presentation at the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition in Chicago. Four finalists from a field of more than 1,900 applicants vied for the $100-million grant. “We’re doubly grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, both for its $15 million commitment and its confidence in making us a 100&Change finalist,” said Richards-Kortum, director of the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. “The 18 months our team spent preparing for this competition clearly showed there has never been a better time to address neonatal mortality in Africa. The political resolve, both internationally and among African nations, has never been stronger.” More than one million African newborns die each year, and most could be saved with simple technologies that keep babies warm, help them breathe and help doctors diagnose and manage infections. NEST360° is a rugged package of 17 Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies created for African hospitals, as well as the distribution network to affordably deliver and repair them continent wide. Twelve of the 17 NEST technologies have already been created or are in clinical testing, and prototypes exist for five more. Several NEST devices were invented by Rice students at the university’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) and were improved and tested by Rice 360° students and staffers in Houston and Blantyre, Malawi.
JUAN MEZA NAMED DMS DIRECTOR
After more than half a century, Frank K. Tittel, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and professor of bioengineering, has retired from the Rice University faculty. What brought Tittel to Rice in 1967 was a still-new technology, the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). The first was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories. “That was an exciting time to be in on the early development of something so promising and important. We didn’t even yet know how important,” said Tittel, who had started building lasers at General Electric shortly after arriving in the U.S. from England. On his first day at GE in 1960, he was asked to recreate the breakthrough beam made by Maiman. “That used brute force,” Tittel said of his own laser, which consisted of a ruby rod, a camera flashlamp and a power supply. That first model was later donated by GE to the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Tittel was born in Schweinfurt, Germany, in November 1933, the year Hitler came to power. The city remains an industrial center, renowned for manufacturing ball bearings, and was often bombed by the Allies during World War II. Tittel’s father was a chemical engineer who worked for a company that manufactured photographic emulsions. He was killed in a skiing accident when Tittel was still a boy. His mother was Jewish. The Nazis seized their house and, in 1940, she took her own life.
Juan C. Meza, who graduated with four engineering degrees from Rice University, has been named director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) at the National Science Foundation. Meza earned a B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering in 1978 and 1979, respectively, and an M.A. and Ph.D. and in computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) in 1986, all from Rice. Meza served as dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced from 2011 until this year. From 2002 to 2011, he was department head and senior scientist for high-performance computing research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Prior to that, Meza served for 15 years as a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., and as manager of computational sciences and mathematics research. In 2013, Meza received the Rice University Outstanding Engineering Alumnus Award and was named to Hispanic Business magazine’s Top 100 Influentials in the area of science. In 2010 he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was the 2008 recipient of the BlackwellTapia Prize and the SACNAS Distinguished Scientist Award. He was a member of the team that won the 2008 ACM Gordon Bell Award for Algorithm Innovation. As DMS director, Meza administers programs with an annual budget of more than $230 million. The division’s mission is “to fund groundbreaking research in mathematics and statistics, and support education and training in the mathematical sciences.”
FRANK TITTEL RETIRES Tittel lived with various foster parents in Germany and in a camp in Czechoslovakia. The train on which he and other children were evacuated from the camp was strafed by American fighter planes. After the war, in 1946, Tittel went to England to live with his mother’s sister. Tittel earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Oxford University in 1955, 1959 and 1959, respectively. From 1959 to 1965 he worked as a research scientist at the GE in upstate
New York, and spent 1965-67 as an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. At Rice, Tittel pioneered the use of lasers in the spectroscopic detection of molecules and biomolecules. He worked with Robert Curl and the late Richard Smalley, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. Curl is the University Professor and PitzerSchlumberger Professor Emeritus at Rice.
NSF GRADUATE FELLOWSHIPS Seven students in the George R. Brown School of Engineering and nine alumni are among the 2,000 students named award recipients from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2018 Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-ofeducation allowance to the graduate institution). The support is intended for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in science and engineering. Rice students who are recipients of the NSF fellowships are listed below, along with their fields of study. Graduate students: Grant Boggess, MECH Weitong Chen, ChBE Sarah Ann Hewes, BIOE Oscar Francisco Leong, CAAM Lorenzo Luzi, ECE Quan Anh Nguyen, ChBE Rice alumni at other schools who received NSF fellowships: Kathleen Victoria Abadie ’14 BIOE, University of Washington Yamin Ishraq Arefeen ’17 ECE, MIT Elisa Clark ’15 BIOE, University of Washington Justin Dong ’14 CAAM/MECH, Brown University
The Si-Low team, from left: Sajel Dutt, Sanika Rane and Owais Fazal.
SI-LOW WINS BIG IN SHOWCASE The Si-Low team, inventors of a gastroschisis treatment system for newborns in Uganda, won the top award in the George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase held April 12 in the Tudor Fieldhouse. The Excellence in Engineering Award comes with a $5,000 prize. Gastroschisis is a birth defect of the abdominal wall that most often affects premature infants and leaves their intestines outside their abdomens. The problem intrigued the team of freshmen Sajel Dutt and Owais Fazal and sophomore Sanika Rane, who came up with a low-cost alternative to expensive silicone bags that protect the intestines while allowing gravity to ease them back into the body. None of the team, who were advised by Rice postdoctoral research associate Meaghan Bond, are engineering students. “We took this design class because we’re all interested in a global health minor,” said Rane, who represented the team at the showcase while her colleagues took an exam. “We just went in not know what we were doing.” Rane is a kinesiology and health science major, while the others are majoring in social policy analysis. 2018 Engineering Design Showcase winners:
Matthew William Johnson ’13 CS, University of Washington
Excellence in Independent, Multi-year or Club Engineering Design Award ($1,000): Colostomates
Sarah Kate Nyquist ’16 CS, MIT
Excellence in Capstone Engineering Design Award ($1,000): Love and Pace
Ethan Perez ’18 CS, New York University
Best Interdisciplinary Engineering Design Award ($750): Cherrypick
Aaron Jeffrey Velasquez-Mao ’17 BIOE, University of California at Berkeley
Best Technology for Low-Resource Settings Design Award ($500): Contractionally Obligated
Excellence in Freshman Engineering Design Award ($1,000): Bad and Balloonee
Excellence in Capstone Engineering Design Award ($1,000): Hippos Don’t Lie
Best Conceptual or Computational Modeling Engineering Design Award ($500): Gerry Rice
Best Energy-Related Engineering Design Award ($500): CornDAWGS
The following graduate students received honorable mentions:
Best Medical Device Technology Award ($500): Convulsion Repulsion
Jonas Albert Actor, CAAM Nathan Byron Dunkelberger, MECH Carlynn Fagnant, STAT Sai Paul, BIOE Manuela Sushnitha, BIOE Amadeus Zhu, BIOE
Best Gaming, Creative or Innovative Technology Award ($500): Skynet
Best Environment and Sustainability Engineering Design Award ($500): DETECT
Best Aerospace or Transportation Technology Award ($500): Club Rice Eclipse People’s Choice Award ($500): Skewer Alignment Willy Revolution Award ($3,000): Jugularnauts Willy Revolution Award ($1,500): Club Rice Eclipse
NEW FACULTY The George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University has hired 10 new faculty members for five of its nine departments. The following joined the Rice faculty on July 1:
Nathan Dautenhahn: assistant professor of computer science (CS). He received a Ph.D. in CS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2016 and a B.S. in computer engineering from the University of New Mexico in 2008. Since then he has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on security and privacy systems, program representation and analysis, and security architecture.
Hanyu Zhu: William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair Assistant Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering (MSNE). He earned his Ph.D. in engineering physics/applied physics from the University of California, at Berkeley in 2016 and has since worked there as a postdoctoral researcher, leading the subgroup of 2D materials research in the Xiang Zhang nanoscience and engineering lab. His research focuses on novel materials with optical, mechanical and electrical characterization.
Yingyan (Celine) Lin: assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE). She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017, after receiving her B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Her research interests include analog and mixed-signal circuits for the Internet of Things, and energy-aware machine learning algorithms for embedded systems.
Konstantinos Mamouras: assistant professor of CS. He earned a Ph.D. in CS from Cornell University in 2015. Since then he has served as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the application of formal programming language techniques to the design of reliable and efficient software systems. His recent work is on the design of domain-specific languages for data-stream processing.
Aditya D. Mohite: associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChBE). He has worked as a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory since 2010, when he started as a post-doctoral fellow in its Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies. In 2012 he helped organize the Light-to-Energy Team and served as its principle investigator from the Materials Synthesis and Integrated Devices group. He researches the structure and optoelectronic properties of materials for the next generation of optoelectronic devices.
Santiago Segarra: assistant professor of ECE. He earned his Ph.D. in electrical and systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Since then he has worked as a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT. His research interests include data science for networks; modeling, analysis and design of networked systems; signal processing, and optimization and algebraic topology applied to the understanding of networks and network data.
Todd Treangen: assistant professor of CS. He earned his Ph.D. in CS from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain in 2008. After his postdoctoral research, he worked from 2012 to 2016 at Battelle National Biodefense Institute, National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Since 2016 he has served as assistant research scientist at the University of Marylandâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. His interests include microbial genomics and metagenomics.
Haotian Wang: William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair Assistant Professor of ChBE. He earned a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University in 2016, and a B.S. in condensed matter physics from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei in 2011. Since then he has been a fellow of the Rowland Institute at Harvard University. His research focuses on renewable energy technologies, including novel electrocatalysts for carbon dioxide reduction and carbon dioxide thermal hydrogenation catalysis.
Geoffrey Wehmeyer: assistant professor of mechanical engineering (MECH). He earned his Ph.D. in MECH from the University of California, Berkeley, in May 2018, and a B.S. in MECH from the University of Texas at Austin, in 2013. In graduate school, he worked in the Nano/Energy Lab and was the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. His research focuses on fundamental heat-transfer studies using experimental, computational and analytical methods.
One new faculty member will start on Jan. 1, 2019: Amanda B. Marciel: assistant professor of ChBE. She earned her Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015. Since then she has been a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include polymer conformation, polyelectrolyte complexation, biomimetic polymers, self-assembly, microfluidics, X-ray and neutron scattering, and single molecule techniques.
MAKING A GLOBAL IMPACT IN
FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY, SINCE THE DAYS WHEN ITS RESEARCHERS WERE HELPING TO DESIGN THE FIRST ARTIFICIAL HEART, RICE UNIVERSITYâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;S ENGINEERS HAVE WORKED IN THE VANGUARD OF HUMAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE. THE TRADITION CONTINUES.
In the V2C2 (Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade), the university announced the Rice Engineering Medicine Initiative and its commitment to become “an international leader in the development and translation of groundbreaking engineering technologies for personalized medical applications, especially those that enable the effective and efficient prevention, treatment and management of diseases.” In this issue of Rice Engineering magazine, we’re highlighting our ongoing efforts to achieve these goals. Much of this vital work is centered at the BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), the hub for medical research at Rice, which adjoins the Texas Medical Center, the largest in the world. That includes NEST360°, an international team of engineers, doctors and global health experts, who won $15 million through the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition and will continue to work at ending preventable newborn deaths in Africa (see page 7). Also at the BRC, Rice is making plans to be at the forefront of neuroengineering, a new field that combines neuroscience and engineering to help understand, repair, and in some cases, reengineer the human nervous system (see page 26). The possibilities of this emerging discipline are extraordinary, with the potential to solve medical problems that, just a few years ago, would have seemed impossible. Rice engineering alumni are making an impact all over the world. We’ll share the story of Michelle LeRoux Williams ’95, who led the development of five different stem-cell products, including the first commercially available stem cell product, used for spine surgery. Williams also spearheaded research and development for repairing damaged knee tissue, and has gone on to lead clinical trials on stem cells that can self renew and differentiate into multiple tissues (see page 38). This tradition of engineering in health and medicine at Rice has caused ripples at all experience levels, including at the annual George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase in April. The top winners were inventors of a gastroschisis treatment system for newborns in Uganda. The team didn’t consist of experienced bioengineers, rather a freshman and a sophomore who were nonengineering majors but were interested in global health challenges and applied what they learned in an engineering design class (see page 9). The work in health and medicine at Rice is as varied as it is complex, ranging from cancer to prosthetics to world hunger. But faculty, staff, students and alumni share a common bond—to recognize the most pressing issues around the world and work together on finding answers.
WEARABLE HOSPITAL LAB: NSF AWARDS $10 MILLION FOR BIOIMAGING The National Science Foundation has awarded $10 million to a Rice University-led team that hopes to create wearable and point-of-care microscopes that use on-chip illumination and sensing to non-invasively aid in the diagnosis and monitoring of nearly 100 health conditions that today require a biopsy or blood test. “The project will produce a platform technology for in vivo, 3D tissue imaging, with the aim of being able to point a camera to a part of the body and see live biology below the skin, without making an incision or drawing blood,” said Ashutosh Sabharwal, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), the principal investigator on the grant. Sabharwal’s team, which includes 11 co-investigators from Rice, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, MIT and Cornell, is one of three groups to win five-year grants from the NSF’s Expeditions in Computing program. An interdisciplinary NSF effort, it constitutes the agency’s largest single investment in computer and information science research. Since 2008, NSF has invested more than $200 million in Expeditions projects. “Expeditions supports transformative research, and our goal is to create miniaturized, light-based microscopes for use in wearables, point-of-care, bedside diagnostics, ambulances, operating rooms and more,” Sabharwal said. Visible light scatters so much as it passes through soft tissue that it has not been useful for medical imaging. Sabharwal’s team is attempting to unravel the scattered light puzzle with a technique called “computational scatterography.” They use a combination of algorithms, camera design and sensors to reverse engineer the path of scattered light. “Basically, we’re trying to ‘de-scatter’ the light,” said computational imaging expert and Rice co-investigator Ashok Veeraraghavan, associate professor of ECE. “We call this an inverse problem. Geoscientists use similar inverse techniques on seismic waves to resolve pictures of Earth’s deep interior.” Sabharwal pointed to white blood cell count tests as an example of the project’s potential use. In the U.S., oncologists use millions of such tests each week to monitor chemotherapy patients. They require a finger prick or blood draw and a laboratory, so they can be performed only at hospitals and clinics. “Imagine a wearable device no larger than a watch that uses sensors to continuously measure white blood cell count and wirelessly communicate with the oncologist’s office,” Sabharwal said. “The patient could go about his or her daily life, and would go to the hospital if there was a problem.”
HEALTH AND MEDICINE
Ya He (center) and Seth Pedersen (right) tour a flooded neighborhood with a locl homeonwer
TRACKING THE GERMS LEFT BEHIND BY HURRICANE HARVEY
Soon after Hurricane Harvey, Lauren Stadler and her students went fishing for microorganisms. In late August 2017, the storm made landfall three times in six days, left one-third of Houston under water and damaged more than 200,000 homes. With the water came bacteria, some benign, others, like E. coli, potentially deadly. With the aid of a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation, Stadler’s students ventured into flooded streets and homes, collecting water and sediment samples. “We found pretty much what we expected,” said the assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE). “Lots of bacteria, including elevated levels of E. coli., especially inside homes and in bayous downstream from waste-water treatment plants. Some places were very polluted.” RAPID grants support work that needs to move quickly before essential data disappears. Among the first Rice researchers in the rain-choked streets was Seth Pedersen, a second-year graduate student in CEE. He was helping remove mud from the houses of friends in northwestern Houston when recruited to join the sample-collecting team.
HEALTH AND MEDICINE
Wearing a mask, gloves and water-proof waders, Pedersen borrowed a friend’s boat, collected colleagues and headed for Cypress Creek on Aug. 30, and then neighborhoods around Buffalo Bayou near the beltway. So it went for the next week. “We would boat in for at least several hundred yards through streets with about three feet of water flowing through them. Typically, we would try to go out in the morning, hit several sites and be back in town to return some samples to the commercial lab before they closed, and bring the rest back to Rice,” Pedersen said. Teams of students were from the labs of Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor of CEE, and Qilin Li, professor of CEE. Eventually, Stadler’s team collected water and sediment samples from more than a dozen sites around the city, occasionally venturing into flooded homes, with the permission of the owners. Later, another hypothesis was confirmed: tests showed microbial density was often highest inside houses. “Once the storm had passed, I was never really frightened. We took precautions against infection, and everyone was really friendly. It was somewhat surreal, especially the time we boated deep into the neighborhood down by Buffalo Bayou. It was like a fun boat trip on a river, except it wasn’t a river. It was a neighborhood street in my hometown,” Pedersen said.
“We found pretty much what we expected... Lots of bacteria, including elevated levels of E. coli., especially inside homes and in bayous downstream from waste-water treatment plants. Some places were very polluted.”—Lauren Stadler
Along with the RAPID grant, Stadler received funding from the Rice Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort (HERE) for her “Impacts of Flood Damage on Airborne Fungi and Bacteria in Homes after Harvey” proposal. The research was intended to quantify airborne microbial exposures and assess how differences in geographic location, damage severity and resident socio-economic status correlate with exposures. “The next step, after we have put together all of the data, is to compare it with reports of gastrointestinal illnesses and other health impacts in the wake of the hurricane. There’s an enormous amount of data to look at,” Stadler said. Tests performed on the water and sediment samples detected widespread contamination by E. coli, probably the result of overflow from flooded wastewater treatment plants. The microbial survey showed high levels of the fecal indicator organism trapped in homes that contained stagnant water weeks after the storm, as well as high levels of genes that indicate antibiotic resistance. Pedersen suggests that not everything that came out of Hurricane Harvey was unpleasant: “It was cool to see the camaraderie in the different neighborhoods we visited. People would feed us and were really interested in our work. In one neighborhood, it was almost like a block party, with tables of food set out and people hanging around talking.”
A MECHANICAL ENGINEER’S TAKE ON CANCER Think of human anatomy as an elaborate exercise in structural and mechanical engineering. Now look more closely at the pelvis, that bowl-shaped collection of bones that connects trunk to legs by way of the hips. We can walk, run, bend and stand upright thanks to the pelvis. It also helps protect reproductive and other organs. “You can imagine what happens when a patient has pelvic cancer. Because of the complexity of the anatomy, every case is unique. Pelvic sarcoma can be treated surgically but recovery is slow and difficult. We’re trying to help people with pelvic sarcoma by designing better surgical and rehabilitation procedures that will let them recover more walking function in less time,” said B.J. Fregly, professor of mechanical engineering (MECH) and bioengineering, and CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research. CPRIT is the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, an agency that has funded research since 2009, after Texas voters approved a 2007 constitutional amendment committing $3 billion to fight cancer. Last year, Rice hired Fregly and helped set up his lab with the aid of $5 million in CPRIT funds. “I mainly study walking impairments, though my lab is expanding into upper extremity movement impairments as well,” said Fregly, who for 18 years was on the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering faculty at the University of Florida. There his research focused on modeling the human musculoskeletal system, with emphasis on the knee.
With his colleagues, Fregly has been working to develop personalized computer models of individual patients, to simulate various treatment options and identify new ones. His goal is to design clinical interventions to optimize posttreatment function for individual patients. In short, he has been pioneering new methods of personalized medicine. For the CPRIT project at Rice, Fregly is focusing on creating personalized computational walking models that will be used to improve treatment design for pelvic sarcoma patients. He is seeking to identify pelvic surgery and rehabilitation strategies that will maximize a patient’s ability to regain mobility. Fregly and his research team work closely with Dr. Valerae Lewis, a surgeon in orthopedic oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Up to this point, Dr. Lewis has had to make surgical decisions based on her extensive clinical experience, coupled with intuition. However, the muscles and bones of the human body form a complex mechanical system, making it difficult to predict reliably how a surgical decision will impact postsurgery walking ability. My job is to create computational models of specific patients to help Dr. Lewis identify the optimal surgical and rehabilitation procedures for each of them,” Fregly said. Removing the cancerous portions of the pelvic bones can keep patients off their feet for more than a year. Furthermore, given the unique challenges posed by each case, patients often enter the operating room without a clear idea of how
“Custom pelvic prostheses have the potential to maximize walking ability and minimize recovery time. We treat their design as an engineering problem.”—B.J. Fregley
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well they will be able to walk after surgery. Three surgical options are possible: no reconstruction of the removed pelvic bones (and sometimes hip), reconstruction of the removed bones with an allograft using bone from a donor cadaver, or a reconstruction using a customized implant. “Custom pelvic prostheses have the potential to maximize walking ability and minimize recovery time. We treat their design as an engineering problem,” Fregly said. With the aid of Fregly’s computer models, Fred Higgs, the John and Ann Doerr Professor of MECH and director of the Particle Flow and Tribology Lab, and Ed Akin, professor of MECH, will create customized prostheses with the aid of 3-D printing. Fregly’s Rice Computational Neuromechanics Lab has six doctoral students and two post-doctoral researchers. Cancer is a leading cause of death for Texans, leading Fregly to say, “We hope to reduce the number of deaths and improve the postsurgical lives of patients with pelvic sarcoma, regardless of which surgical option they receive.”
Rice University bioengineer Junghae Suh and colleagues at three partner institutions are leading a study that aims to fix damaged hearts with therapeutic genes delivered by viruses. Suh has received a prestigious R01 grant for $2 million from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to test adeno-associated viral vectors (AAVs) developed by her lab at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative to deliver therapeutic genes to sites of heart damage. A lab headed by Eva Sevick at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston will use molecular imaging to study the in vivo delivery performance of the engineered AAVs, Mavis Agbandje-McKenna at the University of Florida will solve the structures of the vectors, and Walter Koch and Rajan Sudarsan and their team at Temple University will test the therapeutic potential of the gene therapy vectors. The goal is a virus that can carry therapeutic transgenes to damaged heart tissue to turn cells that make up electrically insulating scar tissue into conductive – and therefore, beating – heart muscle cells known as cardiomyocytes. AAVs have been a focus of Suh’s Synthetic Virology Laboratory for years. AAVs are benign virus capsids, or shells, about 25 nanometers across that are designed to deliver cargoes like strands of DNA that to cells. The viruses can be enhanced to target specific cells. “We think of ourselves as the delivery truck lab,” said Suh, an associate professor of bioengineering. “What goes into the truck depends on the customer.” The AAVs will be configured to target and be activated by matrix metalloproteinases known to be elevated in the extracellular matrix of damaged cardiac tissue after a heart attack. That will achieve three additional goals: A reduction of invasive surgery, a reduction of side effects from delivery to off-target organs and a reduction of dose-dependent immune responses to the AAVs. “This therapy is mainly to treat the heart failure that’s associated with the progression of heart disease,” she said. “After a person has a heart attack, the damaged part of the heart never truly heals,” Suh said. “Patients end up getting a scar in that part of the heart and there are no therapies to reverse that scar back into healthy tissue. That’s been the focus of a lot of research, and it’s what we’re going after with gene therapy. “We are trying to coax those cells back to health,” she said. “It’s unclear if it’s going to work the way we imagine, but we have to try. We’re talking about in situ regeneration of tissue. That is the dream.” Suh said the Temple lab already has a therapeutic transgene to pair with her AAVs for testing in mouse models. She is also collaborating with other cardiovascular researchers. “They all have their own favorite transgenes they want to test out with the vector,” she said. “They have different hypotheses for why their transgene may be the best one.”
HEALTH AND MEDICINE
ALLYING WITH VIRUSES TO HELP DAMAGED HEARTS
HELPING MAKE VIRUSES THE GOOD GUYS “Not long ago I was a kid in high school. Now I’m in a laboratory working with a lot of very smart people, doing research that could help people someday.” A junior in bioengineering (BIOE), Cooper Lueck is working in the Synthetic Virology Laboratory of Junghae Suh, and he sounds a little surprised to find himself part of a team hoping to mend damaged hearts with genes delivered by viruses. “The goal is to get the therapeutic genes to the disease site with a systemic injection. The particular application is treating heart failure, but it has other applications,” said Lueck, one of three undergraduates being mentored by Mitchell Brun, a fourth-year doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering. “A virus can carry the therapeutic transgenes to the damaged heart tissue and turn cells that make up electrically insulating scar tissue into conductive — and therefore, beating — heart muscle cells known as cardiomyocytes,” Brun said. “Targeted delivery is necessary as a safety measure. A therapeutic gene can have harmful effects in off-target organs and tissues.” The genes are carried by AAVs (adenoassociated viral vectors), benign virus shells that measure about 25 nanometers in diameter and are customized to deliver such cargoes as strands of DNA to cells. Lueck and his colleagues enhance the viruses to target specific cells. The gene-delivery vector used in the Suh Lab remains “locked,” incapable of transducing cells, until it senses a significant quantity of particular proteases that are upregulated by the body after heart failure. These proteases “unlock” the vector and permit it to transduce cells in injured portions of the heart. The strategy, Lueck noted, results in three benefits: Fewer invasive surgeries, side effects resulting from delivery to off-target organs and dose-dependent immune responses to the AAVs. “When everything is working,” he said, “it’s a win-win situation.”
HUNTING EPILEPSY WITH MATH
Dr. Nitin Tandon of UTHealth and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center meets with Rice CAAM majors Alex Gardner, Evan Toler, Wendy Knight and Rice alumnus Kiefer Forseth, a researcher at UTHealth.
A team of Rice University computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) students who graduated this year developed a technique for simplifying the placement of electrodes in the brains of patients with epilepsy. Their method, called BrainGuide, is a software-based automation tool that neurosurgeons may use to help patients with non-treatable forms of the disease by plotting the correct placement of probes within their brains. Information gathered by the probes can help design future procedures in which the portion of the brain causing the seizures can then be removed, destroyed using lasers or modulated using electrical stimulation. Alexander Gardner, Wendy Knight and Evan Toler began the project at the suggestion of their adviser, Beatrice Riviere, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of CAAM, and Dr. Nitin Tandon, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and director of the epilepsy surgery program at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. An adjunct professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, Tandon hopes to ease the burden on doctors who take the long way around when planning brain implants for patients before the procedure. “Doctors want to make sure they’re targeting the right part of the brain,” Gardner said. “They do that by implanting long, thin probes lined with electrodes, which record over the course of several weeks and collect data.
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With the proper data, the new technique predicts optimum electrode implantation in about 30 seconds, with a higher degree of safety than previous methods. “Doctors currently spend several hours planning each surgery individually. They look at the data and, based on their knowledge of what the brain looks like and the patient’s vasculature, decide what to do. We need to avoid regions that are dense and have a lot of blood in them.” The students, all of whom earned B.A.s in CAAM, used MRI and CT data from 40 of Tandon’s patients to build models of each brain and decide where the probes should go, working with Rice alumnus Kiefer Forseth, a researcher in Tandon’s lab whom Gardner said was instrumental in the BrainGuide design and implementation process. Each patient may have up to 256 electrodes on as many as 20 probes — thin, plastic-encased wires that must avoid vessels and cross the brain regions of epileptic interest. With the proper data, the new technique predicts optimum electrode implantation in about 30 seconds, with a higher degree of safety than previous methods.
Synthesizing a multifunctional nanomaterial with healthcare applications is a little like working on a complicated recipe with a lot of ingredients, some of which you have trouble finding. As Eilaf Egap explains it, “A little of this and a little of that, and all in balance.” Egap is an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering (MSNE), and of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University. Her niche is known as soft molecular engineering. “What I’m working on now is polymers with electrical properties that are biocompatible. The goal is to diagnose and treat disease,” she said. Egap joined the Rice faculty in 2017 as part of the university’s strategic initiative to increase research competitiveness in the field of molecular nanotechnology. Originally a philosophy major, she traces her interest in materials science to her experience as an undergraduate researcher at Stony Brook University.
“I was taking organic chemistry. I joined the professor’s group and learned about macromolecules and polymers. That sparked my interest,” she said. “I got interested in new synthetic tools and techniques, but was interested in applications, and wondered what else I could do with the materials.” Semiconducting polymers are increasingly recognized as a new and useful class of nanomaterials. As soft materials, they are ideal for use as interfaces with biological systems. “We have used them to target tumor cells and as molecular imaging agents in carotid artery atherosclerosis,” Egap said. “But we hope to expand the scope of our biointegrated electronic polymers to map the electrophysiology of the heart and brain. There is great potential there. “We think they could be critical for use in early diagnosis. These are diseases that too often are diagnosed late, making it more difficult to treat,” she said. Atherosclerosis — the narrowing of arteries because of plaque buildup on the arterial walls — is the leading cause of death in the world and is usually diagnosed at a late stage, after the appearance of life-threatening symptoms.
FINDING SOFT MATERIALS FOR HARD CASES
“Developing molecular and cellular imaging strategies to detect the disease at the earlier stages — diagnosing endothelial dysfunction and plaque build-up — could change the way we diagnose and treat the disease, and potentially save the lives of millions of people,” she said. After earning her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Washington in 2011, Egap worked for three years as a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another three years followed as an assistant professor of chemistry at Emory University and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech. “This is a relatively new and promising field to explore,” Egap said. “We are also developing a simple and effective strategy for generating well-aligned arrays of 1-D polymer semiconductor nanowires. They exhibit remarkable enhancement in charge transport and would enable high-performance, large-area, flexible electronic devices for various applications.”
Neuroengineering Significant events in the history of neuroengineering: 1952
Grey Walter demonstrates non-invasively recorded encephalogram (EEG) signals from a human subject to control a slide projector
Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley use voltage clamp to explore action potential, effectively laying foundation for electrophysiology
1960s First visual cortical prostheses implanted in patients First cochlear implant placed in patient at Stanford University
“A new field of research has emerged. It’s known as neuroengineering. Basically, it’s where neuroscientists meet engineers, and Rice will be at the forefront.” The speaker is Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and director of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative. The Rice Board of Trustees approved its creation in May. “Neuroengineering is an emerging discipline that explores engineering techniques to understand, repair, assist and re-engineer the human nervous system,” said Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering. “It has tremendous potential for such applications as treating neurological diseases, cochlear and retinal implants and neuroprosthetics.” The program, to be housed on the eighth and ninth floors of the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC), includes 26 researchers representing seven engineering departments and the Department of Psychology at Rice, and others from the University of Texas Health Science Center and Baylor College of Medicine. A third of the initiative’s researchers are drawn from ECE. “This makes perfect sense,” Aazhang said. “Our brain is an electrical circuit with electrochemical reactions that generate pulses. Our neurons communicate with these pulses.” Aazhang describes the human brain as a “statistical inference engine.” By using various strategies, including neuroimaging, high-throughput genomics, optical imaging, data modeling and metabolomics, he expects to apply advanced engineering techniques to increase our understanding of such disorders as Parkinson’s disease, aphasia, epilepsy and depression.
Rice invests $50 million in new initiative
1974 DARPA’s first work in brain-computer interface, the Close-Coupled Man/Machine Systems, later called biocybernetics
Cyberonics, manufacturer of vagus nerve stimulator, founded
First NIH Neural Interfaces Workshop
early 80s development of Utah microelectrode array
late 80s Emergence of deep brain stimulation as treatment for Parkinson’s disease
“There are more than a thousand disorders of the nervous system affecting at least a billion people in the world today,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of Statistics at Rice. “Rice already has strength in multiple relevant disciplines — nanotechnology, data science, machine learning, signal processing, imaging and nanophotonics.” The university is investing approximately $50 million to launch its neuroengineering initiative, according to Kathy Collins, Rice’s vice president for finance. That figure includes hiring five new tenured/tenure-track faculty members across several departments, and their associated startup costs.
NEURO “Rice already has strength in multiple relevant disciplines — nanotechnology, data science, machine learning, signal processing, imaging and nanophotonics.”
“Initially it will be about $1 million in annual costs, increasing over time, with $3.5 million in startups. We will be building out space in the BRC, at an estimated cost of $8 million. There will be an allocation for research equipment — about $5 million over two years — and approximately $500,000 in annual funding to support programming. That would include postdocs, graduate students and support for undergraduate research programs,” Collins said. Miranda and Aazhang both noted that undergraduates and graduate students at Rice have expressed strong interest in neuroengineering. “Our students know we have better computational power. We can simulate physical systems better,” Aazhang said. “And we have devices that can be at the same scale as neurons that could interact with our neurons. We have much more sophisticated imaging technologies. The technology has reached a stage where we can effectively interact with our brains.” Aazhang emphasized the pool of talent already available in ECE. “We have been incredibly, incredibly successful,” he said. “And that is what electrical engineers do. That’s the secret sauce.” One member of Aazhang’s lab is Joseph Young, a fourth-year graduate student in ECE. “We are the tool-developing people,” Young said. “We learn what the doctors and researchers need and try to develop the tools they want. The brain is electrical. We understand electricity. We can help them, for instance, relate brain rhythms to specific activities. This is the most interesting field to be in right now.”
2001 IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, first issue
2000 first real-time prosthetic decoders implanted in humans
late 90s First real-time prosthetic decoders implanted in monkeys
Genetically encoded neural activity dependent fluorescent reporter (GCaMP) Human genome sequenced
2003 First International IEEE conference on neural engineering Intan Technologies, manufacturer of microchips to sense weak electrical signals produced by biological systems, founded Allen Institute for Brain Science founded to accelerate the understanding of how the human brain works
where pharmacological treatment has lost its efficacy, as in brain stimulators for Parkinson’s disease or depression, or they don’t work at all, as in certain seizures.” Kemere heads the Realtime Neural Engineering lab, based in the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC) adjoining the Texas Medical Center. His team designs systems to interact with the neural circuits of rodents. From this they learn how information is processed, stored and retrieved in healthy brains and in the models they devise of human neurological disorders. Much of Robinson’s research has focused on new technologies to stimulate and record brain activity in humans and animal models, including such minute invertebrates as C. elegans and hydras. These animals have no more than several thousand neurons, making it easier to study the relationship between neural activity and behavior. “The neuroengineering initiative,” Robinson said, “is going to make a major impact on our research. Over the last five years, we have nucleated a strong group of researchers with a variety of backgrounds.” Kemere said he and Robinson were attracted to Rice University, in part, because of the senior faculty already working with neuroscientists and clinicians at the medical center. “This new university-wide initiative,” he said, “is a logical outgrowth of that same vision, with an expanded vision of the investigators and projects that fit.” In addition to the limits set by existing technology, there’s also neuroscience’s limited understanding of the brain and peripheral nervous system circuits, where dysfunction underlies many disorders. Kemere calls it “one of the frontiers of modern science no less challenging than those in particle physics.” He said: “Historically, neuroscience advances through partnership with engineering, and the forefront of optics, machine learning, molecular biology, genetics and other fields of applied sciences has been advanced in support of neuroscience. I see Rice’s investment as a marker of our commitment to be part of the process not only of building technology for health applications but also of building technologies that enable cutting-edge neuroscience.” “I’ve been excited about the enthusiasm at Rice for neuroengineering since Jacob and I arrived here in 2012.” Robinson is pleased with the university’s plans to centralize all of the neuroengineering research in the For Caleb Kemere, there’s nothing new about neuroengineering. Like his friend and research BRC: “We can share ideas and resources and co-mentor collaborator, Jacob Robinson, Kemere has been students. In particular, I’m looking forward to developing neural interfaces while working side-by-side with exploring the porous boundary between traditional electrical engineering and the neurosciences since his theorists who analyze brain data and experimentalists who use neural interfaces to measure and manipulate undergraduate days. Both are assistant tprofessors brain activity.” of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and of bioengineering (BIOE). “As I think about elite universities,” Kemere said, “In the last decade,” Kemere said, “there has been “one of their characteristics is that they pursue discovery increasing recognition that the way we treat brain at the edge of human knowledge. I see this investment as a marker that we at Rice plan to play an important part in diseases — that is, pharmacology — has limitations. the process of discovery.” More invasive treatment is confined to severe cases
RICE NEUROENGINEERING WILL ‘PURSUE DISCOVERY AT THE EDGE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE’
BrainGate pilot clinical trials implant electrode arrays in tetraplegic patients to develop human cortical BMI 2004: Journal of Neural Engineering and Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation begin publication
2006 Howard Hughes Medical Institute founds Janelia Farms Research Campus to focus investment in neurotechnology research
2005 Popularization of light-sensitive ion channels to manipulate selected neural circuits (“optogenetics”)
2013 President Obama announces $100 million Brain Initiative
RICE AIMS TO TRANSFORM HEALTHCARE WITH SYNTHETIC AND PHYSICAL BIOLOGY $33 million investment aimed at propelling Rice to global preeminence
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The Synthetic and Physical Biology Initiative, funded with an initial investment of more than $33 million, is an ambitious plan to establish Rice University as “a world leader in transforming healthcare, the biotech industry, and the environment in the next 100 years.” The initiative builds on the university’s success in establishing the interdisciplinary program in Synthetic, Systems and Physical Biology (SSPB), the first graduate program of its kind in the world (sspb.rice.edu). The program includes 45 faculty members from nine departments, and has recruited 40 graduate students. Gang Bao, the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering (BIOE), associate dean for research and innovation, and CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research, co-directs the search for new faculty members in synthetic biology with Joff Silberg, professor of biosciences. The effort will draw jointly from the schools of engineering and natural sciences at Rice. “We want to become one of the best, if not the best, place in the U.S. for research and education in synthetic and physical biology,” Bao said. As part of the Synthetic and Physical Biology Initiative, Rice University will recruit at least four new faculty members in synthetic biology and two new members in physical biology over the next two years. Laboratories in synthetic biology will be housed in existing and newly renovated spaces in the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC) and Keck Hall. Core facilities will also be established to enable the construction, testing and optimization of innovative biological systems. Rice already has more than 20 physical biology research groups and is home to the NSF Center for Theoretical Biological Physics in the BRC. All are working to understand and predict the behaviors of biological molecules and cellular systems by integrating biology with physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science. Among the engineering departments already represented in the Synthetic and Physical Biology Initiative are BIOE, civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, computer science, and statistics. “The goal of synthetic biology is to develop new tools, technologies and theories to transform the way we design biological systems,” Bao said “This includes programmable biological parts for genetic circuits, modifying genomes for biological and disease studies, resolving design rules for creating multicellular genetic programs with complex temporal and spatial behaviors, and developing safe strategies for using synthetic systems in addressing challenges in health, energy and the environment. “Through parallel investment in these areas, Rice will bring together the expertise required to build innovative and transformative biotechnologies that will generate a profound impact in society.”
The theory of evolution has mutated and evolved since Charles Darwin first formulated it in 1859. Luay Nakhleh works at reconstructing pathways that do not fit into Darwin’s sketch of a tree: networks of evolutionary relationships. “Nothing in biology makes sense unless it is seen in the light of evolution, and the best way for us to understand it is to use computational tools to map the past,” said Nakhleh, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Computer Science (CS) and of biosciences, and CS department chair. Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Nakhleh two grants totaling $1.5 million to broaden the big-data techniques used in the fight against cancer and scale up methods to detect connections among evolutionary pathways. One project focuses on species-level analysis, the other on individual cells. Nakhleh’s lab specializes in computational research related to evolution and develops tools that examine genetic data to discover previously unknown connections among species. One such statistical technique is inference, which enables researchers to estimate the probability that the genes of one species are related to the genes of another. The NSF funding will enable Nakhleh’s lab to exploit the potential of PhyloNet, an open-source software package he developed to determine aspects of evolution that wouldn’t show up on a standard evolutionary tree but would appear as part of a network. Traditionally, biologists have used the branching of trees as a visual metaphor for evolutionary progression, but that model does not account for such factors as hybridization and horizontal gene transfer. The latter is the movement of minute bits of genetic material between unrelated organisms by means other than sexual reproduction. It is a major way antibiotic resistance is spread among bacteria.
TAKING ANOTHER LOOK AT EVOLUTION
“The picture is much more complicated than that. I would suggest that rather than a tree we might think of a tangled spider web. There is sense in there, many connections, but it’s a much bigger job to figure it all out than we thought it was,” Nakhleh said. His other NSF grant will fund a collaborative project with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to better understand why some cancer cells metastasize and mutate unlike other cells, making diagnosis and treatment more difficult. In recent years, medical and computational researchers have begun taking an increasingly evolutionary approach to cancer. “But we’ve been focused on how species and genes evolve,” Nakhleh said. “The tests we use to see variations among the genetic codes of different species can be adapted for cancer research.” Cancer cells are notoriously heterogeneous. The makeup of one cell will not necessarily give an accurate picture of other cells from the same patient. When a cancer cell divides, its DNA replicates and it begins to evolve as the number of mutations accumulates. Cell data will help researchers understand how cancers evolve in patients — how some become resistant to chemotherapy and others metastasize. Understanding its genome will not make cancer go away, Nakhleh said, but a detailed picture of its genetic makeup may ultimately lead to improved methods of diagnosis and treatment. “Biology is the most complex thing I’ve ever seen. And, owing to the massive amounts of data becoming available, biology, the scientific discipline, has become an information science,” he said.
Left to right: Yimeng Zeng Santiago Legaspi Laura Segatori Carlos Origel Brianna Kuypers Bhagyashree Bachhav
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“The plug-and-play system will enable synthetic biologists to study the function of a specific protein within the cellular environment by assessing how the protein expression level affects the life of a cell.” —Laura Segatori
BUILDING A NANOSCALE PLATFORM TO CONTROL PROTEIN LEVELS A nanoscale antibody first found in camels combined with a protein-degrading molecule is an effective new platform to control protein levels in cells, according to Rice University researchers. The technique could yield fundamental insights into cellular dynamics and the design of synthetic gene circuits. Rice chemical and biomolecular engineer Laura Segatori, former graduate student Wenting Zhao and former undergraduate Lara Pferdehirt invented a bifunctional recognition system they call NanoDeg. It permits them to target specific proteins in a cell and closely regulate their degradation. The plug-and-play system will enable synthetic biologists to study the function of a specific protein within the cellular environment by assessing how the protein expression level affects the life of a cell, Segatori said. The research appears in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Synthetic Biology. NanoDeg accelerates proteolysis — the enzymatic breakdown of proteins — to control the levels of targeted proteins after translation. One function springs from the single-chain antibody from camelids, which can be customized to target specific proteins. When the antibodies were discovered in camels (and later sharks), researchers quickly recognized their unique properties,
including their small size, high solubility and ability to even recognize targets that are hidden or in intermediate states. They are smaller than the antibodies found naturally in humans and most other organisms but can be made and modified in bacteria and other cells. The other function relies on degrons, short sequences in proteins that are responsible for regulating the rate of a protein’s degradation. These can also be customized to tune the depletion of a target protein to the desired levels. When combined as NanoDegs, they become a powerful, universal platform for modulating cellular protein levels,” Segatori said. “Essentially, it allows us to control the specific amount of proteins in cells. We can tailor it to target any protein in a cell, and once the degron-tagged nanobody binds to that partner, the whole complex is degraded. “The advantage of this system is that it targets expression at the protein level,” Segatori said. “Typically, when people want to modulate the amount of proteins in cells, they act at the DNA or RNA — the genetic — level. But by acting at the protein level, we can target different post-regulation modifications, and much more importantly, we have much more control over the rate and extent of depletion of the protein.”
FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND LAB WORKS TO SOLVE BIG DATA CHALLENGES We live in an era defined by massive amounts and endless varieties of data, all being generated at blistering speeds. While the numbers themselves are impressive and convey a nearly infinite sense of possibility, realizing the promise of big data ultimately depends on people and tools that can transform Data to Knowledge. The new Rice Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge (or D2K Lab) launched this fall with project-based classes where interdisciplinary research teams of students, faculty mentors and community sponsors work to help solve real-world data challenges. The D2K Lab provides students with immersive, experiential learning opportunities in data science while enhancing data-intensive research at Rice and building partnerships with companies, institutions, and community organizations. The D2K Learning Lab, which is a team-based data science projects course, the D2K Consulting Clinic, and a range of co-curricular programs, are all designed to create a comprehensive data science experience for students while providing much-needed resources for Rice faculty and external partners. “Many companies across a range of sectors lack sufficient data science expertise ‘in-house,’” said Genevera Allen, faculty director and associate professor of statistics. “Rice can play an important role in spurring economic development by training the next generation of data scientists, providing project-based support, and opening up new partnerships.” Allen also said that harnessing the growing data in healthcare and biomedicine will lead to insights spanning brain function, precision medicine, and more efficient healthcare. Rice is uniquely positioned to provide the data science expertise to advance medical research in the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center. Additionally, she notes that many government and nonprofit organizations have data-intensive problems that can be tackled by D2K Rice students and faculty. Rice will leverage collaborations with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the Baker Institute for Public Policy, the Houston Solutions Lab and other research centers and think tanks at Rice. The D2K Lab will also feature a series of co-curricular data science programs and events to complement the courses that seek to engage, enrich and promote excellence. These include a data science industry speaker series, Data-thon competitions, a data visualization contest, and an awards program, among others.
STUDENTS & PROGRAMS
NEW MASTER’S IN INDUSTRIAL ENGINEERING Rice University has created a professional master’s degree program in industrial engineering (IE) to be offered by the George R. Brown School of Engineering.
Andrew J. Schaefer, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics, and director of the new program, answers questions about the new degree: Q: Why now? A: IE is the sixth-most popular engineering master’s degree in the U.S., with 3,538 granted in the 2014-15 academic year. Nationally, more than twice as many master’s degrees are awarded in IE than in chemical engineering. Clearly, there is a demand, especially in Houston and the rest of Texas. Q: When does the program begin?
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A: The new program was approved by the Faculty Senate and begins in 2019 as a 31-credit-hour, three-semester, nonthesis degree, starting in the fall semester and finishing the following December. Q: Who will do the teaching? A: The program will draw faculty from the departments of mechanical engineering and statistics. We are delighted that Eylem Tekin, a lecturer in engineering, will be overseeing much of the program and teaching courses in supply-chain management. She is an expert in that field and in factory physics, and an incredible teacher. Q: What can you tell us about the curriculum? A: All of the classes are at the 500-level or above, and will include decision models, manufacturing processes and systems, stochastic models and simulation, and IE as applied to health care and energy. All of the classes will be small. Q: What are your long-term hopes for the IE program? A: Rice has always had expertise in various aspects of industrial engineering, but until now no educational offerings per se. Students will find Houston an ideal location to study industrial engineering. It is America’s energy capital, has more manufacturing jobs than any city in the country, and the world’s largest medical center is literally across the street. For more information go to engrprofmasters.rice.edu/industrial-engineering
When the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) was formed back in 2010 with a $15 million gift from John ’73, ’74 and Anne ’75 Doerr, the goal was to create the next generation of engineers who exhibited strong analytic and leadership abilities. It would also educate the next class of idea-makers and future CEOs and managers who could emulate the strengths of the center’s founders: entrepreneurship, collaborative vision and a dedication for giving back. “We want to educate strong, ethical leaders,” said Kazimir “Kaz” Karwowski, RCEL’s executive director. “When Fred Higgs became director of RCEL, we took a closer look at the core competencies we wanted our students to have, and then examined it to be sure what we thought we were doing was actually happening in practice.” The answer: yes, but. The RCEL Certificate is a seven-course program worth 11 credit hours, which students take on top of their regular curriculum. Launched in 2014, the Class of 2015 was the first group of students to graduate with the credential. Those students had taken some of the courses before the certificate was presented to and approved by the faculty senate. Approximately 15 percent of the School of Engineering’s students are enrolled in RCEL, the only academic program at
RCEL 2.0 PUSHES SPECIALIZATION, BETTER ACCESS
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rcel.rice.edu Rice solely dedicated to training and producing tomorrow’s leaders in engineering and technology. But Karwowski also recognizes this number could be higher. Higgs decided it was time for RCEL 2.0, and one of the things that came out of that was a new mission statement: “To inspire, educate and develop ethical leaders in technology who will excel in research, industry, non-engineering career paths or entrepreneurship.” Known as RIPE, the new focus on a broader spectrum of professional development is expected to encourage more engineering students to use RCEL as a career launch pad. “Our goal is to inspire more Rice engineering students to plan out and envision how they will one day lead universities, large teams in companies, medical centers and start-up companies in a strategic and ethical way,” said Higgs, who is the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and also the John & Ann Doerr Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “Right now, we have about 200 students of the 1,400 enrolled engineers taking RCEL classes,” said Karwowski. “We’re looking to improve on that, and we think that by showing
STUDENTS & PROGRAMS
these different facets of engineering leadership and how they can apply in students’ educational and professional lives, more of them will want to be part of RCEL.” Another outcome from the focus on RIPE is that the classes toward the certificate now have an official RCEL designation in the Rice course catalogue. In addition to courses like RCEL 100 (Self-Awareness and the Engineering Leader), RCEL 400 (Leading High Performing Engineering Teams) and RCEL 450 (Project Management and Leadership Action Learning), there are course designations for each of the RIPE specifications. “We’re expanding our footprint to ensure that RCEL students are getting a deeper benefit of what we offer,” said Karwowski. “We’re going to continue doing what we’ve always done—providing a certificate program that distinguishes our graduates from their peers. But we’ve tweaked it to be certain we are responding to students’ interests and career paths. This is a great move for us and for our engineers.”
VAXTHUS WINS IN SWEDEN For more information visit
In early June, recent graduates Mike Hua, Jack Kaplan and Harrison Lin wheeled six large suitcases through George Bush Intercontinental Airport, hoping to get themselves and three indoor greenhouse prototypes to Sweden. It was not as easy as they thought it would to be — not only because of the number of suitcases but because of what they contained. “It looked sketchy,” Lin said. “There were a lot of wires and electronics, just a big jumble of things that normally we wouldn’t be traveling with. One of them wasn’t even a suitcase, just the aluminum chassis for our project, on casters, with wood panels bolted to it to seal it for transport. We wrote a long letter to the TSA, and it basically said, ‘We are a university team, nothing in this suitcase is dangerousand we hope you don’t take any of this stuff because it would make our lives really hard. Thank you.’ It all made it.” Back in March, the senior design team — mechanical engineering students Lin, Kaplan, Hua, Mary Bao and Colin Losey, and electrical engineering student Lingbo Chen — had heard about a competition called the Shared Space Challenge, put on by HSB Living Lab at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. The competitions purpose was to source new ideas on how shared spaces in apartment buildings can become more utilized and more sustainable. The HSB Living Lab, a research laboratory that houses students and guest researchers in apartments within the facility, would act as a smallscale test bed for these ideas. The Rice group had been working since the previous fall, building a prototype of an automated, modular greenhouse, designed to grow food in
small, indoor areas, perfect for apartments and shared spaces like the ones at HSB. They recorded a video pitch and sent it in, not expecting to hear back. Their proposal was not only accepted, but awarded first place and a prize of 10,000 euros. And HSB placed an order for two more prototypes, due in early June. “It was exciting,” Lin said, “but I thought the timeline was insane. We had spent an entire semester and a half making just one, and we weren’t even finished with that one yet. I wasn’t sure whether or not we were going to be able to pull this off.” Ultimately, all three prototypes were completed. In early fall they will be installed and ready for the next semester of students and researchers living in the HSB. “They’ll be scattered around the Living Lab,” Lin said. “We decided to put one in the shared space that all the residents use on the first floor, one directly inside the living room of one of the apartments there, and lastly, one in the laundry room.” The group will continue to monitor the project to determine its success. “We want to see how people use the greenhouses,” Kaplan said. “Short term, we want to see if students take ownership of the devices, and utilize them while there. The long-term goal is we want to see how they affect the shared space. Does it increase the utilization of common spaces? Do people spend more time in the kitchen cooking because there are fresh herbs?” Lin agreed. “At this point, HSB is free to do what they like with the devices, but we did suggest they be given custody to perhaps a master’s or Ph.D. student studying sustainable living. Someone who could test, as part of their research, whether or not these units positively affect life in the Living Lab.”
Michelle LeRoux Williams ’95 loves working with smaller companies because with them, there’s no such thing as a typical day. “I have to think about scientific developments, about product development, how we communicate our services in the best ways possible to physicians and patients,” said the mechanical engineer, who is the executive vice president and chief scientific officer for Aziyo Biologics. The Maryland-based company’s mission is to restore health and mobility to patients, while also making an impact on healthcare through innovative solutions. “I love that my work allows me to look at all those elements.” For Williams, working in a sphere that taps into her mechanical engineering background, combined with a focus on making life better for patients, is a dream job. When she graduated from Rice, she went on to Duke, where she earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Her Rice education, she said, gave her a leg up on some of her classmates.
“Rice really prepared me to get into and through my graduate program,” she said. “The rigor in our Rice classes, the emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. That was essential for me.” She spent her time at Duke working with biomechanics, evaluating how disease affects the body’s tissues, and how to repair it. She then went on to be a postdoc at Columbia. “I did a lot of cellular work,” she explained. “It’s what most people think of when they think of tissue engineering.” She found her niche at Osiris Therapeutics, where she spent most of her industry career. She was drawn to the small company’s focus on stem cell technology, and during her 14 years there, she would rise to the position of chief scientific officer. Williams led the development of five different stem-cell products, including inventing Osteocel, the first commercially available stem cell product in the world, used for spine surgery. Williams also spearheaded research and development for repairing damaged knee tissue, and then went on to lead clinical trials on mesenchymal stem cells, which can self renew and differentiate into multiple tissues. “I really grew up with that company,” she said. “We did some of the first good clinical studies about stem cell treatments. We did a lot of regulatory work with the FDA, and we obtained the first marketing approval for a stem cell product, which was for graft-versus-host-disease, from Health Canada. Graft-versus-host disease is a life-threatening complication of bone marrow transplantation in cancer patients.” From those clinical trials and research, Williams segued into communicating science with physicians and working with the sales team to market devices. One of those was a product that used cellular technology to improve wound repair. “When I was talking to doctors or working
with outside companies, many of which were larger than us, on collaborations, early on there was this insecurity. But I found that when people realize you know what you’re talking about, they really respect that. So, I always made it a point to make sure I understanood as much as I could about what customers needed, not just the engineering and science behind what we were doing. Being able to bridge those things helped build relationships.” Williams realizes that she might be a minority as a female engineer, but she that hasn’t stopped her from using her analytical abilities and her passion for devising products and solutions that address real-world issues. She said that one of the best examples of being a woman in a maledominated field came from one of her adviser during her graduate studies at Duke. “She helped me see that while a lot of people think it’s a sign of weakness to ask questions, it’s not. It taught me that no one knows everything and it’s ok to learn. That’s a lesson I’ve carried over into my industry career.” Williams is proud of her accomplishments, but she’s made it a point not to rest on her laurels. She joined Aziyo in 2014, drawn to the organization’s mission to be a leader in regenerative medicine. She enjoys the challenge of determining what products can help further that goal, and how she can use her deep knowledge base to make an impact. She praises her colleagues for their intelligence and their shared ambition that engineering and medicine can play a role in transforming lives. “I’m looking to help find ways to grow some of our cardiovascular technologies to help reduce infections and other complications in implanted devices,” she said. Williams knows the work is challenging, but her career has taught her that challenges make the successes all the sweeter.
ENGINEERING ALUMNI HONORED FOR ‘SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS’ Eight George R. Brown School of Engineering alumni have been honored for their “accomplishments and incredible impact,” in the words of Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering. “We are here tonight to honor women and men who, after leaving Rice, have taken their intellectual curiosity, creativity and critical thinking and made significant contributions to the profession and society at large,” DesRoches told the 120 guests who attended the dinner and awards induction ceremony held April 27 in the Houston Club. The event was sponsored by the School of Engineering and the Rice Engineering Alumni Board.
Held at the Houston Club in downtown Houston, this innaugural event was a fitting tribute to Rice engineering alumni and the start of an ongoing tradition.
“Your success burnishes Rice Engineering’s reputation for excellence in education and leadership. Thank you for everything you have done for Rice and the School of Engineering.” —Reginald DesRoches, Dean of Engineering
Co-emcees for the dinner: John Jaggers ’73, Engineering Advisory Board chair and Priya Prasad ’08, REA immediate past president
From right to left: Mark Dankberg ’76 ’77 with ECE Chair Edward Knightly and his wife, Elizabeth Knightly; John Jaggers ’73, EAB chair and co-emcee; and Tara Dankberg, Mark’s daughter
School of Engineering Dean Reginald DesRoches with engineering faculty Lydia Kavraki (CS) and Antonios (Tony) Mikos (BIOE)
Bill Russel ’68, George Webb ’88 ’91 and Jay Collins ‘69
2018 RICE ENGINEERING ALUMNI HONOREES
DISTINGUISHED ENGINEERING ALUMNI AWARDS This award recognizes “a lifetime of professional achievements, leadership and contributions made professionally and to society at large.”
Melbern G. (Mel) Glasscock earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rice in 1961. He worked for almost 20 years in the oil and gas industry and in 1980 founded Texas Aromatics, Inc., a petrochemical marketing company specializing in aromatic feedstocks, refined aromatics and olefins, gasoline blendstocks and heavy fuels. He serves as the company’s president and CEO. At Rice, Glasscock established the Alan Chapman Award for senior engineering students in honor of Alan Chapman, the former dean of engineering who taught for 60 years at Rice. Wylie Bernard (Ber) Pieper earned a B.A. and a B.S. in civil engineering in 1953 and 1954, respectively. He joined Brown & Root Inc., a Houston-based engineering, procurement and construction company and owned by brothers Herman and George R. Brown. Halliburton Co. acquired Brown and Root in 1962. He moved to Halliburton’s corporate office in 1992 and was named vice chairman and COO in 1994. He retired from Halliburton in 1996, and now operates a private office, Pieper Interests. He served as a member of the Board of Trustees at Rice from 1996 to 2000.
OUTSTANDING ENGINEERING AWARDS This award honors “outstanding professional achievement and service to society.” Mohit Aron earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science in 1998 and 2000, respectively. He founded Cohesity in 2013, and remains its CEO. In 2016, CRN recognized Cohesity on the list of Storage Emerging Vendors You Need to Know, and as one of the Top 25 Disruptors.
Mark Dankberg earned his B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering in 1976 and 1977, respectively, and is co-founder, chairman and CEO of ViaSat Inc., a leading satellite communications firm. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2017 and is a member of the Rice University Board of Trustees. Wendy Valka Hoenig earned her B.A. in materials science in 1986. She is president and CEO of H&H Business Development, a consulting firm that delivers technology and business assessments for start-ups and private equity companies. She is past president of the Board of Directors for the Rice Engineering Alumni.
Michelle LeRoux Williams earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1995 and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2000. She joined Aziyo Biologics as COO in 2014. Previously, she served as CSO of Osiris Therapeutics, where she led the development of five stem-cell products.
OUTSTANDING YOUNG ENGINEERING AWARDS This award recognizes the achievements of engineering graduates who are younger than 40. Garrett J. Grolemund graduated from Rice with an M.S. and Ph.D. in statistics in 2012. After graduation, he joined RStudio, the free and open-source integrated development environment for R, a programming language for statistical computing and graphics. At RStudio, he is a data scientist and educator.
Christopher Powers earned a B.S. in chemical engineering in 2002. After graduation he went to work as a process engineer in Chevron’s Energy Research and Technology Company in Houston. He now serves as manager for maintenance and reliability at the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Miss.
During PBS’ NOVA WONDERS session at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. Jan. 17, 2018, NOVA Wonders series producer Michael Bicks, co-host, CEO and co-founder of Affectiva Dr. Rana el Kaliouby and co-host and Associate Dean for Research and Experiential Learning and Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College Dr. Talithia Williams discuss their new series, which reports from the frontiers of science and follows researchers as they pursue provocative and unanswered questions that just might change our world and the future. Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS
STAT ALUMNA GETS A STAR TURN
Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation
If you caught the PBS series “Nova Wonders” over the spring and summer, odds are you saw statistics alumna Talithia Williams ’08, who earned her Ph.D. at Rice. Williams is the host of the series that explores some of the biggest questions in science, such as “What’s the universe made of?,” “Can we build a brain?,” “What’s living in us?” and “What are animals saying?” Being on TV was never part the Harvey Mudd College math professor and associate dean’s plans. “They reached out to me,” she said about the production crew. “They’d seen a TED Talk of mine [called “Own Your Body’s Data”] and they liked how it made statistics and data approachable. They sent a producer out to California to have breakfast with me, and the concept of the show sounded interesting.” That was two-and-a-half years ago, and Williams said the journey from concept to show was an education in how television works. For two years, between 2015 and 2017, Williams would fly out of Los Angeles once
NEW REA PRESIDENT PROMOTES CONTINUED COLLABORATION
a month after her Thursday class, and spend four days taping segments with WGBH in Boston. She did further voiceover work in L.A. It was a grueling schedule, she said, although she was amazed at the end of it to find out how many airline miles she’d racked up. “The whole thing felt surreal until it actually came out,” she said of the experience. “Because I was only working on my part of it. We’d do segments in a warehouse that looked kind of bare and unsophisticated, but then I saw the show and what they could do with the green screen behind me. It was amazing to watch it all come together.” For Williams, it also hit a certain sweet spot of hers: helping people understand how STEM works in their everyday lives. As a professor, she wants to see her students not only get excited about math and data science, but have a concrete conception of why those numbers matter in everything from predicting health outcomes to saving the environment. Working on “NOVA Wonders” gave her the opportunity to present that platform on a larger stage. “The show allowed me to use a different part of my brain,” she said. “It was all about how we communicate science in a way that gets people excited about it. And the response was enthusiastic. Right now, we’re working on getting funding for more episodes. But, we might do something else in between, with me as a host.” Williams is taking her newfound role on television in stride. She said she’s heard parents and prospective students pass her as they’re touring campus and whispering that “I think she’s the one we saw on NOVA,” and that her three boys, ages six, eight and 10, have started saying “Our mommy’s famous.” “That’s a little weird,” she laughed. “But, you know, even though I didn’t plan on this at all, my experience brought me to this place.” She spent a year shadowing Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, part of an American Council in Education fellowship. “That showed me that part of being a leader on campus was not only to know your subject, but to be able to talk about it. You have to share the big picture of the institution, and your passion. If it doesn’t sound like I believe in what I’m talking about, how can I expect others to get excited? At Mudd, she’s examining the future of higher education, and what impact the college can have on the lives of its students. “Being associate dean has made me clue in a little more to what’s happening in my students’ lives, not just what they are doing in my class. And I’m thinking big picture -how can I be part of changing the culture to improve their experience. I’m really enjoying having those kinds of conversations.”
As Rick Swain ’75 ’76 takes over as president of the Rice Engineering Alumni, he’s focusing on connection. “One of the greatest things about Rice is that students develop such deep connections to faculty,” he said. “And we want to make sure that those students realize that share a connection to Rice as they become alumni themselves.” Part of fostering that kind of spirit is a change in the REA mission statement: “The REA supports, honors and connects Rice engineers before and after graduation.” Swain, who received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in mechanical engineering, believes that students who see the work the REA does to enhance their education become alumni dedicated to giving back. Over the last two years, the organization has donated funds to enhance the mechanical engineering lab, and added a student liaison position to the REA board. This summer, the group put together a matching donation challenge in concert with fundraising for the Rice Annual Fund, generating more than $18,000 that was given to the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen to purchase a new 3D printer. “I want to be sure we’re not losing ground on what we’ve accomplished in the past,” said Swain. He said that across the coming year, the REA will look for more opportunities to fund projects that support the School of Engineering and its students. The group will continue to sponsor student design teams, and will continue giving scholarships to deserving engineers. Swain said the board is currently discussing an initiative similar to the mechanical engineering lab renovation. Something else Swain wants to strengthen is the way the board’s committees work. With teams dedicated to communication, events and finance, Swain feels there is plenty of work for board members to do. But he’s encouraged his committee chairs to iron out concrete areas for volunteers to concentrate on, for example, having a communications committee member dedicated to creating the monthly e-blasts, or having a sponsorship committee volunteer handle fundraising for a specific project. “We have an active board and dedicated alumni,” he said. “We’re always looking for ways to engage their time and talents. And I think we’re just going to continue to grow and do great work for the School of Engineering.”
REA GIVES MORE THAN $150,000 IN SCHOLARSHIPS AND GRANTS AT ANNUAL PICNIC April’s annual End-of-Year Picnic, hosted by the School of Engineering and the Rice Engineering Alumni, celebrated the accomplishments and contributions of Rice Engineering Students. The picnic’s highlight was the awarding of more than $150,000 in scholarships and awards.
Bob Dickson Awards Named for the 1955 alumnus to recognize a student or students whose work benefits society Chukwuldi Nnali ‘18 chemical engineering Massey Branscomb ‘18 material science and nanoengineering The Buckley-Sartwelle Scholarship Created by Jack Boyd Buckley ’48 and Helen Sartwelle Buckley ’44 in memory of their parents Margaret Webb ‘19, mechanical engineering Hershel M. Rich Invention Awards Honors Hershel Rich, ’45, ’47 and recognizes the best engineering inventions Awarded jointly to Marco Tulio Fonseca Rodrigues, Ph.D. student, and Pulickel Ajayan, The Benjamin and Mary Greewood professor and department chair and professor of materials science and nanoengineering Qilin Li, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center. James W. Waters Creativity Awards Named for Professor James Waters ’17 Steve Schara ’19 materials science and nanoengineering Yujun (June) Chen ‘18 electrical engineering Ralph Budd Thesis Award Given in recognition of the best thesis in engineering Kuldeep S. Meel ‘17 computer science
Harrianna Butler Scholarship Recognizes a married engineering student Sudha Yellapantula, fourth-year graduate student, electrical and computer engineering
Clark Zha ‘18 mechanical engineering T.M. Panos Award Created by siblings Micahel ’53 and Ellie Panos to recognize an outstanding senior in mechanical engineering Nickolas Walling ‘18 mechanical engineering Walter Austin Memorial Scholarship Yirong (Bob) Zhang ‘19 computational and applied mathematics Joe D. and Margaret Clegg Award Nathalie Phillips ‘19 mechanical engineering Phil Layton Award for Excellence in the Arts Ajay Subramanian ‘18 materials science and nanoengineering Grace Jenkins ‘18 computational and applied mathematics Willy Revolution Awards Recognizes innovation and creativity in engineering design The Jugularnauts: Nick Calafat, Yida Liu, Akhil Surapaneni, Jack Terrell and Angela Zhang Rice Eclipse: Andrew Gatherer, Jeremy Palmer and Sam Zorek Outstanding Research Excellence Award Alex Hwang ‘18 electrical engineering and physics
Alan J. Chapman Award Named in honor of former Dean of Engineering Alan Chapman ’45, to recognize an outstanding senior in engineering
Distinguished Research Excellence Awards Clayon Little ‘19 mechanical engineering William Cannon Lewis ‘18 computer science and mathematics Outstanding Leadership Excellence Award Emma Baker ‘18 mechanical engineering Distinguished Leadership Excellence Awards Abigail Cartwright ‘18 civil engineering Margaret Roddy ‘18 chemical engineering International Service Award Horatia Fang ‘19 chemical engineering Outstanding Senior Award Ethan Perez ‘18 computer science Distinguished Senior Awards Andrew Gatherer ‘18 mechanical engineering Clark Zha ‘18 mechanical engineering Outstanding Junior Award Samuel Zorek ‘19 mechanical engineering and policy studies Distinguished Junior Award Tianyi Zhang ‘19 electrical engineering Brent Schwarz ‘19 mechanical engineering
Professor of Chemical Engineering William W. Akers was integral to the design of the world’s first artificial heart in the 1960's. In a groundbreaking interdisciplinary approach to developing the device, Akers worked with researchers from Rice and surgeons from Baylor College of Medicine, including Dr. Michael DeBakey, to test how different artificial heart valves would affect blood and blood flow. He’s seen here with an artificial valve and silastic tubing. Akers died in 2017 at the age of 94, but his collaboration with DeBakey, physicians at Baylor and his Rice colleagues led to decades of pioneering research in the biophysical dynamics of blood flow, shear stress and strain, and how these factors play a role in cardiovascular disease. In 2015, his $1 million gift established the William W. Akers Endowed Engineering Scholarship fund to support high-need, undergraduate engineering students.