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UH Researchers use cutting-edge laser mapping technology to uncover evidence of ancient cultures.







A message from publisher Ramanan Krishnamoorti

Recognizing faculty accomplishments and UH awards

Ramanan Krishnamoorti Acting Vice Chancellor and Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer


Richie C. Hunter Vice Chancellor and Vice President for University Marketing, Communication and Media Relations




Keidra Gaston (’04) Interim Executive Director, Marketing and Communication


Enita Torres (’89)


Alese Pickering (’98)


Damisi J. Delaney (’11) Rainer Schuhsler


Jessica Villarreal


Shawn Lindsey


Sam Byrd Melissa Carroll Sarah Dugas Eric Gerber (’72, M.A. ’78) Jeannie Kever Lisa Merkl (’92, M.A. ’97) Kristina Michel Francine Parker Danielle Ponder Marisa Ramirez (’00)


UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON SYSTEM BOARD OF REGENTS Tilman J. Fertitta, Chairman Welcome W. Wilson Jr., Vice Chairman Beth Madison (’72), Secretary Durga D. Agrawal, MS (’69) and Ph.D. (’74) Spencer D. Armour III, (’77) Jarvis Hollingsworth, J.D. (’93) Paula M. Mendoza, UH-Downtown (’95) Asit R. Shah Peter K. Taaffe, J.D. (’97) Roger F. Welder Send address and email updates to: University of Houston Donor & Alumni Records 5000 Gulf Fwy Bldg 1 Rm 272 Houston, Texas 77204-5035 Send feedback to: Research and Innovation Magazine is published by the Division of Marketing, Communication and Media Relations. Printed on Recycled Paper The University of Houston is an EEO/AA institution. 06.2015 | 7,000 Copyright © 2015 by the University of Houston

A digital version of this publication is available at Watch the video related to this story online.

UH Faculty members celebrated for their scholarly acumen


RESEARCH BRIEFS • Expressive Writing May Help Breast Cancer Survivors • Childhood Poverty Increases Obesity Rates • Proximity to Drug Treatment Facilities May Not Help Users • UH Launches Plans for a Superconductor Manufacturing Institute • The Movie Industry’s Team Structure Could Benefit Academia • Camouflage Technology Inspired by Marine Life • Slowing the Progression of Nearsightedness in Kids • A New Material to Generate Electric Power From Waste Heat • UH Study Focuses on Suicide Resilience and Vulnerability • Professor Ranks No. 1 for Marketing Research • Molecule That Binds Potent Greenhouse Gases • Fighting Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria • Classroom Management Program Receives $3.5M Research Grant • Supercomputer Provides Massive Data Analysis in Less Time


15 GLOBAL GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERIES UH Researchers use cutting-edge laser mapping technology for projects around the world. The team helped uncover further evidence of an ancient culture in the Honduran jungle.

20 CONSERVATION YIELDS UNDERGRAD AWARDS Two UH Honors College students have been nationally recognized for outstanding research in conservation.

22 TAKING OUT CANCER Three researchers at the University of Houston are actively investigating innovative approaches to cancer treatment– chemotherapy, immunotherapy and microRNA.



DANCING WITH SCIENCE UH Neuroscientist and associate professor of dance, team up to study how creativity affects the brain.





Graduate School of Social Work Associate Professor Luis Torres discusses SMART Cougars, a program with a mission to prevent and reduce HIV/AIDS transmission among minority youth.


SMART CEMENT “Smart” Cement Could Talk to Engineers about Well Conditions.



Jan Bergmanson, clinician, anatomist, pathologist and founding director of the Texas Eye Research and Technology Center, is on a quest to change lives.

A profile on the University of Houston’s College of Optometry post-doctoral fellow Leah Johnson.




TEACHING BY EXAMPLE Former Shell President inspires students in his Case Studies in Energy & Sustainability research seminar.


39 UH SPURS INNOVATION, STARTUPS The UH Innovation, Creation and Commercialization Center provides space for startup companies.

CREATING RESEARCH EXCELLENCE At UH, we have pursued 88 years of excellence through the creation of knowledge in natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics, engineering, technology, architecture, optometry, pharmacy, arts, writing, music, public policy, law and business policy. This research magazine exemplifies many of those outstanding achievements. I would like to thank Dr. Rathindra Bose for outstanding leadership as the institution experienced dramatic growth in research and technology transfer – becoming the powerhouse for innovation and gaining national recognition for the same. The recent “Connections” award by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) in recognition of the innovation ecosystem fostered at UH, and the growth of the Energy Research Park are testaments to the transformation the University has undergone in a short period. Research at UH is focused on critical areas of national, regional and local issues and targeted to globally impact human health, the arts and energy. A case in point is the concentration on developing new strategies to transform cancer treatment and intervention highlighted in this issue through the outstanding research of Drs. Rathindra Bose, Shaun Zhang and Preethi Gunaratne. Additionally, the growth of an outstanding faculty is critical for continued excellence– we welcome our newest member of the national academies – Dr. Christine Economides (NAE). We acknowledge the latest fellow inductees of the National Academy of Inventors – Drs. Allan Jacobson and Richard Willson (NAI). We also offer our congratulations to the latest winners of the UH Awards for Excellence in Research, Scholarship or Creative Activity – Drs. Bruno Breitmeyer, Dan Graur, Candice Alfano, Zhu Han, Christy Mag Uidhir and Daniel Frigo. Our special recognition goes to Dr. David Ashley White for his outstanding contribution to music and being named the 2015 Esther Farfel award recipient. Furthermore, we celebrate the continued excellence of the Office of Intellectual Property Management, the growth of the student entrepreneur talent pool and the creation of the innovation center focused on developing an environment to grow this important aspect of the academy. I am so fortunate to work with these and other distinguished scholars, students and research staff at UH who have earned and contributed to the national and international recognitions.

Ramanan Krishnamoorti

Acting Vice Chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer, University of Houston System Acting Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer, University of Houston 4

NATIONAL ACADEMY SHOWCASE These UH Faculty members are justly celebrated for their scholarly acumen, industrious research and educational dedication. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERS

development of an anticancer drug now in clinical trials. He plans to return to the faculty as a professor in the Department of Chemistry in September. Paul C. W. Chu, founding director and chief scientist of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH), opened the door to major energy breakthroughs with the discovery of superconductivity above 90° Kelvin. He has received numerous awards for his work, including election to the National Academy of Science. Allan Jacobson, the director of the TcSUH, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford. He joined UH in 1991 after discovering a new class of cathode materials. At UH, he discovered new microporous crystalline metal silicates, a group of compounds with potential applications as catalysts, supports, adsorbents, drying agents and ion exchangers. Dmitri Litvinov, vice provost and dean of the graduate school, holds a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the University of Michigan. His research interests range from the development and applications of novel magnetic materials and devices at nanoscale dimensions to stateof-the-art sustainable interdisciplinary research. Dan Luss, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. His research interests include problems related to the reduction of environmental emissions from diesel engines. He was named to the National Academy of Engineering in 1984.

A new member of the University of Houston faculty, Christine Ehlig-Economides, joined the UH Cullen College of Engineering in 2014. She is the first-ever William C. Miller Endowed Chair Professor of petroleum engineering, as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Ehlig-Economides was elected to the NAE in 2003 and is one of 12 UH professors who belong to the organization. She became the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering, graduating from Stanford University in 1979. Ehlig-Economides was also named a Chief Scientist for the Sinopec Research Institute of Petroleum Engineering as one of the Thousand Talents in China. Her career as a Schlumberger engineer allowed her to travel the world for 20 years. She has published more than 115 papers, lectured or consulted in 50 countries and holds two patents.

Zhifeng Ren, principal investigator at TcSUH and M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of physics, holds a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. He has produced work in a wide range of scientific fields, from high-temperature superconductivity to carbon nanotubes. He joined UH in 2013 and received the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST). Venkat Selvamanickam holds a Ph.D. from UH and is M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He is also the director of the Applied Research Hub of TcSUH. In 2014, he received the inaugural IEEE Dr. James Wong Award for Continuing and Significant Contributions to Applied Superconductor Materials Technology.

NATIONAL ACADEMY OF INVENTORS, FELLOWS Benton Baugh, distinguished adjunct professor of mechanical engineering, earned his bachelor’s degree from UH and holds a masters and Ph.D. from KennedyWestern University. He has more than 50 years of experience in oilfield and subsea systems and has been issued more than 100 patents. Rathindra N. Bose, vice president/vice chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer at UH, holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Georgetown University. His work includes more than 96 published articles and the


Richard Willson, interim associate vice president for Technology Transfer and professor of biochemical and biophysical sciences, earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Willson is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Inventors.






A study conducted by Qian Lu, associate professor and director of the Culture and Health Research Center at UH, shows writing about fears, emotions and potential positive aspects of cancer diagnosis may improve the quality of health for Asian-American breast cancer survivors. Cancer patients sometimes experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. Lu wanted to research ways to reduce the psychological burden among minority patients, particularly Asian-American breast cancer survivors – a group that had received little focus in previous studies. She noted that some challenges with this group include feeling stigmatized, shame associated with cancer, cultural beliefs of carrying the burden alone to maintain harmony, concealing emotions and a lack of trained mental health professionals with cultural and linguistic competency.

According to Lu, previous research found that writing about emotionally difficult events, even for short amounts of time over a few days, increased the writer’s immune system’s utility. The release offered by writing directly impacts the body’s capacity to endure stress and fend off infection and disease. Participants in the study were asked to complete a standardized health assessment and write 20 minutes each week for three weeks. Three sealed envelopes were mailed simultaneously to the participants. Each envelope contained unique writing instructions for the corresponding week. The results, gathered through questionnaires at three and six months after the writing assignments, showed an impact. “The findings suggest participants perceived the writing task was easy, revealed their emotions and disclosed their experiences in writing that they had not previously told others. Participants reported they wrote down whatever they thought, and felt the intervention was appropriate and valuable,” said Lu. Lu shared the results associated with this study included less fatigue, intrusive thoughts and post-traumatic stress, along with an increase in quality of life and positive mindset.  —Melissa Carroll

POVERTY AND OBESITY A University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) study finds childhood poverty impacts the lives of white, Hispanic and AfricanAmerican young adult women, increasing their likelihood to become overweight and obese. “We’ve found a connection between the long-term exposure to poverty during childhood and obesity rates among young adult women,” said HHP’s Daphne Hernandez, an executive board member of the UH Texas Obesity Research Center. The results are published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Hernandez used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the personal files of nearly 4,000 young adults born between 1980 and 1990 to examine the number of years they were exposed to family-level poverty from birth to age 18. She noted children who are repeatedly exposed to family-level poverty generally live in stressful, socio-economically disadvantaged communities. “Disadvantaged neighborhoods are associated with more fast food restaurants, fewer grocery stores, lower levels of safety and fewer opportunities for physical activities. All of this can contribute to weight gain over time,” said Hernandez. She found that while obesity rates increased along ethnicity lines for young women, the same didn’t occur for young adult white men. “Poverty is associated with adolescents gaining work experience as early as 13 years old. For boys, this may mean being involved in manual labor jobs, which are related to greater levels of physical activity,” Hernandez said. “The higher level of physical activity may act as a ‘protective factor’ against obesity.” She says this research suggests that helping families rise above poverty may be useful in lowering obesity rates in white, African-American and Hispanic women.   —Marisa Ramirez




TOO CLOSE TO RECOVERY Proximity to drug treatment facilities may not encourage users to seek help Conventional wisdom may indicate that the closer a drug treatment facility is to a person needing those services, the more likely the drug user is to utilize its resources for recovery. However, a study from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work suggests the opposite might be true. The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), examined 219 Hispanic men, 45 years of age and older who were injecting and noninjecting heroin users. Using geographic information systems (GIS), researchers looked at the geographical location of services and its effects on a person’s risk of future drug use and ability or willingness to access those services. “We found that individuals who lived closer to services were less worried about injecting in the future,” said Patrick Bordnick, professor and co-investigator of the study. “But at the same time, those living closer to services and in areas with greater density of services reported a higher chance of injecting in the future.” The study also found that those having more access to facilities were more likely to buy heroin inside rather than outside the neighborhood. Bordnick says the counterintuitive trends are rooted in the stigma associated with addiction and treatment. The stigma’s effects may be heightened for Hispanic and other minority groups, where seeking treatment could be viewed as a weakness. By moving into the neighborhoods they aim to serve, treatment facilities may enhance the stigma and consequently increase drug abuse behaviors. While underscoring the need for additional research on the link between the geographic location of drug treatment facilities and their use, the study advises those involved in treatment facilities to remain attentive to the cultural needs of at-risk communities and to promote all-encompassing treatment plans that support a patient’s recovery. This would help reduce the stigma of seeking recovery from addiction and increase health among ethnic minorities. —Marisa Ramirez





The University of Houston will lead plans for an Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute, aimed at speeding the full commercialization of hightemperature superconductors. Energetics Inc. will support UH in this effort. Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH, is principal investigator for a $500,000 planning grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The grant will be used to develop an industry-led consortium to address technical obstacles that have limited superconductor manufacturing, as well as to develop a business plan for the institute. Selvamanickam is also director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, which develops high-performance superconducting wire, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, Army Research Laboratory, National Science Foundation, The State of Texas and industry. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, acting vice chancellor and vice president for research and technology transfer and chief energy officer at UH, noted the University’s role in fundamental advances of high-temperature superconductors over the past 25 years. “Under the leadership of Dr. Selvamanickam, with our partners in the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute, I anticipate a revolution in the scalable manufacturing of low-cost, high-performance superconductors,” Krishnamoorti said. Lightweight and powerful, superconductor devices are used in energy, health care and transportation, among other uses, and offer advantages over conventional technology, including increased efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Supporters of the proposed institute, including companies prominent in the superconductor industry, spent almost two years laying the groundwork in an effort catalyzed by Rathindra Bose, UH vice president for research and technology transfer. Selvamanickam said the next 18 months will be used to build a consortium of industry, academia and others who will develop plans to address the roadblocks to low-cost, high-volume production, quality assurance and reliability testing. His expertise with superconductors can guide the consortium. “But it’s not what I think is important,” Selvamanickam said. “It’s what industry needs.”  —Jeannie Kever



The team structure found in the movie industry may benefit the academic world. Science no longer is the work of ‘solo genius’ but instead the outcome of a cooperative operation. “The discovery of the Higgs particle, for instance, took more than 3,000 scientists working together,” UH Professor Ioannis T. Pavlidis said. Pavlidis and UH Professor Ioanna Semendeferi, along with Alexander M. Petersen from the IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy, published a commentary in an issue of Nature Physics. Titled “Together We Stand,” the piece discusses how synchronicity will involve rethinking graduate education and research, starting from quantitative analysis of serious issues. The authors contend that research and science have become more of a team effort, yet academia – the main home for scientific operations – remains largely the same in the way it functions: career advancement is constructed around individual acknowledgment, grants are typically awarded to a single faculty member as the principal investigator (PI) and students trek through curriculum independently. They recommend that academia adopts the movie industry’s model. As a primary example, they point toward the Oscars, where the director, leading actors and other roles in the filmmaking process are recognized. Pavlidis, Petersen and Semendeferi provided several recommendations to institute change. One suggestion addressed the PI structure in research grants, stating it may be more beneficial to implement a “crew structure” with multiple specialized PIs operating with equal importance. The commentary was based on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the Italian National Research Council.  —Lisa Merkl



Researchers’ Camouflage Technology Draws From Marine Life

It could be a fun party trick – put your cell phone down on a table and watch it fade into the woodwork – or part of a lifesaving technology used by industry or the military. A researcher from the University of Houston and his collaborators developed a technology that allows a material to automatically read its environment and adapt to mimic its surroundings. The technology was described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, said the optoelectronic camouflage system was inspired by the skins of cephalopods, a class of marine animals including octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, which can change coloration quickly, both for camouflage and as a form of warning. Earlier camouflage systems didn’t automatically adapt, he said. “Our device sees color and matches it. It reads the environment using thermochromatic material.” The prototype works in black and white, with shades of gray, but Yu said it could be designed to work in the full color spectrum and can be easily scaled up for manufacturing. The flexible skin is comprised of ultrathin layers, combining semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic color-changing materials in such a way to allow autonomous matching to background coloration. While the most valuable applications would be for defense or industry, Yu said consumer applications such as toys and wearable electronics also could offer a market for such a technology. He worked with researchers from the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign and Northwestern University on the project.  —Jeannie Kever


The University of Houston is part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study to determine whether commercially available, soft bifocal contact lenses slow the progression of nearsightedness in children. Investigators at the Colleges of Optometry at both UH and The Ohio State University were awarded grants from the NIH’s National Eye Institute, worth approximately $7.5 million. The Bifocal Lenses In Nearsighted Kids (BLINK) Study is a multicenter randomized clinical trial that will follow nearly 300 children over the course of three years. Dr. David A. Berntsen, an assistant professor in the UH College of Optometry, is the principal investigator for the UH clinical site of this collaborative effort. Children 7 to 11 years old will be enrolled and randomly assigned to wear soft contact lenses with no reading power, soft contact lenses with medium reading power or soft contact lenses with high reading power. The investigators will measure the length of the eye and the amount of nearsightedness to determine whether light focused by the reading power of the soft bifocal contact lenses in front of the retina will result in slower eye growth and, thus, slower progression of nearsightedness. “This study will determine whether soft bifocal contact lenses can be used to slow how quickly a child’s nearsightedness increases,” Berntsen said. “If we find that soft bifocal contact lenses are effective, then the information we learn from this study will aid in optimizing future lens designs to slow eye growth and the progression of nearsightedness in children.”  —Lisa Merkl




University of Houston researchers have created a new thermoelectric material with greater efficiency and higher output power than currently available materials. The material, germanium-doped magnesium stannide, is intended to generate electric power from waste heat, such as from a vehicle tailpipe or an industrial smokestack. Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics and a principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, says the new material has a peak power factor of 55, with a figure of merit of 1.4. This figure of merit is a key factor in determining efficiency. Ren says it is important to look for materials with a high power factor, or output power density, in addition to the traditional focus on a high figure of merit, or efficiency, commonly referred to as ZT. “Pursuing high ZT has been the focus of the entire thermoelectric community,” he said. “However, for practical applications, efficiency is not the only concern. High output power density is as important as efficiency when the capacity of the heat source is huge, such as with solar heat, or when the cost of the heat source is not a big factor, such as in waste heat from automobiles or the steel industry, for example.” He says one typical application would be to use it in a car exhaust system to convert heat into electricity to power the car’s electric system that, in turn, would boost mileage. Another would be to use it in a cement plant, capturing waste heat from a smokestack to power the plant’s systems. Ren has formed a company, called APower, to commercialize the material, along with a frequent collaborator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two former students.  —Jeannie Kever




According to a new University of Houston study, religious beliefs and practices may offset detrimental effects of racial discrimination and reduce thoughts of suicide in the African-American community. Experiencing racial discrimination can cause an excessive amount of psychological stress, which could lead to depression and other high–risk factors for suicide, according to the research of Rheeda Walker, associate professor and director of the Culture, Risk and Resilience Lab at UH. Walker is the principal investigator of the research study “Perceived Racism and Suicide Ideation: Mediating Role of Depression but Moderating Role of Religiosity among African American Adults” published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. The study’s goal was to assess suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, religious orientation and perceived racism in a community sample of 236 African-American men and women. Walker’s research provides evidence that perceived racism may play a role in suicidal tendencies. The study’s findings support the notion that extrinsic religiosity (external motivation for being religious, such as meeting people, community conformity, cultural heritage, etc.) can buffer the harmful effects of racism. “Although discrimination can have adverse emotional consequences, the findings suggest that the ‘use’ of religion perhaps to connect with others or to meet some other need, can be emotionally helpful among individuals who experience racism,” said Walker.  —Melissa Carroll

BEST OF THE BEST IN MARKETING RESEARCH The doctoral student association from the world’s leading organization for marketing scholarship, American Marketing Association Doctoral Special Interest Group (AMA DocSIG), recognized C. T. Bauer College of Business Professor Michael Ahearne as one of the United States’ most productive researchers in the field. With 10 publications between 2010 and 2014, Ahearne, who is a C. T. Bauer Chair in Marketing and executive director of Bauer’s Sales Excellence Institute, tied for first place for highest author productivity in AMA’s premiere journals, Journal of Marketing and Journal of Marketing Research. Ahearne’s articles primarily focus on enhancing the performance of salespeople and sales organizations to improve brand image. His textbook, “Selling Today: Partnering to Create Customer Value,” is the highest grossing sales textbook in the world. Ahearne’s work contributes to the overall success of the Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship, which tied for 14th place in the world for publication in the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Marketing Research, and 32nd in the world for publications in all premiere marketing journals.  —Danielle Ponder



University of Houston researchers have developed a molecule capable of binding large quantities of several potent greenhouse gases. “Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, have received much attention lately because of their potential to dramatically affect Earth’s climate, primarily the temperature of the planet,” said Ognjen Miljanić, associate professor of chemistry and leader of the team. Beyond carbon dioxide, Miljanić said several other compounds are hundreds or thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases. That includes Freons, used as common refrigerants, and fluorocarbons, highly stable organic compounds in which one or more hydrogen atoms have been replaced with fluorine. “We developed a molecule that self-assembles into a structure that can capture these greenhouse vapors to the tune of 75 percent by weight,” Miljanić said. “This molecule could be used to capture Freons from disposed refrigeration systems, for example, or to concentrate them prior to analysis of their content.” Other members of the team include Chemistry Professors Allan Jacobson and Olafs Daugulis, from the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, along with researchers from the University of Chicago and the Taiwan National Synchrotron Radiation Research Center. Porous materials with similar pore sizes have previously been developed, but the materials were often sensitive to water, difficult to process and recycle, as well as heavy, because of the presence of metals. The new material is stable to water and composed from individual molecules held together only by weak interactions, with no metal connectors, making it lightweight, Miljanić said.  —Lisa Merkl


THE FIGHT AGAINST ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANT BACTERIA Two University of Houston professors address the relentless game of cat and mouse played between antibiotics and bacteria with $519,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health


Longtime collaborators on combatting drug-resistant bacteria, chemical and biomolecular engineering Professor Mike Nikolaou and clinical sciences pharmacy Professor Vincent Tam produced a patented equation to assess the effects of antibiotics on bacteria. Discovering a bacteria-killing molecule that is safe and effective for patients can easily take a decade. Nikolaou and Tam’s work can more efficiently analyze data to find drug combinations that are both effective against bacteria and safe for patients. By the end of 2015, they anticipate developing the first working prototype of a methodology and associated software that improves the process of determining effective


antibiotic cocktails for patients in clinical settings, as well as expedites the development and approval of new antibiotics. Single antibiotics are becoming less and less effective against bacteria, so doctors frequently must use combinations of antibiotics. Physicians, however, are presented with the challenge of considering overwhelming permutations of antibiotic combinations and dosing regimens for patients. Nikolaou and Tam are working to optimize the process by reducing the amount of time and guesswork needed to assess which drug combinations are the most effective at killing bacteria. The professors plan to use existing image analysis technology to automatically record the effects of various antibiotic cocktails on bacteria. A laser detector modified for their purposes can feed the data to computer software the team is in the process of developing that runs the patented mathematical model. “The user will simply have to push the button, and the software will do the calculations that guide the doctor on what antibiotic or combination of antibiotics to use,” Nikolaou said. Automation provides opportunities to collect additional data at more frequent intervals. The software also can account for differences between patients and test tubes. “By doing this, we’ll be gaining efficiency,” Tam said. “And, ideally, that would eliminate the need for physicians to run excessive numbers of tests in a clinical setting.  —Lisa Merkl

CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT RESEARCH IMPROVING STUDENT SUCCESS The award-winning University of Houston Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program, part of the College of Education, received a $3.5 million grant from the Institute of Education Science (IES), which is the research branch of the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose is to study how CMCD strategies affect the behavior and achievement of more than 31,000 Houston-area elementary students. Jerome Freiberg, a UH John and Rebecca Moores Endowed professor and director of CMCD, says the program is expected to decrease student office disciplinary referrals and increase student learning by fostering student personal responsibility, which leads to greater self-discipline. The program teaches research-based, school-tested classroom management strategies that forge positive teacher-student relationships, create organized learning environments, improve instruction and cooperatively establish classroom discipline procedures. The grant will fund a four-year study of the CMCD’s effectiveness in classrooms of 30 elementary schools in the Aldine Independent School District. The program will focus on third and fourth grade, an important time period for intervention, as experiences during these developmental stages often are indicators of future student success. For the first two years of the study, half the teachers will receive CMCD intervention training and coaching support and half will follow established practices. The reverse is implemented in the third and fourth years of the study. UH Professors David Francis and Coleen Carlson of the UH Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES) are co-investigators on the study and will conduct evaluations.  —Marisa Ramirez

NEW SUPERCOMPUTER: FASTER, BIGGER DATA ANALYSIS UH acquires computer used to solve large problems that individual PC’s can’t handle The Center for Advanced Computing and Data Systems (CACDS) has added a new, state-of-the-art computer to its stock of research tools, a high-performance system with the computing power of more than 450 desktops. The addition, to be used primarily for scientific and engineering work, more than doubled the previous computing power at the University of Houston. Supercomputers have a large number of central processing units, or CPUs, that function simultaneously and can be used to collaboratively solve complex problems or analyze large data sets. The additional computing power will allow UH researchers to perform massive computations on extremely large amounts of data in a short period of time. Rathindra Bose, vice president for research and technology transfer at UH, said the acquisition marked the start of a new era in supercomputing, both at the University and for the surrounding community. “With this new system, we are on our way to becoming Houston’s primary source for supercomputing resources and expertise,” he said. Houston’s two major industries, energy and health, benefit from large-scale computing. “Much of today’s research exploits computers to perform experiments and to evaluate very large amounts of data,” said Barbara Chapman, director of CACDS and professor of computer science in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “This new supercomputer will allow us to bring breakthrough technologies to a new generation of researchers hoping to solve tomorrow’s problems today.”  —Jeannie Kever


PRESIDENT’S SPOTLIGHT The recent accomplishments of these talented UH faculty members have contributed greatly to the recognition and reputation of the University of Houston. We applaud their success and congratulate them on these notable achievements. Shuo Chen

Shuo Chen, assistant professor of physics, was recently awarded the Robert A. Welch Professorship in High Temperature Superconductivity and Materials Physics from the Texas Center of Superconductivity at UH. The two-year professorship was created by the Robert A. Welch Foundation to support outstanding faculty, research faculty and visiting scientists. Chen’s research includes synthesis, in situ electron microscopy and device application of materials.

Thomas Colbert

Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture Professor Thomas Colbert was named the 2014 Educator of the Year by the American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Chapter. Colbert focuses much of his research on the Houston/Galveston area, particularly on preserving Texas coastlines and protecting coastal communities from threats such as hurricanes. Debora Rodrigues Debora Rodrigues, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, recently received the Emerging Investigator Award from the Sustainable


Nanotechnology Organization. Rodrigues’ research focuses on using nanomaterials to develop new methods for water purification and treatment. In addition to her research, she was recognized for her work with students and her outreach to other educators. UH Wins APLU Connections Award

The University of Houston was recognized with the “Connections” award at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ second annual Innovation & Economic Prosperity University Awards in November. UH was recognized for fostering an innovative environment through such measures as its partnerships with university stakeholders and industry experts, its many entrepreneurship and talent development programs, and the development and expansion of the Energy Research Park. The Innovation and Economic Prosperity awards recognize universities that are leaders in spurring and promoting regional economic development. AAAS Fellows

Dan Graur, John and Rebecca Moores Professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, and Mary Ann Ottinger, associate vice president for research at UH and associate vice chancellor for research for the UH system, were recently elected as fellows for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Graur has been at UH since 2003. His research specializes in molecular evolution with a focus on bioinformantics and computational analysis. He was elected to the AAAS section on education for “distinguished contributions toward educating a generation of scientists in the fundamentals of molecular evolution and evolutionary genomics.” Also a professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, Ottinger was elected to the AAAS section on biological sciences. She was honored for her

distinguished contributions to the field on neuroendocrinology. Her research focuses on reproductive neuroendocrinology, and she is a frequent collaborator with the National Institute on Aging. UH Receives IEEE Milestone Award

As the site of the discovery of a material that made high temperature superconductivity practical for real-world applications, the University of Houston was recently awarded the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering’s (IEEE) prestigious Milestone Award. The award is only the second IEEE Milestone to be awarded in the field of superconductivity and the first Milestone for the Houston region. The superconducting material, yttrium-barium-copper-oxide, or Y-123, was created by physicist Paul Chu and his colleagues in January 1987. Its development has led to several advanced applications of superconductivity in energy, medicine, communications and transportation, including MRI images, electric motors, satellite sensors and high-speed trains. NSF CAREER Award Recipients The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program awards to Lars Grabow and Bora Gencturk of the Cullen College of Engineering and Yuliya Gorb of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Grabow’s CAREER award will go towards exploring a novel chemical looping process for oxidative coupling of methane, while Gencturk is working to increase resiliency in bridges against aging and environmental hazards such as earthquakes. Gorb received her CAREER award for her research in describing various phenomena of composite materials and for an educational outreach program she is developing for high school girls. She is the first Department of Mathematics faculty member to receive an NSF CAREER award while at UH.

GLOBAL GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERIES UH Center uses laser mapping around the world to produce valuable research data. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR AIRBORNE LASER MAPPING



PREVIOUS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Flying over the Honduran Mosquitia; An antarctic dry valley; navigating the Honduras jungle; pristine, remote creek near the main archeological settlement; partially exposed carved stone vessels believed to be part of an offering; Titan LiDAR system seen through the mapping port of aircraft in Antarctica; Archaeologists wading through a stream; peaks of the Olympus Range, Antarctica


Antarctica? Check. Honduras? Guatemala? Mexico? Check, check, check. Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz, a researcher with the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, has been a traveling man this year, as he and his colleagues deploy the center’s specialized skills for projects around the globe. Being on technology’s cutting edge offers an exciting window into scientific exploration. It also means always keeping your passport handy. The center, known as NCALM and based at the University of Houston, uses laser mapping, satellite data analysis and other technologies to produce high-quality scientific data in a sprawling array of fields – archeology, homeland security, environmental studies, natural disaster surveillance and more. Ramesh Shrestha, center director and principle investigator (PI), says NCALM is driven by a threepronged mantra: Provide the best possible research data to scientists, advance the technology for laser mapping and train graduate students to use laser mapping and other technologies. It has made strides on all three since he and Bill Carter, chief research scientist and co-PI, brought the center from the University of Florida to UH in 2010, where it is operated jointly with the University of California at Berkeley. The Texas Commission on Higher

Education approved an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in April, more than two years after approving a master’s degree in geosensing systems engineering and sciences. But most people outside academia know NCALM for its role in Honduras, where researchers mapped and identified previously undocumented settlements from an ancient – and so far, unnamed – civilization. NCALM first mapped the area in 2012, using light detection and radar (LiDAR) technology from a small airplane sweeping over the rainforest. The findings triggered talk that researchers had found the legendary White City, or Ciudad Blanca. But Fernandez, a native of Honduras, said they found evidence of two cities and several smaller settlements, indicating not the mythological city but instead supporting evidence of an ancient civilization, one not previously registered with the Honduran government’s database of cultural patrimony.

More To Discover In Honduras

Fernandez returned to Honduras this year, along with a crew of archaeologists, an anthropologist, Honduran military forces and a documentary film crew. A reporter and photographer from National Geographic accompanied them, and the resulting coverage went viral. Fernandez said there is still much to learn.



Point cloud (green) of the tropical rain forest in La Mosquitia, Honduras from LiDAR returns



“Bare Earth” 3D image underneath the rain forest where ancient ruins such as Plaza and Pyramid are clearly visible


Plaza and Pyramid overlaid by contours


OPPOSITE PAGE: Aerial oblique photo of the archaeological site of “Las Crucitas de Aner” at the edge of the Mosquitia. The Photo shows a series of rectilinear mounds which are representative of the monumental archaeology of North Eastern Honduras. This site was exposed when a group of farmers clear-cut the rain forest to give way to agriculture and cattle ranching. With the destruction of the forest also came the deterioration of the archaeological site.



“We don’t know who they were or how they lived, what foods they produced and consumed, or how they died,” he said of the original inhabitants. “One of the nice things about being on the cutting edge of science and technology is more questions than answers.” For all the buzz about Honduras, it is just one of NCALM’s recent high-profile projects.

Smart Phones, Earthquakes And Floods

Craig Glennie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-PI at NCALM, was involved in research using smartphones to create a lowcost earthquake early warning system. The project, which also involved scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several other universities, is aimed at high-risk regions where more detailed but far more expensive conventional warning systems aren’t available. Hyongki Lee, a NCALM researcher and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, worked with collaborators to develop software that can translate satellite data into maps and descriptions of river levels throughout South Asia. He will train people in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal – countries that rely upon water supplies from seasonal rains and monsoon floods – to better predict flooding in an effort to reduce deaths and other damage. Two other recent projects, like the work in Honduras, relied upon the center’s LiDAR expertise. LiDAR works like this: Thousands of short laser pulses travel from a specially equipped airplane to the ground and back; the distance is determined by the time between transmission and detection of the reflected signal. That information, along with details about the plane’s movement and location, are combined to produce detailed three-dimensional topographical maps. The newest version sends 900,000 bursts of laser pulses to the ground every second. State-of-the-art was just 3,000 per second when Shrestha and Carter first used the technology nearly 20 years ago. “We’ve been pushing from the very beginning to have as high a pulse rate as possible,” said Shrestha, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Mapping Antarctica

In Antarctica, Fernandez and NCALM researchers Darren Hauser and Abhinav Singhania mapped the McMurdo Dry Valleys – one of the few regions of Antarctica not shrouded in ice, crucial because LiDAR can penetrate water but not ice, fog, soil or other obstacles – in order to determine if increased Antarctic temperatures have caused the underlying ice trapped in the permafrost to melt, and how that has contributed to changes in Dry Valleys topography. The data still are being analyzed, but the work offered its own lessons. The region was the largest NCALM has mapped with LiDAR – 5,000 square kilometers, or about 1,930 square miles. Weather conditions were harsh. The new system,

with its 900,000 pulses per second capability, had just arrived, leaving little time to test it. It worked well in the harsh environment, cutting mapping time by more than half. As backup, the crew also took an older system, which emits 100,000 pulses per second, and used it as well. The Antarctica mapping was funded by the National Science Foundation, which also provides operational support to NCALM, most recently with a $3.18 million, five-year grant in 2013. NSF-funded investigators receive a price break on NCALM services, but the center also serves other customers, including scientists, governments and commercial enterprises. Work to map Mayan ruins in El Ceibal, Guatemala, for example, was funded by the Japanese government; the crew also mapped the Teotihuacan site in Mexico. The center continues to expand. The graduate program, using faculty from the Cullen College of Engineering and the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, has 36 students; leaders hope it will reach 50 within a few years, as additional faculty is hired. Now that the center is settled in an airy space at the Energy Research Park with room for a future lab, Shrestha wants to move beyond simply consulting on new LiDAR technology. “We want to build equipment ourselves,” he said. “We have the people, the talent to really put UH’s stamp on what we need.”

Senior researcher at NCALM, Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz, in Honduras.




wo University of Houston undergraduates have been nationally recognized for research excellence. While both have a general interest in conservation, they have been following different scientific paths in exploring that crucial subject. Sophia Ewens, a junior biochemistry major, has been focusing on bioremediation, essentially converting hazardous materials and pollution into more beneficial forms. That work, along with earlier efforts in Professor T. Randall Lee’s lab investigating nanoshells as carriers for drug molecules, earned her recognition as a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention. The Goldwater program acknowledges sophomoreand junior-level students with outstanding scientific potential. Sujata Gautam, a sophomore civil engineering major, was recently recognized as an Udall Scholarship Honorable Mention, reflecting her dedication and achievements in environmental studies. In her freshman year, she was selected to participate in the prestigious three-year Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program and spent her first summer conducting field research in post-wildfire plant growth in the Ponderosa Pine Forest near Bandolier, New Mexico. This summer, she will be doing more field research in Utah. Both are members of UH’s Honors College. “Gautam and Ewens are wonderful examples of the emphasis UH places on encouraging our undergraduates to participate in research and of the quality of the research they can be involved with,” says Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Ewens came to UH as a National Merit and Tier One Scholar after growing up in a small – “make that very small,” she corrects – town in Wisconsin. Her wanderlust, along with an interest in attending a strong, research-oriented institution, brought her to UH – albeit with a few reservations about Houston. “I was concerned there might be an element of that stereotyped Southern, small-town mentality,” she concedes. “Once I got here, I realized it wasn’t really an issue. And the diversity at UH is just amazing. I’m still in awe of how many friends I’ve been able to make from different countries,” she says.


Her initial foray into serious research at UH involved the generation of nano sized particles that could be customized to transport therapeutic drug molecules. “That was intriguing, but I realized I wasn’t passionate about nano chemistry,” she says. Ewens has been using her UH experience for specialized research in protein analysis at the University of Minnesota during the summer, concentrating on bacterial cell reactions with an eye toward renewable biofuel and pollution-abatement products. In addition to her obvious scientific acumen, Ewens is also an accomplished pianist, with two Distinction Awards and one Merit Award from the London College of Music Examinations for performance and music theory. That classical background hasn’t prevented her from “rocking out” with a number of bands on occasion. She’s also a big outdoors buff, with windsurfing, long boarding and snowboarding among her pastimes. Looking ahead, Ewens may pursue graduate studies in environmental biotechnology at Santa Cruz, UCLA or even Queensland, Australia. “I started studying biochemistry because of my unending desire to know why things work the way they do,” she says. “I just can’t wait to find out where life takes me next.” A similar enthusiasm for discovery and environmental concerns inspired Sujata Gautam – “Susie” to her family – to come to UH. “I want to focus on the scientific aspect within the broad, interdisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems,” she says. In particular, she is interested in waste and sustainability. “We need to find practical ways to position waste as a potentially valuable resource,” she explains. “Something like urine, for instance. Used properly, it can be a real asset in gardening.” Gautam’s interest in recycling and repurposing reaches back to her early days growing up in McKinney, Texas (30 miles north of Dallas) in a family of Nepali heritage. “Most people look at things and think, ‘That’s junk.’ But I think, ‘Hmm, what could you do with that?’ Even as a child, I was always collecting things like empty cereal boxes and broken Barbie dolls, trying to find useful things to do with them. I once built a pretty cool log cabin out of old Kleenex boxes,” she recalls. Attending UH on an Academic Excellence Scholarship, she also serves as a student residence hall assistant, bringing supervision and harmony to 40 of her fellow Cougars, as well as an “All-Star Committee Member” with the University’s Metropolitan Volunteer Program. When Gautam’s not immersed in school and community work, she can be found rock climbing, kickboxing and hiking. Her future plans include …. well, she’s not so sure. “I’m interested in a master’s degree at Arizona State’s School of Sustainability, but after that …,” she says and shrugs. “Eventually, I see myself working in an agency addressing environmental issues— not necessarily broad, sweeping changes so much as helping smaller communities individually.” She does have a more immediate objective, actually – more of an ardent desire. “I’d really like to visit a landfill,” Gautam says. “How cool would that be?”

“Gautam and Ewens are wonderful examples of the emphasis UH places on encouraging our undergraduates to participate in research.” —Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research

From Left: Sophia Ewens and Sujata Gautam

TAKING OUT CANCER Three UH Professors are Leading the Fight Against the Deadly Disease. BY LISA MERKL

Cancer is destructive and a challenge to contain, much less eradicate. It’s a malevolent disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in the body. Although there are more than 100 types of cancer, they all start because of these abnormal cells that grow out of control. Normal cells in the body follow a cycle of growing, dividing and dying in a routine way, with most cells only dividing to replace worn-out cells or repair injuries. The problems begin when certain cells start to grow out of control. This is how cancer starts. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow, forming new abnormal cells, as well as invading other tissue. This happens due to changes in a cell’s DNA. In normal cells, when DNA is damaged the cell either repairs the damage or dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, and the cell does not die. Instead, cancer cells go on to make new cells the body doesn’t need, which have the same damaged DNA as the first cell. Since DNA is in every cell, with the responsibility for directing all its actions, researchers are increasingly focusing on targeting cancer at cellular and molecular levels, as well as continuing to improve upon conventional treatments. Approaches currently at the forefront of innovation are being actively investigated at the University of Houston – chemotherapy, immunotherapy and microRNA. Three researchers in the role of warriors fighting this deadly adversary are Rathindra Bose, Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang and Preethi Gunaratne.


Cisplatin (Activation) Phosphaplatins (No Activation)



Bose has made great strides in his cancer research with chemotherapy. He says cancer is a disease of genetic disorder and should be treated as such. He believes organ-based treatment is the strategy of the past, so he has concentrated on the design and discovery of anticancer drugs that address major signaling pathways to shut down the growth of tumor cells by cutting blood supply and selectively killing cancer cells. He believes that you don’t need to deliver a drug to an exact cancer site or organ. Instead, he says, you can disable the genes that cause the cancer and activate the genes that suppress cancer growth or kill cells. Spending years working on platinum-based cancer drugs, he developed an anticancer drug that is currently in clinical trials. Used by 50 percent or more of cancer patients worldwide, platinum therapies are, in many ways, the backbone of medical oncology. While platinum therapies have been in the frontier of treatment with or without a combination of other drugs, they are known to be toxic, causing kidney damage, neurological damage and other problems. Bose’s goal was to find a class of platinum compounds that would be effective without exhibiting severe toxicities. He discovered a new class of anticancer drugs, called phosphaplatins, which are considered the next-generation platinum antitumor agents targeting solid tumors. Phosphaplatins are a family of small molecules designed to replace the prior generations of platinum-based therapies in the treatment of cancer. They have potential to treat metastatic cancers. Unlike traditional cancer therapies, which target specific organs, these compounds work on all three major pathways that can be used to control cancer – killing only the undesired cancer cells, activating tumor suppression genes and cutting the blood supply to the cancer cells. The compounds have been licensed to the clinical stage pharmaceutical company Phosplatin Therapeutics. The Phase 1 clinical trials are designed to test the drug for safety and tolerability, adverse effects and to find the best dosage for patients. The trials are being held at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the University of Colorado Cancer Center in












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Human and yeast DNA repair genes are not activated by phosphaplatins. The concept of this picture was partly adopted from to reflect phosphaplatins activities.

Aurora, Colorado and the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee. While the lead compounds were shown to be effective against 96 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s 60 major cancer cell lines, the clinical trials will focus on lung, gastrointestinal and ovarian cancers. However, the trials will be open to anyone with cancer for whom standard treatment has been unsuccessful. Later phases, if it advances, will test for efficacy against specific cancer types. With six patents under his belt and another seven or so pending, the creation of this new class of anticancer agents, he says, is his greatest source of pride. “My inspiration for taking on this project came from different angles,” Bose says. “Eliminating or at least reducing human suffering was my number one motivation. Improving the affordability of cancer drugs and reducing their toxicity, to give people both better access and fewer severe side effects, were also powerful motivators. An additional benefit of this particular class of

Unlike traditional cancer therapies, which target specific organs, these compounds work on all three major pathways that can be used to control cancer – killing only the undesired cancer cells, activating tumor suppression genes and cutting the blood supply to the cancer cells. Rathindra N. Bose, Vice Chancellor and Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer

drugs is that instead of targeting just one group, it will help a wide breadth of patients, since it has exhibited efficacy against a wide variety of cancers.” A fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, Bose credits his inclusion, in large part, to his discovery of this anticancer compound. He considers phosphaplatins as the most successful innovation that came from his laboratory over the last 30 years. “Academic researchers are driven by curiosity and the search for new knowledge,” Bose says. “But we also strive to produce work that can in some way improve the lives of the people around us.” To these ends, Bose has created many companies over the years and has been able to successfully take research from the laboratory to the marketplace. He says that as a bonus to gaining fundamental knowledge and training future generations of scientists is the fact that a potential product has come out of it with this latest development of phosphaplatins entering clinical trials. “I see a payoff in two different ways. Not only is there a potential societal benefit, but there are also benefits to students and postdocs I’ve trained,”

Bose says. “They have, in turn, become scientists and physicians, continuing to do their public service to society.” In addition to the infrastructure and human resources available to him in a university setting, he stresses the importance of funding. Funding for his research has come from a variety of sources, ranging from university backing to federal and state grants. He gives particular credit to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). “Texas is one of the best states to pursue cancer research due to its generous CPRIT program,” Bose says. “I am grateful for the support I received since arriving in Houston. Thanks to this funding, my lab now has ambitious plans to address neurotoxicity of cancer drugs that prevents many patients from enduring treatments.”


OUT OF THE BOX Beginning his career as a physician, Zhang developed an interest in viruses and the immune system during his years in practice as an infectious disease specialist. This led him to take on immunotherapy as a novel way to combat cancer. “Immunotherapy is very hot in cancer treatment in recent years, and the field is getting increasingly more interesting,” Zhang says. “If immunotherapy works, it’s the holy grail of cancer treatment. The main problem of current conventional cancer treatment is the unwanted toxicity of radiation and chemotherapy, because it’s not specific enough. By contrast, the immune system is one of the most specific recognition systems. If it works, it can precisely pick out tumor cells and destroy them, with little or no toxicity to normal tissue.” Zhang explains that the immune system is the body’s natural, built-in defense system. It’s primarily developed to protect against invading pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. It also serves to defend against malignant disease. With cancer, however, the immune system seems to struggle. One reason, he says, is because the malignant cells originate from normal cells and look almost identical, so the immune system has difficulty


recognizing them. Immunotherapy is designed to help the immune system recognize tumor cells better or make it more effective at responding to and destroying malignant cells. “The body has a defense mechanism in place that makes it reluctant to launch an attack on itself due to the fear of developing an autoimmune disease, which is brought on by an overreaction of the immune system,” Zhang says. “Since the body considers tumor cells as part of itself, it just tolerates the tumor, which then is free to grow, unhindered, in the body. While under normal circumstances, this reluctance is a good safety mechanism to have in place, it becomes problematic in cancer, causing a person’s immune system to underreact to the malignant cells.” In recent years, Zhang says there have been two major developments in cancer immunotherapy. Both manipulate T-cells, which are a type of white blood cells that protect the body from infection. The first development has been in checkpoint inhibitors. The immune system depends on multiple checkpoints to avoid developing autoimmune diseases that attack healthy cells. These checkpoints, however, also prevent the immune system’s T-cells from functioning properly against tumors. With checkpoint inhibitors, researchers have developed antibodies to block two major checkpoint molecules that, in turn, free T-cells to attack tumors. The second approach is to modify T-cells directly, introducing a gene to help the T-cells recognize tumor cells. Unlike the more traditional cancer vaccines that rely on the reluctant body to generate specific T-cells to recognize and attack tumor cells, Zhang’s tactic is to use genetic engineering in combination with gene transduction. By doing this, they instantly convert T-cells into tumor fighters, no longer relying on the body. “We put ourselves in the driver’s seat by forcing T-cells to fight tumor cells,” Zhang says. “We take the T-cells out and transduce them with a gene, called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). The unique CAR we have created

Our body's immune cells (T–cells) do not have the natural ability to attack tumor blood vessels.

Modified T–cells (T-eCAR) can recognize and destroy tumor blood vessels, cutting off blood supply to the tumor and causing tumor shrinkage.

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LEFT: Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, M.D. Anderson Professor of Biology and Biochemistry ABOVE: The illustration shows the process by which the T-eCAR technology modifies T–cells to specifically target tumor blood vessels.

Unlike other therapies that count on the body to come up with something useful, we convert the T-cells into tumor fighters. We give them a guided weapon rather than rely on the T-cell to pick up the weapon. is called eCAR. It contains a tiny ingredient called echistatin, the key component for bonding to the cells of tumor blood vessels.” This eCAR technology modifies T-cells to specifically target tumor blood vessels, which is different from similar mainstream approaches that only recognize and kill tumor cells. The mainstream approaches are a one-to-one situation. While they work well, they need a lot of T-cells to do the job, and this has been proven to be quite challenging from a practical standpoint. Instead of just individual tumor cells, the T-cells Zhang’s team is creating can recognize and destroy tumor blood vessels that affect millions of tumor cells, cutting off the blood supply, which is where their nutrients come from.

Without blood supply, the solid tumor cannot grow any bigger and shrinks. “Unlike other therapies that count on the body to come up with something useful, we convert the T-cells into tumor fighters,” Zhang says. “We give them a guided weapon rather than rely on the T-cell to pick up the weapon.” Zhang recently formed two biotech companies for translating his group’s research into the clinical arena. With the patent-pending T-eCAR approach now licensed, he expects it to go into clinical trials within a year. Additionally, he and Bose are working together under a $1.2 million CPRIT grant to combine the T-eCAR immunotherapy with the phosphaplatins chemotherapy. They hope that by destroying the tumor blood vessels with the immunotherapy, they will be able to facilitate the delivery of the chemotherapy to be preferentially delivered into the tumor cell so that the drug level in the tumor will be higher than in the normal cells. This would help them lessen the toxicity of the drug to normal tissue.


CANCER TREATMENT OF TOMORROW A genome sequencing pioneer in the field of microRNA research and application, Gunaratne sees tailor-made cancer treatments in the near future. An ardent supporter of personalized medicine, she is particularly excited about the $215 million Precision Medicine Initiative, announced by President Barack Obama, which is designed to leverage personal characteristics to develop more effective cancer treatments. Gunaratne says it validates the increasing need for personalized approaches in the health care industry. “Ultimately, we anticipate that all patients who present with cancer will have their tumors subjected to whole genome sequencing,” she says. “This will give us a full view of all the things that have gone wrong. This genomic portrait of each patient’s tumor will then be used as a framework for practicing precision medicine.” Gunaratne was a key contributor to The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a flagship project of the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health, established to leverage advances in genome sequencing technologies. The TCGA consortium of scientists were tasked with the ambitious goal of finding every single genetic change associated with 20 cancers by sequencing tumors from 500 patients for each cancer. This effort has yielded an unprecedented view of the cancer genome. Gunaratne says the advances in genome sequencing technologies are unraveling the genetic blueprints underlying cancer and other complex diseases. Specifically, her contributions to the TCGA consortium included elucidating the role of a tiny class of noncoding genetic molecules called microRNAs and pinpointing those that could unleash the body’s natural cancer-fighting agents. While attention has long centered on DNA, little consideration has been given to its cousin RNA or to microRNAs, which were once considered “genetic junk” that played no significant role in the human genome due to their size and inability to make proteins. In the last decade, though, these once-dismissed tiny molecules have catapulted to occupy a central position in biology. “DNA are certainly the building blocks that govern many of our processes, but only about 3 percent of the genome codes for protein,” Gunaratne says. “If we are to truly take the precision medicine effort all the way, we must also pay attention to the 97 percent of our genome that is noncoding that was previously considered trash, but now emerging as containing quite a bit of functionality.” She goes on to say that while researchers understand the contribution of protein coding, work must be done to decipher what role the noncoding part of the genome plays in cancer and other diseases. She adds that the TCGA also revealed that only 10 percent of the genome is druggable using conventional drugs and methods. She says that’s only about 350 of a person’s 30,000 genes. This is where microRNA comes in. Gunaratne says researchers have discovered about 2,000 microRNAs that can target and silence 80 percent of the 30,000 genes. This expands the druggable genome from 10 to 80 percent. “Our plan is to use this expansion of druggability to develop the nextgeneration cancer drug,” Gunaratne says. “In the course of our research, we learned that a single microRNA can target and silence hundreds of genes. They are the circuit breakers we use on a day-to-day basis in responding to various outside insults, preventing disease. This provides us with a beautiful scheme where we can very quickly respond to a large number of mutations. If we want to take a whole network of cancer-causing genes out, we deploy a microRNA circuit breaker. The implications of this in developing future drugs are huge.” She offers a compelling analogy, likening microRNA to a drone.


“If you think about it, the analogy is that cancer is a terrorist hiding in our body, and chemo is like bombing the village and hoping it finds the terrorist,” Gunaratne says. “If we use microRNA to narrow down the target, it’s like having a little delivery truck with the exact address of where the terrorist lives, and we deliver the bomb to the house.” Gunaratne has chosen to target ovarian cancer, because it’s the most lethal gynecological malignancy, but her group has identified a unique microRNA that has the potential to be effective against 80 percent of cancers beyond just ovarian. She and her team have developed three lead candidate microRNAs that activate a specific protein. “About 80 percent of cancers have a defect in the p53 protein, which is the guardian of our

If we want to take a whole network of cancer-causing genes out, we deploy a microRNA circuit breaker. The implications of this in developing future drugs are huge.

LEFT: Preclinical testing of 3 tumor suppressor microRNAs (TS-miRs) on ovarian tumors in 3D models outside the body. All three microRNA-drugs obliterated the tumor by preventing the cancer cells from sticking together to form a solid tumor. In the case of TS-miR-NEXT-B031 (bottom image) the lead candidate selected for clinical development the cell also induced a process called ‘Anoikis, a form of programmed cell death that is induced when cancer cells are unable to stick together and communicate with each other to come together to form a tumor. ABOVE: Preethi Gunaratne, Associate Professor of Biology and Biochemistry

genome, so we know cancer cells are accustomed to and adept at outmaneuvering this protein,” Gunaratne explains. “Our microRNA lead candidate, however, activates the p63 protein, an ancient family member from which p53 evolves.” Used for development, p63 is not generally present in high levels once we’re fully developed, since it’s no longer needed. As an ancient relative to p53, however, p63 can perform many of the same functions, yet is rarely mutated by cancer. By awakening p63 with their lead candidate microRNA, the researchers hope to circumvent mutations in p53 by launching a surprise attack on cancer cells. “When we started, microRNAs were very outside the box, but now there’s buy-in from the community that these could be valuable therapeutic agents, and the next step is to move toward clinical trials,” Gunaratne says. “I think we are very well-positioned to be the first microRNA to be tumor targeted, as well as the first microRNA to circumvent mutations in p53 by activating p63.”

Responding to a CPRIT new company formation grant, Gunaratne’s group established Next microRNA Technologies. Preclinical work has shown their lead candidate microRNAs are able to both destroy cancer cells and sensitize tumors to chemotherapy. Their plan in establishing this company is to complete the preclinical work and then go to Phase 1 clinical trials. “CPRIT is especially supportive of out-of-the-box type work and was the first to enable me to start this research,” Gunaratne recalls. “I don’t think these efforts would ever be funded if not for CPRIT.” Gunaratne and her team also have partnered with SynerGene Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that develops targeted diagnostics and therapeutics. SynerGene already has had success with a delivery platform technology that penetrates tumors and delivers therapeutics specifically into cancer cells. This intravenously administered, tumor-targeting nanoparticle has safely delivered the human tumor suppressor gene p53 in Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials. Once Gunaratne’s team gets approval for their payload of microRNAs to be carried in this delivery vehicle, their goal is to be the first microRNA in clinic that’s tumor targeted. “We have to bring the noncoding genome in,” asserts Gunaratne. “It’s not like chemo will be excluded. It’s a matter of how we can all come together and how we can tailor make it to a patient’s tumor.”



Dancing With Science by Jeannie Kever


ecky Valls is racing an unseen enemy, trench coat and bare feet flying as she runs, swoops and dives through a small space at the Jose Quintero Theatre, stage lights flickering in time with the shifting brainwaves projected behind her. Art, meet science. Valls, associate professor of dance at the University of Houston, and neuroscientist and engineer Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal are studying how creativity affects the brain. “Every time she performs, she is creating,” Contreras-Vidal said. “We want to know what it takes to be creative. We want to understand the process, and maybe train people to get better at it.” Contreras-Vidal develops algorithms based on electrical activity in the brain; much of his research involves helping people with disabilities use bionic hands or regain movement by “walking” in exoskeletons powered by their own thoughts. The work with Valls is different, part of the emerging discipline of neuroaesthetics, which combines neuroscience and the study of art, creative movement and perception. It follows a project last year with artist Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection, when Contreras-Vidal offered museum visitors the opportunity to record brain activity as they viewed Robleto’s artwork. Contreras-Vidal, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his research group have written two papers based on their work at the Menil, one about the technical aspects and the second to interpret the brain activity they recorded. He needs to gather data from additional performers before drawing conclusions about the dance collaboration. But Valls

already has found a connection to her own research, which involves teaching science through dance. In addition to teaching at UH, she works with younger students as a teaching artist, primarily through Young Audiences of Houston. For the past five years, she has trained teachers at the UH Charter School, which serves students through fifth grade, to help children illustrate scientific principles through dance. Movement alone floods the brain with oxygen and can help students focus – that’s why teachers may have them perform jumping jacks or other exercise during difficult classes. Dance goes further. “Because they are creating dances based on science, the students have to deepen their understanding,” Valls said. “They have to pull in other information. I’m proposing that because they learn with more parts of their brain involved, it will improve retention and deepen the learning of science.” Valls hasn’t published her findings and hopes to find a collaborator from another discipline to extend her analysis. Interest in that sort of interdisciplinary work is growing, as James Rosengren, deputy director of Blaffer Art Museum, found last year when he reached out to UH faculty to participate in Blaffer’s Innovation Series, a series of public programs developed around the exhibition “Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown,” which dealt with memory loss and the role of memory in forming identity. Valls responded, planning to bring UH Charter School students to perform a dance about Alzheimer’s disease. When Rosengren suggested she work with Contreras-Vidal, she was intrigued by the combination of art and science. “My belief is that dance is a human social interaction that brings a different kind of experience to learning science,” she said.

“That’s what Pepe (Contreras-Vidal) is trying to look at, how moving your whole body deepens an experience.” The two had met several years earlier, when a dancer from the University of Maryland came to UH to work with Contreras-Vidal on a project to study brain activity during expressive movements, aimed at better understanding movement. The tools for understanding emotion and creativity are similar, so Valls was fitted with motion sensors and a wireless skullcap embedded with 64 electrodes to track both her physical movements and the emotions behind them. The dance, an intense eight-minute solo that Valls describes as expressing anger and fear but also survival, is one of her signature compositions, and she and other dancers have performed it across the United States. The emotion made it a good choice for the project, she said, and her bone-deep familiarity with it may help in interpreting the EEG results. But simply wearing the skullcap inevitably had an effect. “I think it has to, because during the performance you are always responding to the audience, and they were watching my brainwaves,” she said. “The light was getting more intense. But it was secondary because just to perform takes all of your faculties.” And that – “all of your faculties,” the workings of the whole brain – is what interests Contreras-Vidal. Each creative mind will be different, but the ultimate results could hold implications for all of us. “If we knew how creativity comes into play,” he said, “maybe we can become more creative.” ART AND SCIENCE COME TOGETHER ON THE DANCE FLOOR AS BECKY VALLS PERFORMS.






By Marisa Ramirez

Social Work teaches that societal issues, like mental health concerns, substance abuse and some health conditions, are all connected. Graduate College of Social Work Associate Professor Luis Torres discusses an innovative program called SMART Cougars, which takes aim at HIV/AIDS transmissions in minority young people. Torres has a class exercise to illustrate the complexity of societal problems. He writes the name of a social issue on the board (like child abuse) and asks students to suggest causes. The white board soon becomes cluttered with responses. He then randomly circles one of their

responses and asks for its cause. Invariably, responses lead back to the original social problem posed, showing the interconnectedness of social issues. Among ongoing research at the Graduate College of Social Work are studies on health disparities and the conditions that may lead to them. In the past year, the college has submitted more than 17 major proposals for research, totaling $3,665,535. Torres is lead investigator for SMART Cougars (Substance Use, Mental Health and HIV/AIDS Risk Assessment and Testing), a program that addresses HIV/ AIDS education among young minorities.

Q. How are social issues connected? A. It’s an interesting question and at the end of the day an

Q. Where is SMART Cougars? A. “We have rotating booths all

academic one. Do you develop a substance abuse problem first and then develop a mental illness or health issue, or is it the other way around? For every case, the pathway is different. Social work believes what you are experiencing as an individual is couched in a broader context of your family, community and society. The important point is to recognize it’s all interconnected.

Q. How does SMART Cougars address that? A. Latinos and African-Americans are impacted

disproportionately by HIV/AIDS. HIV testing is frequently delayed due to access to care, affordability or treatments that are not responsive to culture or an individual’s context. Latinos have one of the highest rates of premature termination of any kind of treatment. One of the reasons is that treatment may not resonate with who they are. Latinos and African-Americans account for 57 percent of the metropolitan area population, but represent 82 percent of new HIV diagnoses and 73 percent of people living with HIV. SMART Cougars began in January 2015 with a goal of preventing and reducing HIV/AIDS transmission among minority youth. It provides free rapid testing, and free counseling and screening for mental health or substance abuse issues. Participants learn these conditions are connected and how to reduce their risks. In the first three months, more than 250 people have participated.

Q. Stigma also must be a challenge. A. HIV is still a tremendously stigmatized condition,

even though we’ve crossed an interesting threshold. HIV/AIDS is now talked about as a chronic, managed condition. We’ve reached a point where, with early identification and proper treatment, people can live normal life spans. But the sense of urgency seems to be gone, and we let our guard down. As a result, when you look at data, young adults, particularly Hispanics and African-Americans 18-24, are still among the groups disproportionately impacted by HIV. This is the group SMART Cougars targets.

Q. Who funds the project? A. We are funded for three years by the Substance Abuse

and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA wanted to bring together minority-serving institutions and minority, community-based organizations to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS and development of mental health and substance abuse issues in minority groups ages 18-24. They particularly wanted to serve Latino and African-American populations. We are working with the Third Ward organization Change Happens! and Houston Area Community Services to deliver individual and group interventions on campus and in the surrounding community. Minority young adults in our target group can get an HIV test and participate in an intervention that incorporates screenings for mental health and substance abuse and risk factors for HIV/AIDS. They walk away with a clear plan of how to reduce their risk.

“Social work believes what you are experiencing as an individual is couched in a broader context of your family, community and society.”

over campus. We have space in the Wellness Center, and we are all over social media. We want young people to know that any of us can be impacted by mental health issues, substance abuse, HIV and other STDs depending on our risk factors. We explain how to talk about HIV/ AIDS, things like condom negotiation, because young people don’t know how to bring up a conversation about safe sex. The project is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is raise awareness and give young people tools to protect themselves and others.”

Q. What projects at the college address other health disparities, such as substance abuse and mental health? A. We received a 5-year, $1.25

million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study older Mexican-American injection heroin users and younger Mexican-American non-injection heroin users. Heroin use is back on the rise, and we need new tools to combat it. Additionally, we are involved in a three-state study on the effectiveness of recovery high schools as part of the continuum of care for adolescents with alcohol or drug use disorders. Houston has two recovery high schools and multiple adolescent treatment facilities.

Q. How does social work approach these issues differently than other disciplines? A. One key paradigm of social work

practice is ‘person in environment.’ We don’t just treat a person with symptoms, but within their broader context. The approach recognizes systems are interconnected. The second is an emphasis on strengths. Social work doesn’t just see deficits, symptoms, malaise in a community. We see strength, and we ask, ‘How can we build on that strength to address the challenges?’


JAN BERGMANSON: On a Quest to Change Lives and Give Back Sight By Lisa Merkl




Keratoconus has a tremendous impact on an individual’s life. Causing substantial distortion in a person’s vision, this potentially blinding eye disease often makes takenfor-granted activities challenging, if not impossible. Typically diagnosed in the adolescent years, the deterioration in vision can eventually affect a person’s ability to read, watch TV, drive or even work. However, there’s one person at the University of Houston who can give a second chance to people with this disabling condition. Chances are, if you’re seeking out the best in the nation for management and treatment of keratoconus and other corneal diseases, you’ll be referred to Dr. Jan Bergmanson, an optometrist and professor right here at the UH College of Optometry. “We’ve had people crying in the chair when they realize how much better they can see,” Bergmanson says. “And it’s happened more than once. We can make a dramatic difference. It’s almost a hidden secret that we have that capability here, and it’s not just me. In our clinics, you’ll find some of the most accomplished, experienced, published specialists.” With an O.D., Ph.D. and D.Sc., Bergmanson is not only a clinician, he is also an anatomist and pathologist. A founding director of the Texas Eye Research and Technology Center (TERTC) and diplomate in the Cornea, Contact Lenses and Refractive Technologies section of the American Academy of Optometry, Bergmanson is one of the preeminent doctors for corneal conditions in the nation. The cornea, which is the clear window of the eye, is responsible for two-thirds of the eye’s focusing abilities. Since it’s the first optical surface light meets, any abnormalities result in a bad image on the retina, making vision very distorted or blurred. This is the case with keratoconus, severely affecting the way a person sees the world and making simple tasks difficult. In fact, with one in 2,000 people having this disease, it’s one of the two most common corneal pathology causes for corneal transplants. While extreme cases of keratoconus must ultimately resort to corneal transplants, the standard of treatment for many patients is the use of a special type of contact lens, called a scleral lens. These lenses are quite a bit larger than regular gas permeable (hard) contacts. What makes them the preferred choice is that they don’t touch the cornea. Instead, they sit on the sclera, or white part of the eye. These types of lenses are Bergmanson’s specialty.

He says the cornea has more sensory nerve fibers than anywhere else in the eye, so if a lens touches it— as is the case with traditional hard contact lenses— it’s not comfortable. Where scleral lenses sit, there are far fewer sensory nerve endings, which makes the fit more comfortable. Instead of sitting on the cornea, the weight of the lens is placed over a larger area, away from this extraordinarily sensitive tissue. Bergmanson likens it to sitting in a recliner chair, rather than on the tiny seat of a racing bicycle. A PHENOMENAL LENS

Another advantage to scleral lenses is their ability to be contoured. Thanks to a combination of computer advances and technology, as well as modern materials and manufacturing techniques, Bergmanson says lenses now can be made with extremely complex curves cut into them. In addition to keratoconus, he says, scleral lenses are the go-to choice for vision correction after corneal surgery and for many corneal diseases, such as postcorneal transplant surgery, corneal scars and pellucid marginal degeneration, which Bergmanson also treats. “Even though the principle of scleral lenses has been around since the 1880s, we only recently have been able to get it to work,” he says. “It’s taken more than a century to get it to this point. It’s a phenomenal device, a modern marvel that really changes people’s lives, and this is very stimulating for a doctor to make such a difference in somebody’s life. The scleral lens can be the difference between driving or not driving. And, for some people, it’s the difference between working and not working.” What sets Bergmanson apart from others is that he approaches treating corneal diseases both as a clinician and scientist. “It became apparent to me that in order to understand this disease, we must first learn the anatomy,” he explains.

“It became apparent to me that in order to understand this disease, we must first learn the anatomy.” “We know too little about what the cornea should look like normally. We can’t just look at the abnormal and not know what it should look like. So that’s where my background as an anatomist plays in. You can’t study pathology without knowing the anatomy.” Additionally, he takes his research a step further by studying pathologically what’s going on in the keratoconic cornea using an electron microscope, which enables him to make observations at cellular and subcellular levels. This allows him to give patients directions on what to try and what to avoid. He adds that the TERTC is one of the few places in the world where research is conducted on keratoconus and on scleral lenses. Complications

and challenges do occur, but he says it’s important to learn how to deal successfully with it all. It takes both clinical and basic research to understand how it works and what needs to be done when it doesn’t. CORNEAL ANATOMY EXPERTISE

Another facet of his work involves studying both normal corneas not suitable for transplant surgery from eye banks and contrasting this normal anatomy with that of pathological tissue obtained from surgeons. Bergmanson says that, as a result, UH is the leading institution for expertise on corneal anatomy and in the pathological description and definition of keratoconus. His team is on the verge of explaining the mechanism behind the forward collapse of the cornea that causes the condition and, thereby, distorting vision. Bergmanson works closely with Dr. John Goosey, an ophthalmologist and corneal surgeon, who comes to UH once or twice a month to medically evaluate special cases. “What Dr. Goosey and I found from our research is that keratoconus is focused to the anterior third of the cornea, so you don’t have to take out the entire cornea to treat or manage the disease,” Bergmanson explains. “The standard seems to be to take out the whole cornea, but Dr. Goosey

can do the partial transplant, which has several advantages over the full thickness transplant.” And while Bergmanson estimates that Goosey does more transplants than any other corneal surgeon in Texas, Goosey’s first instinct is usually to check whether contact lenses could solve the problem. A big supporter of the research done at UH, he continually refers patients to Bergmanson for evaluation. In addition to his clinical practice and research, Bergmanson authored a textbook on the anatomy and physiology of the eye. As it’s typically difficult to find an up-to-date text on this subject, he went to the pharmaceutical industry, Alcon Laboratories, asking them to support production of the book and to give it to students for free through a grant. The book is also used at other institutions and internationally. “I’ve been at UH for 40 years and have had a good career here,” Bergmanson muses. “UH has been great in letting me develop and change. Very few places would have been able to give me the same opportunities and resources. That helps me spread the word around the world, representing the University in various meetings and places. I can tell you that in Europe, in my field, they look at UH like Harvard.”





Spotlighting University of Houston’s College of Optometry Post-doctoral Fellow, Leah Johnson by Sarah Dugas

“I never thought I wanted to study optometry!” said Leah Johnson, as she reflected on her professional journey. Johnson, a University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston College of Optometry (UHCO) graduate never knew that one day she would be walking across the same stage she witnessed her father walk across when she was a child. The native Houstonian recognized her interest in the bodily structure of humans, particularly the eyes, was more than just a course credit after taking a required anatomy course during undergraduate studies. Johnson desired to learn more, and she wanted a quality education. It didn’t take long for her to realize UHCO was the best choice. After gaining more knowledge about the corneal anatomy and the effects of corneal diseases, Johnson was on a mission to help make a difference in the lives of people with vision impairments. A major opportunity emerged during her fourth year at UHCO. Working


closely with her attending doctor and mentor, Jan Bergmanson, Johnson helped design special contact lenses for a 21-year-old woman whose driver’s license was revoked due to the corneal disease, keratoconus. The new lenses not only allowed the patient to drive again, she could also read at the near perfect line. This experience was engrained in Johnson’s mind and motivated her to continue learning and researching. As a post-doctoral fellow at UHCO, she works with Bergmanson daily to examine and treat patients with serious visual complications. During her studies, there have been numerous ocular disease discoveries that Bergmanson and other accomplished specialists are diligently researching to treat effectively and efficiently. Johnson is thrilled to be a part of a dynamic team. “I couldn’t have asked for a better post graduate year than being involved in the great research that is going on at the University of Houston.”




By Jeannie Kever



With the rattle and hum of a giant drilling bit churning through clay, a new frontier in oil and gas exploration began at the University of Houston this spring. A 40-foot well, designed to test “smart” cement developed by Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, professor of civil and environmental engineering, was drilled on the outskirts of the University’s Energy Research Park, a complex of research labs, technology incubation space and administrative offices just two miles from the main campus. The results could be far-reaching. Knowing where to find oil or natural gas is the first step in drilling a successful well, but what happens next – and how those next steps are performed – is crucial. Vipulanandan’s smart cement is a new piezoresistive material that can be monitored from an offshore platform thousands of feet above the well or even from hundreds of miles away. He is also developing the monitoring system. Cement slurry is pumped into a well to hold the casing to the natural geological formations, as well as to isolate the formations, even thousands of feet under the ocean floor. “Currently, how do you know the cement is setting?” Vipulanandan asks. “You don’t know. With smart cement, you can monitor it.” The cement has been tested in the lab, but the test well will allow the researcher and graduate students working with him to see how it works under more natural conditions. Smart cement isn’t regular concrete studded with sensing materials – Vipulanandan said embedding sensors in the cement mixture would result in weaker cement. Instead, the sensing materials – less than 0.1

percent by weight – are actually incorporated into the mixture, forming a “bulk sensor” with sensing properties several hundred times higher than current cements. The performance is further enhanced using nanotechnology and surfactant technology. The modifications enhance the mechanical properties of the smart cement, without affecting the rheological properties. The sensors measure changes within the material, allowing those who monitor the well to determine if it has set or is cracking, if pressure is increasing and other performance variables. Cement’s critical role in offshore wells came into sharp relief after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 people and spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators and government investigative panels found the accident was caused by deficient cementing. Smart cement could help to avoid similar accidents. Vipulanandan, director of the Center for Innovative Grouting Materials and Technology at the Cullen College of Engineering, as well as director of the Texas Hurricane Center for Innovative Technology, began working on the cement in 2012 with a $2.6 million grant from the Department of Energy. Oilfield services company Baker Hughes provided additional funding. Vipulanandan compares the smart cement to the sensors in your skin. “When someone touches you, it will tell you when they do it, how much pressure they are applying,” he said. But the brain might be a better analogy, as the cement reports its status to engineers and other monitors – Is it curing? Has it set? Has there been fluid loss or circulation loss? Are cracks forming that could allow hydrocarbons to escape? And that reporting doesn’t stop once the well begins pumping oil or natural gas, Vipulanandan said. “People can monitor the cement throughout its entire lifetime.”


TEACHING BY EXAMPLE Former Shell President John Hofmeister Shows the Next Generation of Energy Leaders How It’s Done


by Jeannie Kever



John Hofmeister is trying to change the world, one class at a time. “We need change agents for the future,” he said. “This is a way of creating change agents, who in their adult lives will agitate and change things for the better.” Hofmeister knows about change – oil’s boom-andbust cycles were a fact of life during his career in the energy industry, which includes serving several years as president of Shell Oil Co. Now, as the founder of a national energy advocacy group, he is pushing for more fundamental change. What should U.S. energy policy look like during the next 50 years? Students in his Case Studies in Energy & Sustainability research seminar at the University of Houston spent the spring working on a solution.

More renewables, but also hydrocarbons, they said. Coal will still be needed. “Scaling down coal 100 percent, it’s impossible,” said Semih Yusuf, a senior political science major. And moving to a future with available, affordable and sustainable energy will be complicated. “It’s easy to say it can be done,” said senior Juan Trujillo, who also majored in political science. “We have the technology. But as far as government regulations, the political framework, we don’t have that.” Hofmeister’s class is about provoking thought, as well as future action. “This opened the gates for us,” said Debjani Chakravarty, a junior chemical engineering student. “I’m not thinking only about engineering, but about policy, politics. It’s not something an engineer would generally get to do.” Hofmeister pledged that any project earning an “A” will be posted on the website of Citizens for Affordable Energy, the advocacy group he founded to promote energy security and infrastructure, along with a sustainable energy supply. “It’s real-world,” Chakravarty said of the project, the culmination of endless nights at the library. “We can make a difference.” She and her classmates credit Hofmeister for that. “He’s been an inspiration,” she said. It’s not that Hofmeister needed another job. In addition to serving as CEO for Citizens for Affordable Energy, he is a member of the Energy Security Council, the Energy Department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee and the UH Energy Advisory Board. He is the author of the 2010 book “Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider.” And now he is a teacher, also leading a similar class at Arizona State University. “In Arizona, they’re out to get rid of fossil fuel,” he said. Not so in Houston, where many students have friends or family in the industry. But their plans still drew tough questions at a presentation in early May before an audience that included industry experts and former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. Lane Sloan, a former Shell executive, reminded them that U.S. energy policy can’t happen in a vacuum. “It’s a global world,” he said. “If things change here, how would it affect competition?” One audience member questioned one group’s assumption that nuclear energy can produce one-third of all electricity by 2065. Another asked why a group emphasizing renewable energy hadn’t talked about energy storage. Questions noted, the students left to refine their proposals one last time. “You’re not really following a book,” Chakravarty said of the research involved. “We spent most of our time arguing, getting all of the kinks out of our plan. “We are driven to think of big ideas.”

UH SPURS INNOVATION, STARTUPS A new innovation center at the UH Energy Research Park provides students, faculty and alumni a space to start their business.

O by Francine Parker

On any given day, the University of Houston Innovation, Creation and Commercialization Center buzzes with excitement. It’s not the frenzy seen at TDECU Stadium or Cougar Field during the height of football and baseball seasons, but a quiet energy spurred by entrepreneurs, some as young as 20 years old. In one office, a group of UH students and alumni are busy working on strategies for their startup company, WAVVE, which may one day help reduce the number of deaths caused by diarrheal diseases due, in part, to unsafe drinking water. The group hopes to market a new technology — created by Assistant Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Debora Rodrigues — that purifies water. In another office, UH-Downtown graduate Ashley De Walt and UH alumnus Jonathan Brown are focused on expanding their digital agency, FusionSports Group. The agency enhances collegiate athletic programs’ communication efforts targeted to recruits, students and alumni through immersive brand experiences across digital platforms and social media channels.

Both of these companies and four others, all of which have a connection to the University, are benefitting from services offered at the center — a business incubator for students, faculty and alumni aspiring to be successful entrepreneurs. Located at the Energy Research Park, the center opened its doors in March. The center boasts 5,500 square feet of space, sleek modern furniture, a modular design and many amenities. “We can accommodate up to 25 businesses in the center,” said Ken Jones, associate director of the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the C. T. Bauer College of Business. Jones, who dubbed the center “the spur” because of its location off Texas Spur 5 and because it spurs innovation, assists in managing the center with the Division of Research’s Office of Intellectual Property (IP). “The center offers offices, a full kitchen, white boards, printing, Internet and conference rooms. I want these companies to focus on their customers and products, not on basic necessities,” Jones said, adding the center is accessible to entrepreneurs “24-hours a day.”

It appears these entrepreneurs are, indeed, putting customers first. De Walt, the founder and president of FusionSports Group, says his agency is ready to expand to meet the needs of its clients. “With Ken’s help, we plan to start hiring interns from the University, which will help us and them,” De Walt said. De Walt and his fellow entrepreneurs can not only take advantage of the center’s spacious quarters, they also have access to essential services such as banking, insurance, legal and accounting via the center, Jones said. Funded by the Division of Research, the center is an offshoot of a program launched by the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship and the IP office several years ago. Under the program, teams of undergraduate students are paired with a faculty member and his or her technology to create a business plan with a goal of eventually commercializing the research. Over the years, several of these teams, including WAVVE, have won national and international student business plan competitions. “The innovation enterprise plays a crucial role in the University’s effort to commercialize faculty research by providing essential resources that will enable students to launch UH startup businesses,” said Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer Rathindra N. Bose, who was instrumental in developing the center.









BRAIN ON DANCE The poet Yeats once asked, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Wearing a wireless skullcap embedded with 64 electrodes, dancer and associate professor Becky Walls helped UH researchers dramatically address this age-old question by performing before an audience while her capering brainwaves were projected on a screen. Read more about the fascinating discipline of neuroaesthetics, which combines neuroscience and the study of art, creative movement and perception, on page 30.

Research & Innovation Magazine 2015  
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