seeing green

University of Houston leads data science collaboration to propel energy transition

A new UH-led program will work with energy corporations to prepare the sector's future workforce. Photo via Getty Images

Five Texas schools have teamed up with energy industry partners to create a program to train the sectors future workforce. At the helm of the initiative is the University of Houston.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project, which is funded through 2024 by a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes participation from UH, the University of Houston-Downtown, the University of Houston-Victoria, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and Sam Houston State University.

The project will begin but introducing a five-week data science camp next summer where undergraduate and master’s level students will examine data science skills already in demand — as well as the skills that will be needed in the future as the sector navigates a shift to new technologies.

The camp will encompass computer science and programming, statistics, machine learning, geophysics and earth science, public policy, and engineering, according to a news release from UH. The project’s principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

The new program's principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun. Photo via UH.edu

“It’s obvious that the Houston area is the capital for the energy field. We are supporting our local industries by presenting talented students from the five sponsoring universities and other Texas state universities with the essential skills to match the growing needs within those data science workforces,” Jun says in the release. “We’re planning all functions in a hybrid format so students located outside of Houston, too, can join in.”

Jun describes the camp as having a dual focus — both on the issue of energy transition to renewable sources as well as the traditional energy, because that's not being eradicated any time soon, she explains.

Also setting the program apart is the camp's prerequisites — or lack thereof. The program is open to majors in energy-related fields, such as data science or petroleum engineering, as well as wide-ranging fields of study, such as business, art, history, law, and more.

“The camp is not part of a degree program and its classes do not offer credits toward graduation, so students will continue to follow their own degree plan,” Jun says in the release. “Our goal with the summer camp is to give students a solid footing in data science and energy-related fields to help them focus on skills needed in data science workforces in energy-related companies in Houston and elsewhere. Although that may be their first career move, they may settle in other industries later. Good skills in data processing can make them wise hires for many technology-oriented organizations.”

Jun's four co-principal investigators include Pablo Pinto, professor at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Public Policy; Jiajia Sun, UH assistant professor of geophysics; Dvijesh Shastri, associate professor of computer science, UH-Downtown; and Yun Wan, professor of computer information systems and chair of the Computer Science Division, UH-Victoria. Eleven other faculty members from five schools will serve as senior personnel. The initiative's energy industry partners include Conoco Phillips, Schlumberger, Fugro, Quantico Energy Solutions, Shell, and Xecta Web Technologies.

The program's first iteration will select 40 students to participate in the camp this summer. Applications, which have not opened yet, will be made available online.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project is a collaboration between five schools. Image via UH.edu

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Just after announcing an investment from United, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc. scored a SPAC-based IPO. Photo via nextrenewables.com

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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