HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 151

Houston innovator shines a spotlight on ways young women can get involved in STEM and innovation

Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder and executive director of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's impacting young women in STEM. Photo courtesy of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation

Years ago, through her own experience working with students, Loretta Williams Gurnell realized there wasn't any initiative connecting the dots for young women in terms of translating their state-mandated math and science classes into successful careers and job opportunities.

As she explains on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast, you don't know what you don't know — how can girls be expected to picture themselves as a researcher, a startup founder, or a business leader if they aren't exposed to people who look like them in those roles?

So, she set out to connect those dots and increase STEM opportunities for young women. She officially launched her organization SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation in early 2016 to focus on programming to spark STEM interest and education for girls age 10 to 17. Later, amid the pandemic, she realized she needed to do more than just put on events and programming for these young women.

"We had to look at what's going to be longterm for these girls. How can we take the programatic piece that we do so well and make it a part of their lifestyle and decision making opportunities, so we had to pivot," she says on the show.

The organization's three pillars are innovation, STEM, and leadership, and Williams Gurnell says she's excited to welcome her latest batch of SHINEGirls at the second annual membership induction ceremony on Sept. 23. The year-long program will match the students with mentors who will support and encourage them.

Looking back on the past few years, the pandemic also reinforced a need for community for SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation. Williams Gurnell says the shutdown nearly put her nonprofit out of business, but she realized one way to stay afloat is to be involved with an engaged group of people.

"We knew that if we could build community, we could build our power," she says. "So we built a community and put it online."

Another way the foundation is tapping into community is through the Ion. Williams Gurnell says that the hub for innovation and tech reached out to her to initiate a partnership. Now, the nonprofit is headquartered out of the Midtown building and provides interns and job placement for its members, working with startups and other companies — as well as hosts programming and opportunities in the space.

Williams Gurnell says it's a matter of working together — with schools, students, other organizations, and partners — to really allow for impact. It's not one person's responsibility and there's not one quick fix — just like it's not just affecting one person or a group of people.

"It's not an urban problem — and it's not a low-, moderate-income problem. It's an economic problem and a systemic problem," she says. "But when you give people skills and access and equity, it changes the game and allows them to play in that game with the skills to be able to be successful."

Williams Gurnell says she hopes to expand opportunities nationwide and is looking to her Houston community for support — whether that's financial or through volunteering and attending events, like the induction ceremony later this month.

She shares more details about the future of the organization on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

With this new joint effort, Syzygy is one step closer to commercial scale of its decarbonization technology. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston tech company has joined forces with a nonprofit to test a new sustainable fuel production process.

The project is a joint effort from Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics and nonprofit research institute RTI International and sponsored by Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Based in the RTI facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the six-month pilot is testing a way to convert two potent greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — into low-carbon-intensity fuels, which have the potential to replace petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

"This demonstration will be the first of its kind and represents a disruptive step in carbon utilization. The sustainable fuels produced are expected to quickly achieve cost parity with today's fossil fuels," says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best in a news release. "Integrating our technology with RTI's Fischer-Tropsch synthesis system has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation without requiring major fleet modifications."

According to Syzygy, the pilot is a step toward being able to scale the process to a commercial-ready Syzygy e-fuels plant.

"By making minor adjustments in the process, we also expect to produce sustainable methanol using the same technology," Best continues.

An independent research institute, RTI International's focus is on improving the human condition. The multidisciplinary nonprofit seeks to support science-based solutions like Syzygy's technology, which has already proven its scale-up capabilities in earlier testing.

Through the partnership, RTI will assist Syzygy with process design and systems integration for the pilot-scale demonstration. Once it reaches commercial scale, the technology is expected to turn millions of tons of CO2 per year to produce sustainable fuels.

"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Syzygy to test and assist in the scale-up of this promising technology," says Sameer Parvathikar, Ph.D., the director of the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage program in RTI's Technology Advancement and Commercialization business unit. "This work aligns with our capabilities, our goals of helping de-risk and commercialize novel technologies, and our vision to address the world's most critical problems with science-based solutions."

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