Research roundup

3 Houston research groups dive into game changing COVID-19 projects

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions. Photo via Getty Images

Researchers across Houston are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

Wastewater detection, mental illness effects, a software solution to testing — here's your latest roundup of research news in Houston.

Baylor College of Medicine working in a group to detect SARS-CoV2 in wastewater

A team of scientists are testing Houston wastewater for traces of SARS-CoV2. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

According to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, who are working in partnership with the Houston Health Department and Rice University, testing the city's wastewater for SARS-CoV2 can help predict where outbreaks are likely to happen.

In May, researchers analyzed wastewater samples that were collected every week from 39 sites in the city and found traces of the virus. The research project was directed by Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in a news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

The researchers will continue into 2021 and are working with the city and local governments on their findings.

"It's a cost effective way to gauge Houston's total viral load. It tracks well ahead of positivity rate, 10 days in some cases," sways Dr. Austen Terwilliger, director of operations at TAILOR, in the release. "At the moment, we are at the lowest viral levels since we started sampling, which is excellent news."

University of Houston researchers looking into effect of pandemic on mental illness

Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology, is studying substance abuse as a coping method amid COVID-19. Photo via UH.edu

While physical health and economic impacts of the coronavirus have been the focus of attention amid the pandemic, mental health effects are estimated to inflict more damage if not address, according to new research by Michael Zvolensky, University of Houston professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic.

Zvolensky has published two papers on his research discussing the psychological behavior issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic from a behavioral science perspective, according to a press release from UH.

"The impact of COVID-19 on psychological symptoms and disorders, addiction and health behavior is substantial and ongoing and will negatively impact people's mental health and put them at greater risk for chronic illness and drug addiction," reports Zvolensky in Behaviour Research and Therapy. "It will not equally impact all of society. Those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders."

For those who 'catastrophize' the pandemic, Zvolensky explains in his paper, the impact from stress is increased — as is the possibility for substance abuse.

"That sets in motion a future wave of mental health, addiction and worsening health problems in our society. It's not going to go away, even with a vaccination, because the damage is already done. That's why we're going to see people with greater health problems struggling for generations," says Zvolensky in the release.

He evaluated a group of 160 participants on pandemic-related fear and worry and substance abuse as a coping method. The "results may provide critical clinical information for helping individuals cope with this pandemic," he says.

Bioinformatics research group at Rice University is designing novel SARS-CoV-2 test

Rice University bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen has created a software solution for a COVID-19 test. Photo via rice.edu

Can software help save lives in this pandemic? A Rice University computer scientist thinks it's worth a shot.

Bioinformatics researcher Todd Treangen is working with a molecular diagnostics company to optimize the design and computational evaluation of molecular detection assays for viral RNA of SARS-CoV-2, according to a press release from Rice. Great Basin Scientific and the Rice researchers hope their work will streamline the development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing.

"This exciting collaboration with Great Basin will allow for computational methods and software developed in my research group to directly contribute to fast, sensitive and affordable detection and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 and emerging pathogens," Treangen said.

The company, which is based in Salt Lake City, will use Treangen lab's novel bioinformatics software called OliVar to work on the diagnostic test. Great Basin Scientific is expected to seek emergency use authorization for the test from the Food and Drug Administration later this year.

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Building Houston

 
 

The Owls have soared to the top again. Photo courtesy of Rice University

If Texas had one Ivy League school, it would have to be Rice University.

Time after time, the Houston school ranks as the best college or university in Texas and one of the best in the country. Personal finance website WalletHub just added to Rice's accolades with a No. 1 ranking in Texas and a No. 6 ranking nationally among colleges and universities.

In Texas, Rice appears at No. 1 for admission rate, graduation rate, gender and racial diversity, and post-school median salary. Not every ranking is that stellar, though. Rice ranks 50th for on-campus crime among 55 Texas schools and 52nd for net cost.

More students soon will be able to take advantage of Rice's top-tier education. In March, the school said it would enlarge its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent — to 4,800 — by the fall of 2025, up from more than 4,200 in the fall of 2020.

In a news release, Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, called expansion of the student body "a strategic imperative."

"Expanding the student body now will also expand Rice's future alumni base across the nation and around the world," he added. "Welcoming more students to the Rice campus today will have an impact on the university for generations to come."

Elsewhere on the WalletHub list, the University of Houston lands at No. 10 within Texas and No. 238 in the country.

To determine the top-performing schools, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 institutions in the U.S. across 30 key measures, including student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-school median salary.

Here are the top 15 colleges and universities in Texas, according to WalletHub, along with their national rankings:

  1. Rice University, No. 6 nationally.
  2. University of Texas at Austin, No. 45 nationally.
  3. Trinity University in San Antonio, No. 61 nationally.
  4. Texas A&M University in College Station, No. 127 nationally.
  5. Southwestern University in Georgetown, No. 144 nationally.
  6. University of Dallas, No. 152 nationally.
  7. Southern Methodist University in University Park, No. 178 nationally.
  8. Austin College in Sherman, No. 192 nationally.
  9. LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 231 nationally.
  10. University of Houston, No. 238 nationally.
  11. University of Texas at Dallas, No. 252 nationally.
  12. Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, No. 253 nationally.
  13. Baylor University in Waco, No. 357 nationally.
  14. Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, No. 375 nationally.
  15. Southwest Adventist University in Keene, No. 407 nationally.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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