covid heroes

Houston university announces first recipients of coronavirus research funding

Four COVID-19-focused research projects have been selected by Rice University to receive funding. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has named several Houston researchers as recipients of funding as a part of a new initiative to support projects that are innovating solutions and services amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The university's COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee — led by engineering professor and special adviser to the provost, Marcia O'Malley — selected a few projects led by Rice faculty members across industries from biomedicine to humanities that will receive the first round of funds. However, the application window is ongoing, according to a press release, and additional awards are to be expected.

Here were the first projects and researchers to be selected by the committee.

A low-cost diagnostic tool

Rice researchers Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Kathryn Kundrod of Rice University along with Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have identified a way to create a COVID-19 diagnostic device that costs less than $5,000 and less than $2 per test. It would also take fewer than 30 minutes to diagnose.

The researchers are also working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test to five countries in Africa. In the future, the device would enable broader SARS-CoV-2 testing locally and in low- and middle-income countries.

Richards-Kortum is a professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and director of Rice 360˚. Kundrod is a graduate student in bioengineering. Schmeler is a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson.

A protective rubber harness to be worn over a face mask 

Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere, associate professors at Rice, along with Sahil Kuldip of MD Anderson, have discovered a low-cost, easy-to-manufacture rubber harness to be worn over surgical or cloth masks in order seal the masks. The seal would better prevent small airborne particles from getting around the masks.

Robinson is in Rice's electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering departments, while Kemere specializes in electrical and computer engineering. Kuldip is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson.

Wastewater monitoring for coronavirus contamination 

Rice researchers Lauren Stadler, Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins are working with the Houston Health Department and Houston Water on a plan to collect wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for the presence of COVID-19.

With most people asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms of COVID-19, the researchers are looking into the virus's presence in wastewater in order to track community infection.

Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Ensor, the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics, are working with Hopkins, who is a professor in practice of statistics and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department.

The identification of safe and healthy voting procedures 

Five Rice researchers — Robert Stein, Philip Kortum, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Daniel Wallach and Elizabeth Vann — are looking into steps Harris County can take to ensure that in-person voting is safe and keeps participants healthy. Through surveys with citizens, the team will help election officials survey both voters and poll workers on their voting preferences and concerns.

The research team spans campus departments: Stein is the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, Kortum is an associate professor of psychological sciences, Acemyan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences, Wallach is a professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering, and Vann is the director of programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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