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Rice University's Space Institute director on the future of exploration, development, and the role Houston will play in space

David Alexander of the Rice University Space Institute says Houston's past accomplishments in space aren't all the Space City has to offer. Photo courtesy of Rice University

While the city is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission that got man to the moon, this month should also be about looking forward to the Space City's future.

From commercial space travel momentum to upcoming governmental projects, there's a lot in the works for space, and Houston will play a big role in both sides of the equation, says David Alexander, director of the Rice University Space Institute.

"In Houston, we tend to think of space as a destination, but it really is a resource," he says. "And we need to be thinking about it as a resource."

New, and increasingly more accessible technologies are changing the landscape — especially for universities. Smaller satellite devices, called CubeSacs, are so easy to build and launch into space that students are able to it themselves, Alexander says, and they are. These projects across the country are collecting new data on a massive level.

"Students these days really want to solve meaningful problems rather than just academic problems, and space is way of giving them access to what information and data that can help them with that," Alexander says.

Alexander shared his thoughts and professional opinion on some of the exciting advancements the space industry has on its radar — and where Houston comes into play for these initiatives.

InnovationMap: What got you really interested in space exploration?

David Alexander: I was always interested in science, but one of the things got really interested in the human aspect of space was an event at the Rice Baker Institute a few years ago, shortly after the cancellation of the shuttle program. It was just a great discussion about the space in general, but what kind of hit me hard was the fact that a lot of history — we're talking about 50 years in space since the Apollo mission — has influenced the whole world. Modern human history has been hugely impacted by the presence of space, and a lot of that happened in Houston. And, some of the people who've made it happen are still around, and that day at the Baker Institute, some of them were there. So, that hit home for me.

IM: What are some of the focuses of the Rice Space Institute?

DA: We've got the outreach part, then we have the the science, the research, and then student activities and the connection to NASA that we have.

We have a professional master's program for students who are not particularly interested in research, but what they want to do is combine management and business training with technical training in science and engineering related to space. We've been building that program all for over the last six years or so. We also have this fairly popular public lectures series that we've been running since January of 2011.

One of the prime reasons for institutes at Rice, which are small entities, is to bring faculty from different disciplines together. And so that's been our primary effort when it comes to research. We'll try and get some of the bioengineers, for instance, working with NASA on the human side, and get some of the engineers working with NASA on things like sensor wireless technologies.

IM: What does the future of space exploration look like to you?

DA: I think one of the things that we're seen this helping drive that difference between now and then is the growth in the private and commercial enterprises in space. I think that what we're finding is that space is becoming more accessible. The actual cost of getting to space is radically coming down, and the kind of resources that we can put in space and the capability of these resources is changing.

IM: Do you think there's been a resurgence of interest in space lately?

DA: NASA made space kind of look routine, which is good because you want astronauts to be safe and you want your hardware to survive. So, it became less exciting. However, within the government side of things, that has been a huge steady progress. You can follow the path from the technology development all the way through to today. But I think from the general public's perception, people like Elon Musk, even though he has some ambitious ideas, has seen successes with reusable rockets with these landings. And people like Jeff Bezos, who are also developing their own rockets and their own plans for space, have kind of opened people's eyes again a little bit. I think they have added a bit of star power, and they have shown an excitement for space that's infectious.

IM: What does the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission mean to the city of Houston?

DA: There's a balance that we have to find between looking too much in the past — you don't want to see your successes in the rearview. I think we should rightly be proud of the Apollo history and what it did for the region. The history part is really important, and, in my opinion, the biggest thing that came out of Apollo is the fact that so many young people got interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. I firmly believe that created the means by which the U.S. economy drove the world.

IM: What's Houston's role in the future of space exploration?

DA: On the space exploration side, NASA has announced that we're going to go back to the moon by 2024. Now, that's a huge challenge. The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who's a Rice graduate, is aware of those challenges. Whether it's 2024 or if we have to wait until 2028, a lot of that work is going to be driven by what's being done in Houston, particularly the Johnson Space Center. There's a big rocket that they're developing, as well as the Orion capsule, Houston has a big role in those.

On the commercial side, there's the Houston Spaceport, which was the 10th licensed commercially licensed spaceport in the United States. There's now 12 within the United States, but Houston's spaceport is the only one located in a large city. There's a great company out there called Intuitive Machines, and they just got one of the lunar landing contracts. So, sometime between now and 2021, there may actually be a piece of hardware land on the moon that was built here in Houston.

IM: What should the Houston innovation ecosystem be focused on?

DA: The pieces are all there. We just need to work together to get them working coherently. If you get someone who understands space data talking to one of these companies who are trying to monitor flooding, for example, then both of those groups will grow together. We need to start bringing them together.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

From biomolecular research to oral cancer immunotherapy, here are three research projects to watch out for in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.

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