Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

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NASA signs 2 public-private lease agreements at Houston campus to promote human space research

ready to launch

NASA and the American Center for Manufacturing and Innovation signed an agreement Thursday, Feb. 29 to lease underutilized land in a 240-acre Exploration Park at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The deal comes after a similar lease with the Texas A&M University System.

ACMI will enable the development of facilities to enable commercial and defense space manufacturing, while A&M reports that it will develop a facility for human spaceflight research and development.

These two public/private lease agreements allow industry and academia to use NASA Johnson land to create facilities for a collaborative development environment that increases commercial access and enhances the United States' commercial competitiveness in the space and aerospace industries.

“For more than 60 years, NASA Johnson has been the hub of human spaceflight,” NASA Johnson Director Vanessa Wyche says in a news release. “Exploration Park will be the next spoke in the larger wheel of a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth.”

Calling it the Space Systems Campus, ACMI plans to incorporate an applied research facility partnered with multiple stakeholders across academia, state and local government, the Department of Defense and regional economic development organizations.

"This Space Systems Campus will be a significant component within our objectives for a robust and durable space economy that will benefit not only the nation's efforts to explore the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, but all of humanity as the benefits of space exploration research roll home to Earth," Wyche says of the ACMI deal.

As the home of Mission Control Center for the agency's human space missions, astronaut training, robotics, human health and space medicine, NASA Johnson leads the way for the human exploration. Leveraging this unique role and location, Exploration Park will play a key role in helping the human spaceflight community attain U.S. goals for the commercialization and development of a robust space economy by creating an infrastructure that fosters a multi-use environment where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate with NASA. Exploration Park will create an infrastructure that allows for a multi-use space hardware development environment, where academic researchers, aerospace companies and entrepreneurs can collaborate on space exploration's greatest challenges.

"ACMI Properties will develop this Campus to serve the needs of our future tenants, aerospace industry, the Department of Defense and other significant stakeholders that comprise our ecosystem approach," said Simon Shewmaker, head of development for ACMI Properties. "Our aim is to support human spaceflight missions for the next 40 years and beyond."

NASA issued an announcement for proposals for use of the undeveloped and underutilized land near Saturn Lane on June 9, 2023, and has just completed negotiations with ACMI to formalize the lease agreement. The parcel is outside of Johnson's controlled access area and adjacent to its main campus. NASA will lease the land for 20 years with two 20-year extension options, for a potential of up to 60 years.

In the coming years, NASA and its academic, commercial, and international partners will see the completion of the International Space Station Program, the commercial development of low Earth orbit, and the first human Artemis campaign missions establishing sustainable human presence on the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars.

Johnson already is leading the commercialization of space with the commercial cargo and crew programs and private astronaut missions to the space station. The center also is supporting the development of commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, and lunar-capable commercial spacesuits and lunar landers that will be provided as services to both NASA and the private sector to accelerate human access to space. Through the development of Exploration Park, the center will broaden the scope of the human spaceflight community that is tackling the many difficult challenges ahead.

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for March

WHERE TO BE

From networking meetups to speaker expert speaker summits, March is filled with opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post may be updated to add more events.

 March 6 — Women's History Month Mixer

Bag Talk and Jem are collaborating to produce a dynamic Rooftop Mixer, designed to bring together entrepreneurs, startups, founders, tech professionals, health experts, and investors.

In honor of Women's History Month, the speaker panel will feature trailblazing women entrepreneurs who have redefined success in their respective fields. Gain invaluable insights, strategies, and inspiration as they share their journeys in business, innovation, and leadership.

This event is Wednesday, March 6, from 6 to 9 pm at Reset. Click here to register.

 March 7 — Energy Workforce of the Future Career Fair & Summit

A variety of Gen-Z speakers will be unpacking the future of working in the energy industry. Take advantage of this unique occasion to showcase your skills, exchange ideas, and build valuable connections. Denise Hamilton will be the keynote speaker followed by a host of other energy innovators.

This event is Thursday, March 7, from 7:30 am to 4 pm at the Briar Club. Click here to register.

 March 7 — GB Spring Mixer 2024

Meet community members, network, and develop relationships with local businesses at this event for Pearland's small business community. This mixer is sponsored by Pearland Innovation Hub, a home for innovation, entrepreneurship and small business growth, custom built for Pearland's business community.

This event is March 7, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at The Cannon. Click here to register.

 March 14 — Pi Day With Portal Innovations

TMC Helix Park will host a Pi Day celebration at TMC3. All scientists, researchers, math experts, and innovators are invited to come and recognize the significant impact Pi (3.14) has had in shaping our world today and continuously in the future. Enjoy networking opportunities with Pi bites, games, and prizes.

This event is Thursday, March 14, from 12 to 1:30 pm at TMC Helix Park. Click here to register.

 March 14 — FanTechstic Mixer

This event is a mixer for tech professionals and tech enthusiasts. Connect with potential employers, collaborators, and mentors who can shape the trajectory of your career.

This event is Thursday, March 14, from 5:30 to 9:30 at Luxtrium Event Venue. Click here to register.

March 16 — Generative AI: Understanding and Fine Tuning LLM

This webinar dives deep into Generative AI, the game-changer that creates images from text, crafts personalized campaigns, and writes reports in seconds. Attendees will learn the innerworkings of Large Language Models (LLMs), the engines behind this revolution. Learn practical skills, explore real-world use cases, and future-proof your career.

This event is Saturday, March 16, from 10 am to 12 pm at Houston Translations. Click here to register.

March 18-22 — CERAWeek by S&P Global

For the 42nd time, CERAWeek is convening energy leaders from around the world for a conference, this year with its theme of "Multidimensional Energy Transition: Markets, climate, technology and geopolitics" that will zero in on the world's journey to zero-carbon.

The event is Monday, March 18, to Friday, March 22, in Downtown Houston. Click here to register.

March 21 — Global Energy: Qatar's LNG Expansion

At this event, expert panelists will delve into issues of investment partnerships, destination markets for gas supply, and the practicalities of expanding fossil fuel exports amid global decarbonization goals. Qatar is in the midst of expanding its LNG export capacity, increasing from 77 million tons per annum to 126 million by 2027.

This event is Thursday, March 21, from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. Click here to register.

March 21 — Energy Underground - Early Design Partnerships

Meet up with renewable energy product developers, service providers, energy transition thought leaders, and more at this networking event. Make industry contacts, secure financing, share deals, or recommend talent looking to enter the energy workforce. This month meeting is open to everyone, but focused on connecting energy software founders with VP's of Operations and Projects at energy companies.

This event is Thursday, March 21, from 11:30 am to 2 pm at The Cannon. Click here to register.

March 26 — Bots & Brews

This is the spring meetup of the Energy Drone / Robotics / Data crowd, with over 200 leaders attending. Enjoy beer, bites and bots. Check out the latest robotics and data / AI tech, while hearing new case studies and connecting with some of the biggest leaders in energy and autonomous systems.

This event is Tuesday, March 26, from 5:30 to 7:45 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

March 27 — Energy Industry Young Professionals Gumbo Cook-Off & Technology Showcase

Explore cutting-edge products, network with industry professionals, and savor delicious creations in the Gumbo Cook-Off. Make it a night to remember with live music, a beverage garden, and fundraising efforts to support the energy industry and first responders.

This event is Wednesday, March 27, from 5 to 9 pm at Bad Astronaut Brewing Co. Click here to register.

March 27 — 2024 CultureMap Houston Tastemaker Awards

The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards is an annual celebration of Houston's top restaurant and bar talent, as selected by their peers. Check out this signature in-person tasting event and awards ceremony. Celebrate all of the nominees and the winners, while sampling bites and sipping specialty drinks along the way.

This event is Wednesday, March 27, from 7 to 10 pm at Silver Street Studios. Click here to register.