Lab safety isn't always standard. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Safety protocols are only as good as the Principal Investigators who enforce them and the students who adopt them. Operating a lab is no easy feat. It takes patience, consistency and teamwork. In an attempt to learn more about how PIs create a culture of safety, I reached to a few across our university campus to get some tips and tricks for creating effective safety procedures.

A PI’s guide to safety protocols

“My protocol is very clear, and students know the proper attire, but I had one student who arrived at the lab with shorts on. Apparently, he came from the gym … I guess he thought it was OK, but it’s definitely not,” said Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering.

Orman’s research work aims to explore and analyze why some bacterial cells are stubborn to certain therapies. Currently, he uses E. Coli as a model organism to conduct his experiments. His research has the potential to uncover the best methods for combating drug resistant bacteria (aka “super bugs”) which is a seen by many researchers and health organizations as a global crisis.

With such important work, Orman must run a tight ship in his lab. When I spoke to him, he provided his best practices for lab safety.

1. Signage is key

Hazard communication is critical in the lab. “Signage is VERY important. we’ve had students leave Bunsen burners on, which is extremely hazardous. I have signs up everywhere reminding students to turn off the flame.”

2. Remind and repeat

The rule of thumb: you need to hear something 5-7 times for it to sink in. “My lab is new, and my students are young and still learning how to conduct themselves safely. I have to remind them of the protocol religiously, but I’d rather repeat something a million times than have an unfortunate incident occur.”

3. Tailor safety protocols to suit your lab

One size does not fit all when it comes to lab safety. “UH has wonderful, baseline safety protocol and resources for me to use, but every lab is different. I take the foundational information provided by the university and tailor it to fit the needs of my work.”

4. Take baby steps

Throwing students into the experimental deep end can be a big risk when it comes to safety. “Because I am a new researcher at UH and my students are new, I decided to take baby steps with my experiments. My work is about studying drug resistant bacteria, so I decided to begin my scientific exploration with E. coli, a less dangerous organism.” – No pseudomonas aeruginosa just yet.

5. Note to all students: Don’t be shy

“Over time, many of the students become friends. This becomes awkward if they witness their friend violating a safety rule. I encourage the students to speak up (even if it’s their friend), if they see something that threatens everyone’s safety. Everyone wins in the end.”

Safety is a part of the scientific process

Rachel Redfern, O.D., Ph.D., FAAO, is a UH faculty member and an active researcher. Her work focuses on ocular surface inflammation and the impact of contact lenses on normal and diseased eyes. With such sensitive work, safety in the lab is incredibly important to Redfern. She believes keeping her students safe begins at the top but depends on everyone in the lab.

“When students enter my lab, it’s my responsibility to create a safe space where they can perform experiments to answer their growing scientific questions,” said Redfern. “We work as a team to put safety first, but we’re all aware that everyone has different levels of lab safety experience – Every question (regarding safety) is a good one and the questions never asked are the dangerous ones.”

When asked how her students internalize a culture of safety, Redfern praised the education resources of the university.

“At UH, we have access to excellent training to promote a safe culture (shout out to Joe and the UH Environmental Health and Life Safety team!) and training is non-negotiable,” said Redfern. “Also, I often pair new students with seasoned students because setting a good example (among peers) is the best way to encourage students to follow safety practices during routine lab work.”

Eye on safety

When Redfern was a youngster in the lab, she learned that safety was critical to research.

“I was trained by scientists (and worked with peers) who view safety as an element of the scientific process,” said Redfern. “Fortunately, I haven’t been exposed to a ton of outrageous safety violations in my career; however, I have witnessed researchers smoking with latex gloves on and even eating in their dirty lab coats.”

At the end of the day, Redfern just wants to learn more about the complexities of the human eye and Orman wants to study super bugs and how to address a significant health issue. In order to do that, they must conduct experiments with the help of students in a safe environment. This takes team work, group and individual accountability, and everyone’s eye on safety.

When asked about his overall message to PIs and lab safety, Orman simply said, “We’re here for a purpose. We all must have each other’s back to stay safe and conduct meaningful research. It’s just how it is.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Ciandra Jackson, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Lab collaboration can help maintain lab safety, these researchers found. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: Teamwork makes the dream work when it comes to lab safety

Houston voices

Getting along with colleagues and forming connections actually helps create a culture of lab safety.

For the most part, we all know how important it is to adhere to universal lab safety rules such as wearing closed-toe shoes or properly labeling all chemicals. Oftentimes, we forget about the human relations side of the safety equation. Cultivating positive working relationships with colleagues is as important (maybe even more so) as learning the “technical” safety rules of a lab. In this edition of the Big Bang, I will discuss the role of interpersonal relationship within the culture of safety.

During my exploration of this topic, I did not specifically find literature that directly links positive interpersonal relationships and lab safety. However, I spoke with a few UH scientists about this topic and I read articles about how to create a positive work environment in the lab in which a common theme arose – communication.

Moreover, the safest labs are operated by people who communicate well and have strong interpersonal relationships. Dr. Colin N. Haile, director of operations at the University of Houston Animal Behavior Core Facility agrees. He runs a complex lab where proper lab safety is vital to the care of the researchers and animals.

“Teamwork and healthy working relationships are extremely important to ensure our work is performed safely and of the best quality,” Dr. Haile said. “When colleagues respect and establish open communication, they are more compelled to help one another adhere to safety protocols.”

Getting along with others is easy, right?

Getting along with others is not easy. We all have diverse backgrounds, life experiences, points of view and expertise. Consequently, the occasional clash with a colleague is not always avoidable.

Frequent showdowns cause disruptions in team morale, productivity and could be a catalyst for an unsafe science lab. In addition to cultivating open communication, there are a few other ways to maintain positive relationships in the lab that contribute to a culture of safety.

Tips for developing and maintaining positive working relationships in your science lab

  • Communication is king & clarity and concision is queen – Communicate exactly what you want and need in a clear, concise manner, especially if there’s a safety issue to address. Also, try to give your email a break – talk to you colleagues face-to-face. This may avoid miscommunication and builds a personal rapport and camaraderie with your teammate.
  • Be nice and respect others – This one is obvious, but important to mention. Stronger bonds and trust is created when you are friendly to colleagues…Hey, you can even take things a step further and show an interest in a co-worker’s family or hobbies outside of the lab. Again, building personal rapport instills trust amongst the group which contributes to safer work environments
  • Keep an open mind and consider diverse points of view – As mentioned earlier, our world is colorful and diverse. That’s what makes humans unique and interesting. Everyone comes from different walks of life and bring unique points of view to their place of business. Preserving superior interpersonal relationships requires colleagues to listen, understand and exhibit compassion towards each other’s points of view. When people are heard, they feel appreciated and possess the motivation to help keep their work space functional and safe.

Strong team = Safer labs and maybe a few cool, new science discoveries

Of course, I’m not suggesting 24-hour Kumbaya in the lab, but the concept of getting along is certainly one that encourages lab safety. Strong teams discover the greatest breakthroughs and are safer in the lab because trust, open communication and respect are established. Well, that’s it for this edition of the Big Bang. Until next time…Be well and stay safe!

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Ciandra Jackson, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.