Rice University identified 15 more pandemic-related research projects to receive support from a new research fund. Getty Images

Researchers at a Houston institution have been rewarded for their work that focuses on COVID-19 and how it's affected various aspects of life.

Rice University has named its two more rounds of recipients of its COVID-19 Research Fund — an initiative created to support projects that are innovating solutions and services amid the COVID-19 crisis. In April, the COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee — led by engineering professor and special adviser to the provost, Marcia O'Malley — selected four projects led by Rice faculty members across industries from biomedicine to humanities that will receive the first round of funds.

The committee named another round of recipients in May and the third and final round this month. Here are the projects from the last two rounds of grants:

  • Rapid point-of-care device to detect severe cases of COVID-19 by Kevin McHugh and Peter Lillehoj of Rice and Cassian Yee of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
  • A mobile phone-based blood serum test for COVID-19 antibodies by Lillehoj, Wen Hsiang Chen of Baylor College of Medicine and James Le Duc of Galveston National Laboratory. The mobile test would be faster and more precise.
  • A handbook addressing pandemic response initiatives for health officials by Kirsten Ostherr and Lan Li of Rice; Thomas Cole of the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston; Robert Peckham of Hong Kong University; and Sanjoy Bhattacharya of York University.
  • A look at COVID-19's effect on vehicle travel and electric power generation and air quality by Daniel Cohan and Daniel Kowal of Rice. Using both on-the-ground and satellite data, the researchers will look at various air pollutants.
  • A study on Harris County residents' compliance to stay-at-home orders by Flavio Cunha, Patricia DeLucia, Fred Oswald, Ekim Cem Muyan and E. Susan Amirian of Rice. The researchers will survey residents — particularly low-socioeconomic populations.
  • A look at how pollution and economics affect each other turing a pandemic-caused crisis by Sylvia Dee, Ted Loch-Temzelides, Caroline Masiello and Mark Torres of Rice. Thanks to stay-at-home initiatives, the study can look at which economic sectors contribute the most to carbon emissions.
  • A study on long-term effects of COVID-19 on human development by Fred Oswald of Rice, Rodica Damian and Tingshu Liu of the University of Houston and Patrick Hill of Washington University. The project looks at the pandemic's affect on social contexts including occupational, educational, community, family, lifestyle, health and financial.
  • A predictive model of Houston's COVID-19 condition by Daniel Kowal, assistant professor of statistics, and Thomas Sun, a graduate student, at Rice. The project will compare Houston to locations that are similar and further along the disease incidence curve.
  • A survey of how stay-at-home orders affected low-income families by Amelyn Ng, Wortham Fellow at Rice Architecture, and Gabriel Vergara of One Architecture and Urbanism. he survey will focus on Houston's Greater Fifth Ward.
  • Research on antibodies for disease prevention by Laura Segatori, associate professor of bioengineering and of chemical and bimolecular engineering and biosciences, and Omid Veiseh, assistant professor of bioengineering, at Rice. The two scientists plan to engineer cell lines for the rapid development of clinically translatable neutralizing antibodies for infection control.
  • An analysis of working conditions amid the pandemic by Danielle King, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice. King will look into both employees who can no longer go to the workplace, like teachers, and those required to, like nurses, to see what resources are most effective.
  • An oxygen sensing device by Michael Wong, department chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Rafael Verduzco, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, of Rice and John Graf of NASA. The team will continue working on a NASA-designed prototype ventilator for rapid deployment based on an off-the-shelf automotive oxygen sensor.
  • A study on social distancing for musicians by Ashok Veeraraghavan, Robert Yekovich and Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice and John Mangum of the Houston Symphony. The project will look into airflow of wind instruments using high-speed imaging.
  • Looking into public health initiatives and their use in COVID-19 by Hulya Eraslan, Rossella Calvi, Dibya Deepta Mishra and Ritika Sethi of Rice. The team will look at election data with a goal is to understand the impact of political alignment across levels of government on the effectiveness of its response.
  • Research on optimizing nursing staff schedules by Andrew Schaefer, Illya Hicks and Joseph Huchette of Rice and Nicole Fontenot of Houston Methodist Hospital. Researchers will employ data and technology to improve forecasting demand for nursing staff.
Four COVID-19-focused research projects have been selected by Rice University to receive funding. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston university announces first recipients of coronavirus research funding

covid heroes

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

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.