Female engineers are here in Houston, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

As Houston continues to invest in resiliency for our growing city, a well-equipped workforce is needed to meet the demand for critical infrastructure. It is also important that in a city as diverse as Houston, the engineering and construction talent that encompasses our workforce is reflective of the city itself, aligning with our ever-changing demographics.

While women continue to make strides in the STEM field, according to Pew Research Center, women's shares in the field of engineering have inched up only slightly, from 12% in 1990 to 15% today. And while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science — areas where they are significantly underrepresented in the workforce.

Diversity yields creativity, and women bring a valuable and unique perspective to problem solving and innovation. I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering. Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today.

In Houston, it is not a question of talent — we have plenty of diverse talent, and many young women entering the engineering workforce. The issue we run into is keeping them here and elevating them to reach the pinnacle of their discipline.

If we want to inspire young women to join the field, and ensure more women remain in it, we need to invest in mentor relationships and create space and opportunities for successful women to grow into positions of leadership.

Invest

Many would agree that mentorship plays a key role in career growth and development, but we need to be specific about what that means and how to do it effectively. For a mentor relationship to be impactful, it needs to be continuous and personal. When girls are in grade school, they are impressionable and open to inspiration. We have the opportunity to help them build confidence and make a difference in their futures.

It is important to remember that women will need several mentors throughout their lives. Obtaining an engineering degree is not easy, and upon graduation, young professionals come to the realization that what was taught in school can be different from what a job requires. New mentors are needed throughout the many seasons of personal and professional growth, and it is the responsibility of successful women engineers to take the time to develop true, lasting relationships with the next generation. We need more individuals who are willing to reach out to young women at a relatable level and establish that personal touch.

Inspire

Once we have women committed to a career in engineering, how do we foster them to go further in the field? We need more females in leadership roles. The high school teacher I mentioned was female and African American. Being able to relate to her eliminated barriers for me. I told myself that if she can do this, and she believes in me and looks like me, then I can do this, too. Young women and professionals need to be able to look at a company or professional organization's board members and executives and see faces that look like their own.

Listen

Last year, over 20 million Americans were out of work due to COVID-19, yet as the pandemic eases, millions of women have yet to return to the workplace. While this may be due to a complex mix of factors, I am left wondering if business leaders are actually asking women why they haven't returned. Many companies make assumptions regarding women's priorities, needs and expectations, without having a conversation. We are left with a shortage in our workforce, which will impact Houston sooner than most cities, and there needs to be an open dialogue between businesses and women to discover what they need to be successful.

Lastly, as women, it is our responsibility to use our voice. If I were to have let the assumptions of others guide my life and career path, I would not be where I am today. If you can persist and you are resilient, you will succeed. Women are here, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay.

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Julia P. Clarke is senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner, Inc., an engineering consulting and program management firm based in San Antonio.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.