Rice University joins prestigious schools such as MIT and Harvard. Photo courtesy of Rice University

The Owls of Rice University have a lot to hoot about. The Houston school has been ranked as the seventh best college in the U.S. and the best college in Texas.

Niche.com's latest college rankings, released August 21, rely on U.S. Department of Education data coupled with reviews from current students, alumni, and parents to judge American colleges on 12 factors, including academics, campus, dorm life, and professors. Niche.com helps parents and students choose colleges and K-12 schools.

Last year's Niche.com list of the best colleges put Rice at No. 10, so it jumped up three spots this year.

On the new list, Rice ranks fourth among the colleges with the best professors, 10th among the colleges with the best value, and 16th among the hardest colleges to get into.

Here's Niche.com's new report card for the country's 10 best colleges:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston
  2. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  3. Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
  4. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  5. Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
  6. Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
  7. Rice University
  8. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California
  9. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
  10. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Known as the "Harvard of the South," Rice "is a premier research institution with a 300-acre campus that serves as a green oasis in the heart of Houston," Forbes noted in 2019.

In Niche.com's ranking this year, Rice earns bragging rights as the best college in Texas. Here are the state's top 10, according to Niche.com:

  1. Rice University
  2. University of Texas at Austin
  3. Texas A&M University, College Station
  4. Southern Methodist University, Dallas
  5. Trinity University, San Antonio
  6. Texas Christian University, Fort Worth
  7. Baylor University, Waco
  8. LeTourneau University, Longview
  9. Texas Tech University, Lubbock
  10. University of Texas at Dallas

Shortly after the Niche.com rankings came out, Rice appeared at the top of The Princeton Review's list of American colleges and universities with the overall best quality of life. Every year, The Princeton Review rates colleges and universities based on critiques submitted by students at 386 schools.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Former University of St. Thomas business school dean, Beena George, is taking on a new role at the university: Chief innovation officer. Courtesy of UST

Houston educator plans to lead her university into the future with her new role

Featured innovator

High school graduation numbers are decreasing, and, by 2025, far fewer college freshmen will be starting school. Some project as high as a 15 percent drop, says Beena George, inaugural chief innovation officer of Houston's St. Thomas University.

UST is looking forward to and anticipating changes and challenges within higher education like this, and one of the steps the university has been to create George's position.

"My role is to ferment that culture of innovation," George says. "Not just sit here and think of ideas."

As the school gets ready to welcome students back onto its Montrose campus, the former business dean gets ready to serve in her new role for the first semester. She spoke with InnovationMap about her career, goals, and the role UST plays within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap: What have you learned throughout your career that has prepared you for the role?

Beena George: I've always been interested in solving problems. If I saw something that was an opportunity, and we didn't take advantage of it, I'll keep thinking about it. I've been thinking about what makes me enjoy this role and stage in my career, and I think it's because most roles tend to be mostly operational, but this is thinking of new things and doing things differently and checking your own assumptions. That is what really engages me in my role. My career has given me different opportunities to use this, but not so much as now. When teaching, you have that opportunity every day — engaging students differently. Then as dean, it was about looking at new opportunities and programs for the business school, like our Master of Clinical Translation Management program.

IM: How did this clinical translation program come about?

BG: The idea of clinical translation is essentially to move a discovery from the lab to the patient's bedside — it's the commercialization of life sciences. The program trains students to shepherd a discovery from the lab to the commercial setting so that it's available to patients.It's a combination of business, life sciences, regulatory affairs. It's a one-year online program with some residency periods. It's the only of its kind in Houston and is one of less than 10 in the United States and, to my knowledge, the only of its kind in a business school.

IM: What does innovation mean to the University of St. Thomas and this inaugural position?

BG: I think innovation isn't entirely new on college campuses, but now is a time when higher education is in flux. There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way. Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase.

IM: What’s on your to-do list for this first year and within five years?

BG: Since this is a new role, my first goal for the next two to three months is the process of discovery — internally and externally. One of the cool things that's happening in Houston is all these partnerships and collaborations. That's what I'm trying to do — learn about the groups here and outside and make these connections. The other part of it is bringing information in from the outside. There are so many different ways of doing things. For instance, in higher education, it's been historically tied to credit hours. We know now there are many different ways to look at education. That's the kind of conversation I look to get started.

IM: You mention collaboration, and I think that’s key when it comes to higher education institutions within the innovation ecosystem, but how do you see that teamwork affecting the city as a whole?

BG: So I have been so glad to see that, because I've always believed that there has to be some competition — it ensures that everyone performs at their best. But there are some industries where you have to go beyond competition to the next level and manage competition and collaboration at the same time. We have two networks — Texas Medical Center and the academic partnership created by The Ion — and talk about what's happening on your campuses and how we can work together in Houston. There's also the 60x30 Texas, which has different advisory councils that offers that same conversation of collaboration to work together to meet our goals. Those types of conversations are important and having those types of venues to do that can have only a positive effect on Houston.

IM: How is UST finding new ways to prepare its students for the workforce?

BG: One thing that has gained a lot of attention here on campus is providing students with more experiential learning opportunities — more internships and apprenticeships and bringing the industry into the classroom. Carlos Monroy, a professor at UST, and his student worked on a project for the city. This is something that allows us to remain connected to the industry and it gives our faculty the idea of what the Industry needs and they can focus on that in the classroom.

IM: UST recently announced a major “renewal” plan. How is this going to affect innovation efforts on campus?

BG: I think the whole process is about innovation. What we have is an opportunity to recreate ourselves for the next millennium and create a sustainable operating model that will continue to provide for our students. I think it will affect everything.


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Portions of this interview have been edited.

The device is lighter than a Band-Aid and could be used as robot skin to track movement and health conditions. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston professors identify super thin wearable device

Data collecting skin

Imagine a wearable device so thin it's less noticeable and lighter than a Band-Aid but can track and record important health information. According to some University of Houston researchers, you might not need to imagine it at all.

A recent paper, which ran as the cover story in Science Advances, identified a wearable human-machine interface device that is so thin a wearer might not even notice it. Cunjiang Yu, a Bill D. Cook associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston, was the lead author for the paper.

"Everything is very thin, just a few microns thick," says Yu, who also is a principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, in a release. "You will not be able to feel it."

The device is reported in the paper to be made of a metal oxide semiconductor on a polymer base. It could be attached to a robotic hand or prosthetic, as well as other robotic devices, that can collect and report information to the wearer.

"What if when you shook hands with a robotic hand, it was able to instantly deduce physical condition?" Yu asks in the release.

The device could also be used to help make decisions in situations that are hazardous to humans, such as chemical spills.

Current devices on the market or being developed are much slower to respond and bulkier to wear, not to mention expensive to develop.

"We report an ultrathin, mechanically imperceptible, and stretchable (human-machine interface) HMI device, which is worn on human skin to capture multiple physical data and also on a robot to offer intelligent feedback, forming a closed-loop HMI," the researchers write in the paper. "The multifunctional soft stretchy HMI device is based on a one-step formed, sol-gel-on-polymer-processed indium zinc oxide semiconductor nanomembrane electronics."

The paper's co-authors, in addition to Yu, include first author Kyoseung Sim, Zhoulyu Rao, Faheem Ershad, Jianming Lei, Anish Thukral, and Jie Chen, who are all from UH; Zhanan Zou and Jianliang Xiao of the University of Colorado; and Qing-An Huang of Southeast University in Nanjing, China.


Soft Wearable Multifunctional Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) www.youtube.com

Houston Baptist University has created a program that is training the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. Courtesy of HBU

Houston university creates program to fill the need for cyber engineering professionals

The future of tech

A few years ago, Houston Baptist University realized there was a huge need for more engineering programs within Houston higher education in one area particularly: Cybersecurity.

The school brought in Stan Napper from Louisiana Tech University to become the founding dean of the College of Engineering. The college now has three bachelor's degree programs in cyber engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science.

"Cyber engineering is designing secure systems at the interface of operational technology and information technology," says Napper. "Cyber engineering is in the middle of devices and data. It's in the middle of the hardware and software. And, academically, it's in the middle of electrical engineering and computer science."

The program is the only of its kind in Texas, Napper says. In fact, he says he doesn't know of any other similar programs other than the one he was a part of at Louisiana Tech. However, he does expect that to change. There's a growing need for cybersecurity specialists — especially in the health care and energy industries.

"One of those things that really got my attention a couple of years ago is in 2017, the FDA issued a recall on the over 450,000 pacemakers that had already been implanted," Napper says. "Modern pacemakers now can be controlled remotely through the skin to change the pacing frequency or some other parameters of that pacemaker without having to go back and do another surgery. They discovered a software glitch to a particular brand of pacemaker that could have been exploited."

Thankfully, that glitch wasn't exploited, but it put thousands of people's lives at risk by those technology designers not foreseeing this cybersecurity glitch. Anywhere devices — not just computers or phones — are used remotely or on a network, security is compromised.

Napper has only one year of the program under his belt, but he says he has already seen a lot of interest from the school's advisory board, which is made up of 75 CTO and tech leaders.

"They're lining up to get our students as interns even before we have the students ready," Napper says. "We've only finished our first freshman class."

Napper says the program is on track to have a capacity of 200 to 250 students. At a school like HBU, which has around 3,400 total students, that's a huge chunk of the school's population. Some think the program, considering the need and reception, could grow to 1,000 students.

The courses cover everything within operational and intellectual technology — device design, data science, automation, artificial intelligence — and the students are already getting their hands dirty.

"Our approach to education is learning in context. It is very hands on, but it's not hands off or hands on sake," Napper says. "There's no single class in our inventory of courses where one person stands at the front and talks the whole time. Our students carry their lab with them to class. We changed the definition of a lab. A lab is not the place you go to once a week in order to write a lab report."

This fall, the school will have its inaugural class in sophomore-level courses and a new batch of freshmen. Down the road, Napper says they'll look into creating a master's program.

Michael Tims / Houston Bapitst U

The University of Texas System scooted up three spots from 2017. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

University of Texas ranks as one of the world's most innovative schools

Hook 'em

A new ranking from Reuters has placed the University of Texas System among the world's most innovative universities.

According to an October 11 release, the Reuters Top 100: The World's Most Innovative Universities "identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries." The UT System ranked No. 6 out of the 100 best in the world. The 2018 ranking is a jump up from its No. 9 spot in 2017.

In addition to the flagship University of Texas at Austin, the system is comprised of seven other public universities across the state as well as six health institutions. Reuters notes that because of how the UT System reports on innovation, it assessed the entire enterprise rather than individual universities.

As a whole, the UT System boasts an impressive number of accolades that helped it scoot up three spots. As Reuters notes, chief among these accolades is the National Science Foundation's $60 million grant to the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin to build a supercomputer and the system's $2.7 billion in annual research expenditures. (Not to mention numerous Nobel Laureates among both faculty and alumni.)

Overall, the U.S. dominated the list, claiming 46 out of the 100 spots. Rounding out the top 10 for 2018 is: No. 1, Stanford University; No. 2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; No. 3, Harvard University; No. 4, University of Pennsylvania; No. 5, University of Washington; No. 7, Belgium's KU Leuven, No. 8, U.K.'s Imperial College London; No. 9, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and No. 10, Vanderbilt University.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

Rice students earn the most upon graduation, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Rice University

This Houston university's new grads make the most money in the state

Income outcome

A new study calculates that students who attend Rice University have the highest initial earning potential among Texas graduates.

Financial website SmartAsset ranked the top 10 Texas colleges where students earn the best average starting salaries upon graduation. Rice tops the list, with students earning an average of $65,700 in their first job out of school.

The salary ranking is part of a larger SmartAsset study that looked at five factors — tuition, student living costs, scholarship and grant offerings, retention rate, and starting salary — to determine the best value colleges and universities. Rice also comes in No. 1 on that list. Rice students pay an average of $42,253 tuition and $16,000 in living costs; that's offset by an average of $36,192 in scholarships and grants.

These findings come in an era where students are taking on staggering amounts of debt. The average annual growth rate for the cost to attend a four-year university between 1989 and 2016 was 2.6 percent per year, compared to a low 0.3 percent annual growth in wages, according to SmartAsset.

Another Houston-area school follows at No. 2 on the salary report. Students of The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston earn an average of $60,000 upon entering the workforce. (Tuition and living costs were not released for that school, nor were scholarship and grant numbers.)

Here is the breakdown of the 10 Texas schools with the highest starting salaries:

  1. Rice University, Houston, $65,700
  2. The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, $60,000
  3. The University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, $57,800
  4. Texas A&M University, College Station, $57,200
  5. The University of Texas, Austin, $56,900
  6. LeTourneau University, Longview, $55,300
  7. Southern Methodist University, Dallas, $55,000
  8. Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, $54,300
  9. The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, $53,600
  10. Texas Tech University, Lubbock, $49,375

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

money moves

A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

houston voices

Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.