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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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.