Students and faculty sponsors work in tandem to design and implement a research or scholarly project, and its important to support the student aspect of the equation. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Do you remember the feeling you had the first time sitting at the wheel of a car? Were you overcome by the feeling of excitement, anticipation, fear, or perhaps a combination of them all? For many, obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage; a symbol that you are equipped with both the knowledge and skill of how to safely operate a motor vehicle. This achievement, however, would not have been made possible without the sacrifice of devoting hours to driver’s education and training under a supervisor.

Forging new paths

By the same token, college students who have dedicated years of study in various academic fields may also be ambivalent about conducting research. They will be in dire need of an experienced researcher’s guidance as they navigate down the unfamiliar road of academic research. It is their responsibility to help shape the student’s research interests and forge new paths.

By fostering student-led research, faculty sponsors can assist students by aligning their educational experiences with their career goals. This positions them for compelling careers in academic research.

Student at the wheel

Before a student can be placed in the driver’s seat of their own research protocol, they must be fully equipped with the right tools. If not, they will begin this journey without clear direction. Such was the case of several students at an unnamed university who conducted more than minimal risk studies without IRB approval.

The students started the protocol but were advised by their faculty sponsor that IRB approval wasn’t necessary before conducting research. One of the students rode in ambulances collecting data. They published their findings and even graduated before this was brought to the attention of the university’s Office of Compliance. This is a clear case of noncompliance and the severity of this issue is similar to driving a car without a license.

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is the governing entity for human subject research. Their role isn’t primarily a research review process. It ensures that human subjects are treated ethically and that their rights are protected. This brought up issues of consent, confidentiality, and potential risk to human subjects and was an example of significant non-compliance.

Federal regulations and university policy mandate IRB approval for research involving human subjects. The requisite applies to faculty, staff and students. The availability of options may create more questions than answers when submitting their first student-led research protocol.

Mapping it out

The University of Houston has taken steps to manage research compliance and optimize student success. It established an Institutional Review Board that reviews only student-led protocols. It’s unique in that very few institutions have this sort of program available. In the two years since its inception, the program has become a transformative resource for both students and their faculty advisors.

Faculty and student protocols are typically grouped together. However, the UH Student IRB Program gives them a single point of contact for IRB-related concerns and individualized support.

The UH Office of Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) has established an infrastructure to support student-led research through their pre-IRB review process. Students are encouraged to drop by to seek advice or brainstorm with a coordinator. Services, training and educational materials, such as the Faculty Sponsor Manual, are also available to support faculty sponsors.

The submission process can be pretty daunting. Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of RIO, mentioned that students are unfamilar with the IRB requirements and process. As a result, their protocols would often be sent back for significant revisions. The pre-review system helps eliminate the possibility of their protocols getting stuck in the review process.

Representatives from this office regularly interface with the UH research community. They travel to various colleges and departments across campus and guest lecture on the IRB submission process. They also talk about the ethics of conducting research with human subjects.

Students and faculty sponsors work in tandem to design and implement a research or scholarly project. Therefore, it’s imperative to cultivate an environment where student researchers feel informed and supported by their advisors and the UH community.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

To err is human, after all. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: Navigating non-compliance and human error in research

houston voices

To comply is to obey, or conform to instruction or official requirements. In a perfect world, research non-compliance wouldn’t occur and following the rules would be a behavioral norm. But the reality is, to err is human.

To err is human

Often times the judgement of our own, and others, poor decision-making is rooted in the innate tendency to view things in black or white – categorizing behaviors as either right or wrong, good or bad, thus deeming them as either ethical or unethical.

But this way of thinking often conflicts with the gray world in which we exist. So what happens when research decisions land somewhere in the moral gray area?

Before answering, here are two situations to consider that involve the over-enrollment of research participants:

Case 1:
The IRB has approved a survey for 40 subjects. The PI realizes after the survey has been open for several weeks that she forgot to set a participant limit within the survey program and 60 subjects have completed the survey.

Case 2:

A study involving a new drug to control diabetes symptoms is approved to enroll 30 participants. The study doctor thinks the drug may be beneficial, so she continues enrolling, for a total of 80 subjects.

The devil is in the details

Why is over-enrollment of subjects considered non-compliance?

Many institutions have agreed, within their assurance to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to apply the Common Rule to all human subjects research, whether the research is funded or not.

The Common Rule regulations found at 45 CFR 46.109(a) and 45 CFR 46.111 (1) state that the IRB shall review and have authority to approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities. This includes the maximum number of research .

And what must the IRB review?

Under the above regulatory requirements, the IRB must evaluate all instances of non-compliance.

In these cases of over-enrollment, the IRB must review the number of subjects over-enrolled and assess any potential effects on additional subjects and/or the research, as well as determine if the noncompliant data may be used for research purposes.

What UH IRB says about Case 1:

While over-enrollment in a survey seems low-risk, depending on the content of the survey questions, the IRB could determine the issue to be more serious, such as for a study collecting data related to illegal substance use or questions about traumatic events (legal or psychological harm). The IRB must ensure that risks to subjects are minimized; only the number of subjects needed to statistically justify the research are approved. Depending on the number of subjects over-enrolled and the time period over which they participated, the non-compliance could also be considered continuing.

What UH IRB says about Case 2:

Investigational drug studies often pose more than minimal risk of harm to subjects. In these studies, it is even more critical to ensure that additional subjects are not exposed to potential harms without scientific justification

In a drug study, the PI may not continue a study based on opinion; the reason a physician is blinded to treatment assignment in many drug studies is to avoid potential bias.

Finding non-compliance: What can you do?

If the number of subjects enrolled exceeds the number approved by the IRB, a finding of non-compliance is justified. The IRB will review the numbers, the Principal Investigator’s reasons for over-enrollment and assess what procedures were conducted in these subjects. Often over-enrollment is inadvertent, however the committee also has the ultimate authority to determine whether the data may be used for research purposes.

Corrective actions, such as continuing education of the PI and/or study team to ensure this issue does not occur again in the future, are often required. In the most serious cases, the IRB may suspend or terminate approval.

If the non-compliance rises to the level of being serious (harms or has the potential to harm subjects or others) and/or continuing in nature, it must be reported to federal oversight agencies such as the Health and Human Services Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the FDA. These agencies ensure that the institution is monitoring for these activities and puts appropriate fixes in place.

The importance of intetrity

Non-compliant research can be due to inadvertent errors or deliberate acts of noncompliance. The results could be the same. Human subjects could be harmed. Funding and reputation at an institution conducting research could be negatively affected. In times of reduced federal funding for basic research, there are direct financial costs to the agencies when funds and resources are misused.

The responsibility of ensuring that research protocols are adhered to rests upon the shoulders of the researchers involved.

If you were a member on the IRB, what would you consider to be appropriate consequences for the PI in these situations?

It’s important to note that non-compliance, whether it’s a “little white lie/inadvertent error” or a deliberate violation of the approved protocol can undermine the integrity of both the research process and the academic research enterprise.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.