According to a new study, Houston is among the cities most vulnerable to job loss due to the recession caused by COVID-19. Getty Images

No matter whether the outlook leans more toward optimism or pessimism, Houston stands to lose a head-spinning number of jobs in the grips of a coronavirus-induced recession.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could drain as many as 44,000 jobs from the regional economy by the end of 2020. That's out of nearly 3.2 million workers in the Houston metro area.

The job figures might look "much worse" through the second and third quarters of this year, Gilmer says. However, he adds, Houston's job losses should be followed by a "quick recovery" in 2021.

A study published March 27 by personal finance website SmartAsset predicts an even greater impact on employment in Houston.

SmartAsset forecasts 56,469 full-time and part-time jobs in just the city of Houston, or nearly 5 percent of the local workforce, could be lost in a coronavirus recession. In all, more than 282,000 jobs, or 24.6 percent of the city's workforce, could be in jeopardy, according to the study.

John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, says he thinks Smart Asset's job-loss estimate is "decent" but might be too low.

In light of the federal government's extension of social-distancing guidelines to April 30 and perhaps further extensions, Diamond believes Houston will suffer "substantial" job losses in the next two to four months. After the social-distancing rules are relaxed, Diamond expects an employment bounce-back later in the year.

"The recovery could be rapid if business supply chains and networks remain intact," Diamond says, "and if oil prices rebound by the end of the year."

For his part, Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, pessimistically envisions about 300,000 people in the Houston metro area will lose their jobs, at least in the short term, due to the coronavirus recession and the recent plunge in oil prices. (By comparison, the Economic Policy Institute projects the entire state of Texas will lose 442,717 private-sector jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.)

"COVID-19 is going to be kind of a catch-all spring cleaning excuse for a lot of the oil and gas companies as they try to reduce their payroll," Hirs says.

For now, though, concerns about the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia must "take a back seat" to concerns about COVID-19, he says.

Aside from the energy industry, the escalating economic slump promises to hit several other prominent business sectors in Houston, including hospitality and manufacturing. Hirs thinks a recession could shrink Houston's 2020 economic output by 10 percent.

"This is across the board," he says, "and has the potential to be extraordinarily devastating."

ThinkWhy, a labor analysis firm, believes the impact of the COVID-outbreak on the Houston job market will be more evident in the blow it delivers to international trade than in any boost it provides to the health care sector. "But the pandemic will no doubt have an impact on both," the firm says.

It's already having a tremendous impact on small and midsize businesses in the Houston area. A March 23-28 survey by the Greater Houston Partnership found 34 percent of those businesses already had reduced their headcounts in response to the COVID-19 slowdown. And 55 percent said they're unsure whether they'll wind up carrying out permanent layoffs in the next six months.

"Houstonians like to embrace the notion that their metro was among the last to enter the Great Recession and was among the first to exit. That's not going to be the case this time," economist Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, wrote in an unvarnished

economic assessment published March 20. "All three pillars of Houston's economy — energy, global trade, and the U.S. economy — are tottering. The next 12 to 18 months will likely be very rough for Houston."
A Houston-based team of scientists and students have developed a low-cost ventilator. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University students and staff team up with Canadian company to make low-cost ventilators

hi, tech

As the COVID-19 case numbers continue to grow, hospitals around the world are either experiencing or expecting a shortage of ventilation units. In Houston, a team of students and staff at Rice University have designed a solution.

Along with Canadian global health design firm, Metric Technologies, the Rice team has developed an automated bag valve mask ventilator that can be crafted for less than $300. Moreover, the team expects to share the designs so that these low-cost machines can be produced everywhere.

The project is being called Take a Breather and was inspired by an early prototype that a group of engineering seniors developed in 2019 at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The idea was to take a bag valve mask, which medical professionals use manually by squeezing with their hands, and create a device that can instead compress the bag automatically.

The parts of the device are largely created via 3D printing and laser cut, according to a press release from Rice, and only took around a week to prototype. While the original project was created to help emergency medicine professionals using a manual ventilator, the device is very relevant in the current coronavirus crisis.

"The immediate goal is a device that works well enough to keep noncritical COVID-19 patients stable and frees up larger ventilators for more critical patients," says Amy Kavalewitz, executive director of the OEDK, in the release.

As principal at Metric Technologies, Dr. Rohith Malya, who is assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, saw the growing need for for automated ventilator masks in emergency medicine.

"This is a clinician-informed end-to-end design that repurposes the existing BVM global inventory toward widespread and safe access to mechanical ventilation," Malya says in the release.

According to Malya, more than 100 million bag valve masks are produced annually. The designed device, which can work with these bags, has been named the ApolloBVM — a nod to when President John F. Kennedy announced from the Rice campus that it was his mission to get America to the moon.

"This project appeals to our ingenuity, it's a Rice-based project and it's for all of humanity," he says in the release. "And we're on an urgent timescale. We decided to throw it all on the table and see how far we go."

UT's grad schools earn top marks. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

Texas school excels in ranking of country’s best graduate schools while Houston schools lag behind

Go longhorns

When it comes to the country's top graduate school programs, the University of Texas at Austin is at the head of the class.

A new ranking, released March 17 by U.S. News & World Report, shows UT Austin tied for third place among public universities for the most graduate schools and specialties (48) ranked in the top 10. Only the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan have more.

UT's top five graduate schools for 2021, according to U.S. News: School of Information (No. 5), Jackson School of Geosciences (No. 7), LBJ School of Public Affairs (No. 8), Steve Hicks School of Social Work (No. 8), and Cockrell School of Engineering (No. 10).

U.S. News, bases its annual rankings of on two types of data: expert opinions about program excellence, and statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school's faculty, research, and students.

Also making the grade is UT's prestigious law school, tied for 16th in the nation, and School of Nursing, which placed No. 24.

Meanwhile, UT's McCombs School of Business' full-time MBA program claimed the No. 17 spot, up one spot from last year. The school's part-time MBA program landed at No. 7, up from No. 8 in 2019, and the executive MBA program jumped from two spots to No. 12 this year.

For all three types of MBA programs, UT Austin leads the rankings for Texas schools.

A few Houston schools do make a few of the lists, but the universities from the Bayou City fall far down the ranking. Here are the schools that made it into the top 100 of the engineering, nursing, law, business, and medical lists.

  • Rice University's Jones School of Business ties at No. 25 on the best business graduate schools list
  • University of Houston's Bauer College of Business ties at No. 95 on the best business graduate schools list
  • The Law Center at University of Houston ties at No. 56 on the best law schools list
  • Baylor College of Medicine ranks No. 22 on the best medical schools list
  • Rice University's George R. Brown School of Engineering ties at No. 33 on the best engineering graduate schools list
  • The Cullen College of Engineering at University of Houston ties at No. 67 on the best engineering graduate schools list
  • University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston ties at No. 27 on the best nursing schools list for master's
  • The College of Education at University of Houston ties for No. 91 on the best education graduate schools list
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

It's possible to predict some violent public protests by tracking social media posts on moral outrage over a triggering event. Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels

Rice University researchers find that tracking social media can predict violent events

Houston voices

Every grade school teacher knows that student conduct can get out of hand, fast, when a group of kids eggs on one individual. Time-outs are a testimony to the power of isolating one 10-year-old from a choir of buddies.

Social media plays a role similar to a gang of hyped-up grade schoolers, providing a community that can express collective disapproval of people or events. When this disapproval has a moral cast ⁠— for example, after a police shooting or the removal of a statue ⁠— the social network's particular characteristics are key predictors about whether that disapproval will turn violent.

There is a word for the way group support of a belief system makes it seem worth fighting for: moralization. Tracking social network activity now makes it possible to measure the chances for an individual belief to become moralized by a group ⁠— a phenomenon known as moral convergence.

In a recent study in Nature, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman, then at the Kellogg School of Management, joined a team that analyzed when and how violence erupts in protests. In a series of observation and behavior experiments that mixed psychology, organizational theory and computer science, they accurately predicted how violence is influenced by group discussion of moral views on social media.

The researchers started by studying the number and content of tweets linked to the Baltimore riots in 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The researchers then compared these tweets with the number of arrests in a given time frame, using a methodology developed by Marlon Mooijman and Joe Hoover from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

To analyze the tweets responding to Gray's death, they first separated them into two sets: Those with moral commentary and those without moral judgments.

Next, the researchers tracked whether tweets with moral content increased on days with violent protests. Violence was measured using the number of police arrests, which the researchers compared with the specific time frames of moral tweets.

There was no major difference in the overall tweet traffic discussing Freddie Gray's death on days with violent protests and on peaceful days. The number of moralizing tweets, however, clearly correlated with episodes of violent protests, rising to nearly double the moralizing tweets on days with no violence.

This raised a provocative question. Were morally ⁠— based tweets a response to the events of the day ⁠— or were they somehow driving the violence?

To find out, Mooijman and Hoover worked with computer scientists Ying Lin and Jeng Ji of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California to develop algorithms that could establish mathematical probabilities for the results.

For every single-unit increase in moral tweets over a 4-hour period, the researchers found, there was a .25 corresponding increase in arrests.

The researchers then tried to measure the effect similar moral views ⁠— such as a social media page with self-selected members of a similar political affiliation ⁠— had on violence during protests.

To do so, they set up a second study, which measured participant reactions to the protestors of a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Participants ranked their level of agreement over the morality of protesting the rally.

There was a direct relationship between believing a protest action was moral, the researchers found, and finding violence at that protest acceptable. This relationship held true throughout the study, regardless of political orientation.

The researchers' next goal was to identify the impact of exposure to people of like beliefs. To do this, participants rated their feelings when they were told that most people in the U.S. shared their views. While the intensity of participants' moral views created the potential for violence, the researchers found, violence resulted when only actively validated by others with similar views.

Having one's moral outrage supported by others on social media, the professors concluded, may explain the spike in violence in recent protests.

While respect for privacy remains critical, governments and law enforcement can use the social media trend to pinpoint the moments when moral outrage can turn deadly. Perhaps most importantly, however, the research also suggests practical tactics for calming violent tendencies before they get out of control. To reduce real-life protest violence, they wrote, it's critical that social media sites include a variety of voices. It's another reason, if any were needed, that a bit of judicious exposure to other views is healthy for everyone.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior. He teaches in the undergraduate business minor program and MBA full-time program.

It's a busy month in Houston. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for March

Where to be

Editor's note: SXSW has been canceled due to the coronavirus since the publishing on this events roundup. The original version of this article is below.

March is a busy month for Houston in general — but especially when it comes to innovation. The inaugural Houston Tech Rodeo starts out the month and the Rice Business Plan Competition closes out March in a few weeks — and the interactive weekend at SXSW falls right in the middle of the month for those planning the trip to Austin.

But for the Houston innovators in the energy industry, March got a little less busy when CERAWeek by IHS Markit was canceled due to the growing threat of the coronavirus, or COVID19.

Should any other events below have that same fate, this article will be updated.

March 2-6 — Houston Tech Rodeo

A week full of events, the Tech Rodeo is made up of over 30 innovation events across Houston. These are InnovationMap's picks for what to attend during the week. For a complete list of the events (most of which are free), head to the website.

Details: The event is from Monday, March 2, to Friday, March 6 across Houston. Learn more.

March 5 — Space Center Houston's Thought Leader Series: Designing for Human Performance

Learn how human factors engineering relates to spacecraft and spacesuit design while celebrating Women's History Month and the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station. Speakers include Celena Dopart, human factors engineer for Starliner at Boeing, and Katie Spira, NASA flight controller.

Details: The event is at 7 pm on Thursday, March 5, at Space Center Houston (1601 E NASA Pkwy). Learn more.

March 6 — Premier Talks: Women in Innovation & Technology 

Join this panel of accomplished women as they discuss the importance of being a woman in the current workforce and leading among your peers. Be empowered to self-evaluate, inspire those around you, and raise the bar on your professional goals. Discuss the challenges women face in a male dominated technology workforce and why it is important to take the limits off of your thinking.

Details: The event is from 9:15 to 11 am on Friday, March 6, at GA Houston (1301 Fannin St, Floor 21). Learn more.

March 6 — The Greater Houston Partnership’s Rise to the Top

Celebrating International Women's Day, the Greater Houston Partnership and the Partnership's Women's Business Alliance brings the Rise to the Top event. Expect a keynote address from Gretchen Watkins, president atShell Oil Company and executive vice president at Global Unconventionals, Shell Oil Company, and candid conversations from a panel of female executives discussing the challenges and triumphs of succeeding as a woman in today's business environment.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm on Friday, March 6, at Hilton Americas (1600 Lamar St.). Learn more.

March 10 — Equinor & Techstars Energy Accelerator Meet & Greet

If you're an energy-focused startup, don't miss this info session with the Equinor & Techstars Energy Accelerator, which is visiting Houston and looking for the 10 best energy companies for its next cohort.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Monday, March 10, at The Ion (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

March 10-11 — Energy 2.0: Equality, Environment, and the New Economy

Join over 100,000 people taking part in Energy 2.0 2020; an innovative experience that addresses new frontiers in the energy industry where business, workforce, environment, innovation, and policy intersect. Spread across multiple locations and continents, corporate watch sites around the globe, and simulcast online, Energy 2.0 brings energy professionals and a diverse mix of experts across various disciplines together for learning and networking opportunities.

Details: The event is from Monday, March 10, to Tuesday, March 11, online and at The Westin Houston, Memorial City (945 Gessner Rd.). Learn more.

March 12 — Lunch n' Learn: In Today's Market - Do Patents Even Matter?

Inventors and business professionals are asked to review the claims of their patent application before it is filed. This step is THE critical step that is supposed to ensure that the claims will protect their invention. The decision you make here determines if you will be part of the 97 percent of all patents that never recoup the cost of filing them.

Details: The event is from noon to 1:30 pm on Wednesday, March 12, at The Ion (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

March 19 — Science First: How 3D Printing is Reshaping the Future of Healthcare

Technology is evolving faster than ever – and advancements in 3D printing could revolutionize the delivery of healthcare products and solutions to change the trajectory of health for humanity.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 2 pm on Wednesday, March 19, at JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

March 24 — How to Form a Micro VC Fund Workshop at Mercury Fund

Welcoming all angels, previous founders, MBA students, aspiring and current venture capitalists that are interested in learning more about the basic essentials for starting a small venture fund. Speakers are Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund and Justin LaPoten of BADR Investments.

Details: The event is from 10 to 11 am on Tuesday, March 24, at Mercury Fund (3737 Buffalo Speedway, #Suite 1750). Learn more.

March 25 — 2020 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge - Startup Competition

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge Startup Competition is Rice's newest entrepreneurship competition, awarding over $60,000 in prize money to Rice-affiliated teams. Students and alumni enter business ideas (high growth ventures or small business ideas) to compete.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Wednesday, March 25, at Liu Idea Lab For Innovation & Entrepreneurship (Rice University - Cambridge Office Building). Learn more.

March 26 — T3CH Workshop: Grow With Google "Using Data to Drive Business Growth"

In this T3CH workshop, you'll learn best practices on data-driven decision making; and get practical guidance on how to find and analyze trends regarding online customer engagement with your business, so you can turn those insights into well-informed, actionable decisions.

Details: The event is from noon to 1 pm on Thursday, March 26, at Impact Hub Houston @ The Cannon Post Oak (675 Bering Drive, #200). Learn more.

March 26-28 — Rice Business Plan Competition

The event — dubbed the "world's richest and largest student startup competition" — begins later this month. The Rice Business Plan Competition will host 42 student teams from all over the world. The three-day contest consists of pitches, judging, and a closing banquet where the winners are revealed.

Details: The event is from Thursday, March 26, to Saturday, March 28, at Rice University and the Hilton Americas. Learn more.

These four medical research projects are ones to watch in Houston. Getty Images

These are 4 medical innovations coming out of Houston institutions

Research roundup

Houston — home to one of the largest medical centers in the world — isn't a stranger when it comes to medical innovations and breakthrough research discoveries.

In the latest roundup of research innovations, four Houston institutions are working on innovative and — in some cases — life-saving research projects.

Houston Methodist study observes that strep throat germ is becoming resistant to antibiotics 

If the germ, group A streptococcus, continues to grow resistant to antibiotics, it can have a profoundly negative affect on the millions who get the illness annually. Photo via houstonmethodist.org

Researchers at Houston Methodist have discovered some troubling information about the strains of group A streptococcus that cause strep throat and a flesh-eating disease are becoming more resistant to beta-lactams antibiotics like penicillin.

James M. Musser is the lead author of the study and chair of Methodist's Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine. The study — which received funding from grants from the Fondren Foundation, Houston Methodist Hospital and Houston Methodist Research Institute, and the National Institutes of Health — appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, according to a news release.

"If this germ becomes truly resistant to these antibiotics, it would have a very serious impact on millions of children around the world," Musser says in the release. "That is a very concerning but plausible notion based on our findings. Development of resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics would have a major public health impact globally."

Musser and his team found 7,025 group A streptococcus strains that have been recorded around the world over the past several decades. Of those strains, 2 percent had gene mutations that raised the alarm for the researchers and, upon investigation, Musser's team came to the conclusion that antibiotic treatments can eventually be less effective — or even completely ineffective. This, Musser says, calls for an urgent need to develop a vaccine.

"We could be looking at a worldwide public health infectious disease problem," says Musser in the release. "When strep throat doesn't respond to frontline antibiotics such as penicillin, physicians must start prescribing second-line therapies, which may not be as effective against this organism."

University of Houston professor is searching for a way to stop persistent cells that cause chronic infections

University of Houston Professor Mehmet Orman is looking into cells that are able to persist and cause chronic illnesses. Photo via uh.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, is looking into a specific type of persister cells that have been found to be stubborn and drug-resistant.

The research, which is backed by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, could answer questions about chronic health issues like airway infections in cystic fibrosis patients, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, according to a news release.

"If we know how persister cells are formed, we can target their formation mechanisms to eliminate these dangerous cell types," says Orman in a news release.

Orman is looking into cells' self-digestion, or autophagy, process that is found to stimulate persister formation. Per the release, cells can survive periods of starvation by eating their own elements. Specifically, Orman will analyze self-digestion in E. coli.

"By integrating our expertise in bacterial cell biology with advanced current technologies, we aim to decipher the key components of this pathway to provide a clear and much-needed picture of bacterial self-digestion mechanisms," says Orman in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine is working to understand and prevent post-op kidney failure

operation

Some patients are predisposed to kidney injury following surgery, this study found. Photo via bcm.edu

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are looking into the lead cause of kidney failure in patients who undergo surgery. Individuals who have heightened levels of suPAR protein — soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor — have a greater risk of this post-op complication, according to a news release.

"suPAR is a circulating protein that is released by inflammatory cells in the bone marrow and produced by a number of cell/organs in the body," says Dr. David Sheikh-Hamad, professor of medicine – nephrology at Baylor College of Medicine and collaborating author of the study, in the release.

The study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted research on mice that were engineered to hive high suPAR levels in their blood. Compared to the control mice, the suPAR mice had more risk of kidney industry. These mice were given suPAR-blocking antibodies, which then helped reduce kidney injury.

"This protective strategy may be used in humans expressing high suPAR levels prior to contrast exposure, or surgery to decrease the likelihood of developing kidney failure," Sheikh-Hamad says in the release.

Rice University research finds expressing emotions during mourning is healthier

Christopher Fagundes of Rice University analyzed the emotions of 99 widows and widowers. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A new study done by researchers at Rice University finds that spouses that lose their husband or wife and try to suppress their grief are not doing themselves any favors. The study monitored 99 people who had recently lost a spouse, according to a news release.

"There has been work focused on the link between emotion regulation and health after romantic breakups, which shows that distracting oneself from thoughts of the loss may be helpful," says Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator, in a news release. "However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship."

The study included asking participants to respond to how they felt about certain coping strategies, as well as blood tests to measure cytokines levels‚ an inflammatory marker.

"Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack," Fagundes says in the release.

The research, which was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, found that the participants who avoided their emotions suffered more of this bodily inflammation.

"The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal, and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions in the face of significant life stressors, such as losing a loved one," adss Richard Lopez, an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College and lead author of the study, in the release.

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Houston Methodist tech hub focuses on telemedicine training amid COVID-19 outbreak

virtual care

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.

Documentary featuring Houston Nobel Prize winner to air on PBS

to-watch list

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.