Just like any workplace, labs can get toxic. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

There are many types of toxic bosses. The Micromanager. The Narcissist. The Incompetent Boss. The list goes on. But labs led by toxic PIs not only make for an abysmal workplace they can actually encourage research misconduct.

According to Charles Wood, author of “When lab leaders take too much control,” there are two types of toxic labs most at risk for this type of behavior: the executive model and the competition model.

Executive model

Wood described the executive approach to lab management as one where the mentor sets expectations for trainees, often with a particular goal in mind. In its negative form, this includes specifying experimental outcomes and instructing trainees on particular experiments to achieve a desired result.

It comes as no surprise that experimenting with the answer already in mind goes against scientific principles. Spiking biological samples, manipulating instruments – all these things have been suspected in labs according to the U.S. government’s Office of Research Integrity. The first line of defense is having the investigators replicate their experiment while being closely supervised. The consequences of misconduct, if the allegations are found to be credible, can include being debarred from further federal funding and having data sequestered.

Competition model

The competition model pits graduate students or postdocs against one another. In this case, whoever gets the result first is rewarded, while the others are punished. This makes a perfect breeding ground for misconduct. Imagine if a foreign student’s citizenship status is affected by whether or not they can produce the results their PI wants them to obtain. Of the competition model, Wood said that what students and postdocs learn can be catastrophic: “competition over collaboration and conformity over creativity.” He posits that researchers graduating from the PI’s toxic lab may be influenced to drop out of science completely or go on to run their own labs in a toxic way.

A correlation between mentors and ethical decision-making

Michael D. Mumford, et al. in “Environmental influences on ethical decision making: Climate and environmental predictors of research integrity” (Ethics & Behavior journal) found that for first-year doctoral students, “environmental experiences (including professional leadership) exert stronger effects on ethical decision making than the climate of the work group.”

Wood also noted that, regardless of the management style, certain scientists may be more prone to cheating. However, active involvement and openness by the principal investigator can serve as a preventive measure against this.

What can you do about it?

Chris Sowers in the “Toxic Boss Syndrome: How To Recover and Get Your Mojo Back” episode of his Better Humans podcast, shared how a few toxic bosses affected his job performance, self esteem and even interpersonal relationships. His first piece of advice is to get out quickly, even if you need to take a pay cut – he says a few thousand dollars are not worth the hit to your mental and physical health.

Vetting your lab’s PI will help enormously. Does the PI have a good track record of being a fair and kind mentor?

“If your principal investigator starts to exhibit toxic behavior, address this with him or her,” said Wood. He goes on to advise that “if you find yourself in a truly toxic environment, seek guidance from a graduate coordinator, assistant dean or other authority figure who oversees the pre- or postdoctoral training programs — and ask for help in finding another mentor.”

The Big Idea

No one has time or energy to dedicate to a toxic workplace. The costs are way too high to risk manipulating data. For one, all authors on a paper will be held responsible for the misconduct– not to mention the physical and mental stress a toxic lab will invite into your life.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

"ChatGPT, even with improved filters or as it continues to evolve, will never be able to replace the critical and creative thinking we need in these disciplines.” Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston expert: Analyzing the impact of generative AI on research

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Researchers have to write extremely specific papers that require higher-order thinking — will an intuitive AI program like OpenAI’s ChatGPT be able to imitate the vocabulary, grammar and most importantly, content, that a scientist or researcher would want to publish? And should it be able to?

University of Houston’s Executive Director of the Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office Kirstin Holzschuh puts it this way: “Scientists are out-of-the box thinkers – which is why they are so important to advancements in so many areas. ChatGPT, even with improved filters or as it continues to evolve, will never be able to replace the critical and creative thinking we need in these disciplines.”

“A toy, not a tool”

The Atlantic published, “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think,” with a subtitle advising readers to “Treat it like a toy, not a tool.” The author, Ian Bogost, indulged in the already tired trope of asking ChatGPT to write about “ChatGPT in the style of Ian Bogost.” The unimaginative but overall passable introduction to his article was proof that, “any responses it generates are likely to be shallow and lacking in depth and insight.”

Bogost expressed qualms similar to those of Ezra Klein, the podcaster behind, “A Skeptical Take on the AI Revolution.” Klein and his guest, NYU psychology and neural science professor Gary Marcus, mostly questioned the reliability and truthfulness of the chatbot. Marcus calls the synthesizing of its databases and the “original” text it produces nothing more than “cut and paste” and “pastiche.” The algorithm used by the program has been likened to auto-completion, as well.

However, practical use cases are increasingly emerging, which blur the lines between technological novelty and professional utility. Whether writing working programming code or spitting out a rough draft of an essay, ChatGPT does have a formidable array of competencies. Even if just how competent it is remains to be seen. All this means that as researchers look for efficiencies in their work, ChatGPT and other AI tools will become increasingly appealing as they mature.

Pseudo-science and reproducibility

The Big Idea reached out to experts across the country to determine what might be the most pressing problems and what might be potential successes for research now that ChatGPT is readily accessible.

Holzschuh, stated that there are potential uses, but also potential misuses of ChatGPT in research: “AI’s usefulness in compiling research proposals or manuscripts is currently limited by the strength of its ability to differentiate true science from pseudo-science. From where does the bot pull its conclusions – peer-reviewed journals or internet ‘science’ with no basis in reproducibility?” It’s “likely a combination of both,” she says. Without clear attribution, ChatGPT is problematic as an information source.

Camille Nebeker is the Director of Research Ethics at University of California, San Diego, and a professor who specializes in human research ethics applied to emerging technologies. Nebeker agrees that because there is no way of citing the original sources that the chatbot is trained on, researchers need to be cautious about accepting the results it produces. That said, ChatGPT could help to avoid self-plagiarism, which could be a benefit to researchers. “With any use of technologies in research, whether they be chatbots or social media platforms or wearable sensors, researchers need to be aware of both the benefits and risks.”

Nebeker’s research team at UC San Diego is conducting research to examine the ethical, legal and social implications of digital health research, including studies that are using machine learning and artificial intelligence to advance human health and wellbeing.

Co-authorship

The conventional wisdom in academia is “when in doubt, cite your source.” ChatGPT even provides some language authors can use when acknowledging their use of the tool in their work: “The author generated this text in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model. Upon generating draft language, the author reviewed, edited, and revised the language to their own liking and takes ultimate responsibility for the content of this publication.” A short catchall statement in your paper will likely not pass muster.

Even when being as transparent as possible about how AI might be used in the course of research or in development of a manuscript, the question of authorship is still fraught. Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science, writes in Nature, that “we would not allow AI to be listed as an author on a paper we published, and use of AI-generated text without proper citation could be considered plagiarism.” Thorp went on to say that a co-author of an experiment must both consent to being a co-author and take responsibility for a study. “It’s really that second part on which the idea of giving an AI tool co-authorship really hits a roadblock,” Thorp said.

Informed consent

On NBC News, Camille Nebeker stated that she was concerned there was no informed consent given by the participants of a study that evaluated the use of a ChatGPT to support responses given to people using Koko, a mental health wellness program. ChatGPT wrote responses either in whole or in part to the participants seeking advice. “Informed consent is incredibly important for traditional research,” she said. If the company is not receiving federal money for the research, there isn’t requirement to obtain informed consent. “[Consent] is a cornerstone of ethical practices, but when you don’t have the requirement to do that, people could be involved in research without their consent, and that may compromise public trust in research.”

Nebeker went on to say that study information that is conveyed to a prospective research participant via the informed consent process may be improved with ChatGPT. For instance, understanding complex study information could be a barrier to informed consent and make voluntary participation in research more challenging. Research projects involve high-level vocabulary and comprehension, but informed consent is not valid if the participant can’t understand the risks, etc. “There is readability software, but it only rates the grade-level of the narrative, it does not rewrite any text for you,” Nebeker said. She believes that one could input an informed consent communication into ChatGPT and ask for it to be rewritten at a sixth to eighth grade level (which is the range that Institutional Review Boards prefer.)

Can it be used equitably?

Faculty from the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, like Victor Lee, are already strategizing ways for intuitive AI to be used. Says Lee, “We need the use of this technology to be ethical, equitable, and accountable.”

Stanford’s approach will involve scheduling listening sessions and other opportunities to gather expertise directly from educators as to how to strike an effective balance between the use of these innovative technologies and its academic mission.

The Big Idea

Perhaps to sum it up best, Holzschuh concluded her take on the matter with this thought: “I believe we must proceed with significant caution in any but the most basic endeavors related to research proposals and manuscripts at this point until bot filters significantly mature.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Understanding the Fly America Act is important for all researchers planning government-funded travel. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

What Houston researchers should know about the Fly America Act

houston voices

Commercial aviation witnessed a transformative shift following World War II. Initially reserved for military purposes, commercial air travel began to flourish as civilians embraced its convenience. This surge in air travel highlighted the necessity for regulating the industry.

In response, the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, emerged from the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, later becoming a component of the Department of Transportation under the Department of Transportation Act in 1967.

The evolution of air travel regulation continued in 1974 with the enactment of the Fly America Act. Designed to safeguard U.S. interests in international air travel funded by the government, this act prioritizes U.S. airline carriers. This initiative serves both to support domestic airlines and promote the U.S. aviation industry on a global stage when passengers travel on federal funds.

What some might not know is this legislation can impact researchers and their organizations.

Importance for researchers

Adhering to the Fly America Act applies not only to federal government employees but also their dependents, grantees, and other travelers funded by federal resources. Even foreign researchers visiting the U.S. under federally funded grants must choose U.S. flag air carriers for their travel.

A U.S. flag air carrier should not be confused with a traditional flag carrier. These are airlines that have historically been government-owned or are otherwise closely tied to the identity of a particular country, like British Airways or Aeroméxico. U.S. flag air carriers encompass a wide range of airlines, including smaller entities like Air Wisconsin Airlines and Avelo, a new carrier based in Houston. You can find a comprehensive list of U.S. flag air carriers here.

Navigating exceptions

While the Fly America Act carries strict guidelines, exceptions do exist. Instances where no U.S. flag air carriers serve the destination or where such carriers would extend the trip by over 24 hours warrant special consideration. In these cases, maintaining meticulous records is essential in order to validate the use of non-U.S. airlines. A list of exceptions can be found here.

Open Skies Agreements introduce another facet to the Fly America Act. These agreements between the U.S. Government and other countries enable travelers, including researchers, to use foreign air carriers for government-funded international travel. Several countries, including those in the European Union, Australia, Switzerland, and Japan, maintain Open Skies Agreements. Flights on British Airways are no longer permitted under an Open Skies Agreement due to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Proper documentation is essential when claiming a Fly America Act exception, even if covered under an Open Skies Agreement. Detailed travel itineraries, internal agency forms, and evidence of a Fly America exception must be included in travel receipts.

The Big Idea

Compliance with the Fly America Act ensures your travel expenses are reimbursable on government grants. It’s important to remember that cost and convenience are not exceptions to the act. A thorough understanding of Fly America Act’s provisions and exceptions is a must before you book your next flight.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Why absolutism has no place in research, according to University of Houston

Houston voices

Science, like politics, can elicit polarizing opinions. But with an ever-expanding body of knowledge — and the especially dizzying flurry of findings during the pandemic — is it fair to say that views on science are becoming more extreme?

Measuring the polarization

“A standard way of measuring polarization in the U.S. is asking Democrats and Republicans how warmly they feel toward members of their own group and members of their outgroup on a feeling thermometer from 0 to 100,” said Jessica Gottlieb, professor at the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs. “The difference in ingroup-outgroup warmth is then considered a measure of polarization. This has been measured by the American National Elections Studies systematically over the past several decades, and indeed the level of affective polarization has been increasing in the U.S.”

“Absolutism is the culprit.”

In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “How Extremism Went Mainstream,” the author notes that “the tools that authorities use to combat extremists become less useful when the line between the fringe and the center starts to blur.”

Science has traditionally been one such tool. However, this extremism — where everything is black and white — in politics, has made its unfortunate way into academia. John Lienhard is a professor at the University of Houston and host of “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a national radio program which has been telling stories of how creativity has shaped our culture since 1988. According to Lienhard, extremism — as seen within the scientific enterprise — goes by a different name.

“Absolutism is the culprit – the need on the part of so many of us to know The Right Answer. The absolutists in the world will glom onto whatever vehicle suits them – religion, politics, education, and ultimately, science itself,” said Lienhard. In other words, good scientists amend and revise, while “the absolutist finds the honest practice of science hateful,” he says, “because science is a way of life where everything lies open to question.”

A series of approximations

In an article entitled, “If You Say Science Is Right You’re Wrong,” professor Naomi Oreskes introduces this quote by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg:

“Even though a scientific theory is in a sense a social consensus, it is unlike any other sort of consensus in that it is culture-free and permanent.”

Well, no. Even a modest familiarity with the history of science offers many examples of matters that scientists thought they had resolved, only to discover that they needed to be reconsidered.

Some familiar examples are Earth as the center of the universe, the absolute nature of time and space, the stability of continents and the cause of infectious disease.

Absolutism in science is dangerous. Good scientists know how important it is to ask probing questions. In his book entitled, Science versus Absolutism: Science Approaches Truth by a Series of Approximations, the chemist T. Swann Harding asks the question: “What are scientific laws?” He goes on to answer:

“Most people appear to regard them as singularly exact and unalterable things … to violate them brings swift retribution. They are unchanging and eternal in character. Yet the so-called laws of science are really rules pieced together by man on a basis of much observation and experiment.”

In the past, so much of science was just plain wrong – until another researcher came around and amended the original belief (think Galileo). How are our modern times any different? There are still many situations where scientific thought has needed to be amended. Even as recently as the COVID crisis, researchers were revising their thoughts about the spread and contagiousness of the disease.

Allowing for dissent

In a Scientific American blog, Matt Nolan writes that “Dissent in Science Is Essential–up to a Point.” In it, he said, “It is the public who pay the price when marginalized science informs policy. History reminds us this is unsafe territory.” However, Lienhard adds that Einstein set limits on the validity of Newton’s laws just as nuclear fission provided an amendment to the conservation of energy law. There is always a new question to formalize where experimentation is being conducted.

Referred to as the “file drawer effect,” another predicament occurs when a researcher does not get the answer they were expecting, and therefore, decides to not publish the negative findings. Every answer is meaningful. And sometimes a negative answer — or no answer — is an answer.

Dissent, and perhaps a certain measure of disappointment, is a critical part of scientific inquiry.

The Big Idea

Science can be thought of as the best we know to the degree we understand a given problem at a given place and time. Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process and in some cases actively obscures and colors that understanding. And that’s not black and white at all; that’s about as gray as it gets.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

If there are fewer grant proposals, does that mean innovation has slowed? UH gets to the bottom of the question. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: What a drop in NSF proposals means for the country's rate of innovation

houston voices

A 17 percent drop in proposals over the past decade to the National Science Foundation may be a mixed blessing.

A consistently rising budget – and this is in billions of dollars – is the preferred method of keeping the number of funded proposals ever higher. But a dip in the number of proposals submitted in the first place can have a similar effect of increasing the number of funded proposals, since the pool of submissions is much smaller.

In an article for Science Magazine, author Jeffrey Mervis poses the question: Has there been a decline in grant-worthy ideas? In NSF’s biology sector, Mervis notes that “demand has tumbled by 50 percent over the decade and the chances of winning a grant have doubled, from 18 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2020.” NSF’s leadership suggests two possible reasons for this phenomenon.

Eliminating fixed deadlines

“Dear Colleague” letters went out to numerous directorates within the NSF notifying PIs that fixed deadlines for small projects ($500,000 and less) would be taken out of the equation. For instance, the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering’s letter read: “in order to allow principal investigators (PIs) more flexibility and to better facilitate interdisciplinary research across disciplines” deadlines would be eliminated. The letter goes on to state that by eliminating fixed deadlines, PIs will be free to think more creatively and collaboratively – without the added stress of a deadline.

Wouldn’t less stress mean more applications? This doesn’t seem to be the case. In one instance, according to another article in Science, proposals dropped when the program ceased annual deadlines and replaced them with rolling deadlines.

Reducing stress for grant reviewers

That article goes on to say that these changes alleviate the strain on the grant reviewers without lowering standards. James Olds, assistant director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, anticipated that the NSF program managers would get somewhat of a break, and that the new policy would relieve university administrators who process the applications from being overwhelmed.

Other factors at play

“It is highly unlikely there was one specific reason for the decrease,” said David Schultz, assistant vice president for Sponsored Projects in the Office of Contracts and Grants at the University of Houston, “but rather multiple factors contributing over time. One potential cause is that many major research institutions are diversifying their funding sources away from NSF and into other federal agencies more aligned with their strategic areas of research interest, such as NIH, DOD, and DOE. The NIH has seen an 11 percent increase in proposals over the same period, from 49,592 in 2011 to 55,038 in 2020.”

Tenure

“Another component is the documented decrease in the number of tenured faculty across the nation. Generally tenured faculty are more research-focused, as their ability to obtain externally funded research is a major criterion for promotion and tenure,” said Schultz. “While this may lead to fewer proposals, it does encourage new tenure track faculty to focus more efforts on the higher likelihood of being awarded an NSF grant.”

The Big Idea

Some people work better and more efficiently when presented with a deadline. Could that be the reason fewer proposals are being turned in? In his article, Mervis, deliberates over whether the number of proposals means that the nation is innovating more slowly than before. But how could that be?

The National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight committee, is trying to get to the bottom of the issue so as to mitigate it. Olds stands by the decision to remove deadlines, pointing out that it should be the strength of the proposal not the threat of a deadline which motivates the research project.

Schultz sees a silver lining. “With fewer proposals being submitted to the NSF, the shift creates an opportunity for smaller, emerging universities to increase their proposal submission and success rates.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Every situation is unique and deserves a one-of-the-kind data management plan, not a one-size-fits-all solution. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston research: Why you need a data management plan

Houston voices

Why do you need a data management plan? It mitigates error, increases research integrity and allows your research to be replicated – despite the “replication crisis” that the research enterprise has been wrestling with for some time.

Error

There are many horror stories of researchers losing their data. You can just plain lose your laptop or an external hard drive. Sometimes they are confiscated if you are traveling to another country — and you may not get them back. Some errors are more nuanced. For instance, a COVID-19 repository of contact-traced individuals was missing 16,000 results because Excel can’t exceed 1 million lines per spreadsheet.

Do you think a hard drive is the best repository? Keep in mind that 20 percent of hard drives fail within the first four years. Some researchers merely email their data back and forth and feel like it is “secure” in their inbox.

The human and machine error margins are wide. Continually backing up your results, while good practice, can’t ensure that you won’t lose invaluable research material.

Repositories

According to Reid Boehm, Ph.D., Research Data Management Librarian at the University of Houston Libraries, your best bet is to utilize research data repositories. “The systems and the administrators are focused on file integrity and preservation actions to mitigate loss and they often employ specific metadata fields and documentation with the content,” Boehm says of the repositories. “They usually provide a digital object identifier or other unique ID for a persistent record and access point to these data. It’s just so much less time and worry.”

Integrity

Losing data or being hacked can challenge data integrity. Data breaches do not only compromise research integrity, they can also be extremely expensive! According to Security Intelligence, the global average cost of a data breach in a 2019 study was $3.92 million. That is a 1.5 percent increase from the previous year’s study.

Sample size — how large or small a study was — is another example of how data integrity can affect a study. Retraction Watch removes approximately 1,500 articles annually from prestigious journals for “sloppy science.” One of the main reasons the papers end up being retracted is that the sample size was too small to be a representative group.

Replication

Another metric for measuring data integrity is whether or not the experiment can be replicated. The ability to recreate an experiment is paramount to the scientific enterprise. In a Nature article entitled, 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility, “73 percent said that they think that at least half of the papers can be trusted, with physicists and chemists generally showing the most confidence.”

However, according to Kelsey Piper at Vox, “an attempt to replicate studies from top journals Nature and Science found that 13 of the 21 results looked at could be reproduced.”

That's so meta

The archivist Jason Scott said, “Metadata is a love note to the future.” Learning how to keep data about data is a critical part of reproducing an experiment.

“While this will be always be determined by a combination of project specifics and disciplinary considerations, descriptive metadata should include as much information about the process as possible,” said Boehm. Details of workflows, any standard operating procedures and parameters of measurement, clear definitions of variables, code and software specifications and versions, and many other signifiers ensure the data will be of use to colleagues in the future.

In other words, making data accessible, useable and reproducible is of the utmost importance. You make reproducing experiments that much easier if you are doing a good job of capturing metadata in a consistent way.

The Big Idea

A data management plan includes storage, curation, archiving and dissemination of research data. Your university’s digital librarian is an invaluable resource. They can answer other tricky questions as well: such as, who does data belong to? And, when a post-doctoral student in your lab leaves the institution, can s/he take their data with them? Every situation is unique and deserves a one-of-the-kind data management plan, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.