A new program at UH is providing Houston students with access to research tools and mentorship. Photo via UH.edu

A group of Houston high schoolers aren't taking a break this summer. Instead, they are researching the human body thanks to a new program from the University of Houston.

The STEM Research Inquiry Summer Experience was launched to encourage future STEM leaders and combat the underrepresentation of people of color working in science, technology, engineering and math. Students from Jack Yates High School in Houston's Third Ward are researching hypertension, breast cancer, the spleen, and more during the summer program, according to a news release.

“STEM RISE was inspired by the goal to broaden participation in STEM teaching and learning, and to inspire students from our neighborhood community of Third Ward to envision themselves with futures at UH and ultimately in promising STEM careers,” says Mariam Manuel, director of STEM RISE student success, in the release.

UH students from across STEM fields and departments — science, math, medical, etc. — serve as mentors for the program, which received funding from the National Science Foundation.

“This unique opportunity also gives the young visitors a glimpse into college life,” says Jacqueline Ekeoba, director of STEM RISE instruction, in the release.

In collaboration with UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, teachHOUSTON, the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, and Jack Yates High School, the program provides the students with hands-on experience and access to research equipment and lab space.

“Creating safe and supportive learning experiences for the next generation of scientists and doctors is crucial for ensuring diversity in science and medicine," says Thomas Thesen, director of STEM RISE research experience and associate professor of neuroscience at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine. "Not only is this a valuable experience for our high school participants, but our UH students receive training in culturally responsive pedagogy by acting as near-peer mentors."

From left to right, the UH STEM RISE team includes Jacqueline Ekeoba, Mariam Manuel, and Thomas Thesen. Photo via UH.edu

Over 450 student teams competed in an annual international robotics competition in Houston last weekend. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

International robotics competition brings STEM students to Houston

automation nation

Adolescents from 40-plus countries convened in Houston to put their robotic skills to test at the annual FIRST Championship last week.

The massive robotics championship returned this year to the George R. Brown to conclude the 2021-22 season of the international program, which is aimed at preparing youth ages 12 to 18 for the future through various robotics challenges and competitions.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges, “from the shipment of packages in rural and urban areas, to disaster relief delivery and high-tech space transit,” according to a release from the STEM organization.

The season was sponsored by California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm and was inspired in part by the UN Sustainable Development Goal of building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation, according to the statement.

“I have met so many great students, volunteers, mentors, alumni, and sponsors who truly embody the FIRST mission and core Values," FIRST CEO Chris Moore says in a statement after the event. "People who strive to be gracious professionals who innovate, compete, and collaborate with equal energy. People who share our common passion for science and technology as a force for good with the world. The rewards of your efforts don’t stop at this event.”

Teams competed in final matches for FIRST's two major competitions.

In the FIRST Robotics Competition, which featured the RAPID REACT Game presented by Boeing, students were required to reimagine the future of his-speed transport with strict rules, limited resources, and time limits and using autonomous and driver-operated skills.

More than 3,200 teams competed during this game throughout the 2002 FIRST season and 454 teams advanced to the championship at the GRB. Team 1629 from Accident, Maryland, took home the top prize in this competition. Other teams from Austin, New York, Hawaii, Mexico, and Turkey were finalists.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, teams were asked to think like engineers, building robots from reusables kits in the game FREIGHT FRENZY presented by Raytheon Technologies. Thousands of teams competed in this event throughout the season with 160 teams advancing to Houston. Team 8565 (the TechnicBots) from Plano won the top award.

A FIRST LEGO League challenge was also open to younger students, ages 4 to 16, and the championship. Also during the event, actress and director Gillian Jacobs accepted an award for the film "More Than Robots," which follows four teams as they prepare for the 2020 FIRST competition. The film premiered at SXSW last month and is featured on Disney+.

“I named this documentary ‘More Than Robots’ because as you all well know better than anyone, FIRST is about so much more than robots. I learned that it's about teamwork, compassion, friendship, learning new skills, and challenging yourself to do things you never dreamed you were capable of," Jacobs said at the event.

FIRST's 2022-23 season, dubbed FIRST ENERGIZE, will focus on innovative energy solutions. The season opens in May. Learn more here.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

Local kids can pursue STEM and space dreams thanks to the generous gift. Photo courtesy of Space Center Houston

Jeff Bezos' foundation gifts Space Center Houston with $1 million grant

space funds

Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos may be blasting off into the beyond, but for now, space travel is still primarily relegated to the expert astronauts who train here in Houston.

Now, a new $1 million grant to our beloved hub of all things cosmic may just inspire local kids to rocket towards a career in space exploration or STEM careers. Space Center Houston has just received the generous, two-comma grant from Blue Origin, Bezos' company.

Blue Origin auctioned off seats on first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which yielded an impressive $28 million. Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 women will join the auction winner on the upcoming trip.

With the $28 million proceeds, Blue Origin then awarded $1 million to 19 organizations (each) through its foundation, Club for the Future.

"This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," said Bob Smith, Blue Origin CEO, in a statement. "Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further."

The $1 million Space Center Houston received will go towards the center's Title 1 school field trip program, enabling students with access to the center's extensive space artifact collection, per a press release. Space Center Houston's Girls STEM Pathway initiative, which promotes learning experiences for girls in STEM careers, will also receive funds. The comprehensive, six-phase initiative includes an introductory elementary school experience, a middle school project-based STEM experience, a summer bridge program with mentoring support, and a program for high school girls to engage in scientific research, the center notes.

"Blue Origin's grant will further enable Space Center Houston to provide immersive science learning experiences for underserved Houston area youth," said the center's president and CEO, William T. Harris, in a release. "We are very thankful to Blue Origin for helping us inspire and prepare students for future STEM careers. With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are well represented in Houston, according to a recent report. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

Houston named a top city for women in STEM fields

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If you're a woman in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and you call Houston home, according to a new report, you're doing it right.

In honor of Women's History Month, CommercialCafe updated its 2020 ranking of the top U.S. cities for women working in STEM. According to the report, Houston ranks at No. 5 on the list of the best southern cities in the United States for women in STEM. The Bayou City also claims the No. 19 spot nationally.

Here are some other key findings about Houston on the report:

  • STEM jobs in Houston account for 7 percent of all jobs, and a little less than a third of these positions are held by women.
  • About 23,964 women work in STEM in Houston — which is the most out of any other city in the South.
  • Houston gained 4,318 new women STEM employees since 2015, the third-highest number in this regional ranking.
  • The median annual income for women in STEM here is $68,172.
Texas makes up about half of the top 10 Southern states — Austin places in second, while Frisco (No. 7), Dallas (No. 8) and Plano (No. 10) fall behind Houston. Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle take the top three spots, respectively.

Women working in STEM - South 2021 - Infogram infogram.com

Houston has been recognized for its STEM fields before, and last fall, SmartAsset ranked Houston as No. 7 in STEM nationally based on workforce size. And, in 2019, Houston placed sixth for STEM workforce diversity. Last year Houston also ranked No. 6 for women in tech, also according to SmartAsset.

Chevron has doubled down on its commitment to The Cannon in West Houston, a new study finds Houston a top city for STEM, a Houston startup takes home a win from a digital pitch competition, and more. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Chevron to launch makerspace at The Cannon, Houston a top city for STEM, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags a win at a pitch competition, Chevron announces a new makerspace, a software company makes an acquisition, and more.

Houston named a best city for STEM

Image via SmartAsset

For the fifth year, personal finance website, SmartAsset, analyzed data for the 35 cities in the county with the largest STEM workforces. The study looked at the racial diversity index as well as the gender diversity index. The data for both metrics comes from the Census Bureau's 2019 1-year American Community Survey.

Houston ranked No. 7 on the list, and according to the report, the total number of STEM workers in Houston, Texas exceeds 79,500. Around 70 percent of the total STEM workers there are men, and more than 30 percent are women. Additionally, Houston has the third-best race/ethnicity index score in the study with more than 19 percent of STEM workers are Hispanic or Latino, almost 20 percent are Asian, and more than 8 percent are Black.

Texas makes up about a third of the top 10 list with Dallas and Fort Worth coming in at No. 9 and No.10, respectively.

Chevron announces digital makerspace in The Cannon

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon and its surrounding Founders District in West Houston has announced the addition of Chevron's digital makerspace, which will be dedicated to startup partnerships and community organizations.

"Chevron's support for The Founders District and The Cannon expands our commitment to Houston's growing innovation ecosystem," says Barbara Burger, Chevron vice president, Innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in a news release. "We look forward to utilizing this new space to collaborate with other Chevron organizations, such as our Wells group, as we work to deliver more reliable, affordable, ever-cleaner energy."

While Chevron has been a key partner for The Cannon since 2018 and even had branded office space within the hub, this new space represents a new lease agreement for a significantly larger footprint.

"We are thrilled to partner with Chevron Technology Ventures in developing this exciting makerspace at The Founders District," says Mark Toon, CEO of Puma Development, the company developing The Founders District and founder of Work America Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in Houston-based businesses. "CTV is the paradigm for meaningful innovation in Houston. By investing in emerging technologies in energy, they are paving the way for innovation to remain at the heart of Houston's most prominent industry."

Lazarus 3D wins The Ion's pitch competition

Photo via Laz3d.com

After months of pitching events, The Ion's Startup Demo Day for 2020 concluded on November 18 with four final pitches from Lazarus 3D, Skylark Wireless, HelloWoofy, and Swoovy.

After each of the four founders presented at the virtual event, which was powered by Dell Technologies, Lazarus 3D, a startup that produces 3D-printed organs and tissues for surgical practice, took home the win and the cash prize.

"I'm so grateful to Ion Houston — I've met so many people and made so many connections," says Smriti Zaneveld, co-founder and president. "All of the companies that present at these events are doing something so meaningful."

Applications are now open for the next series. Apply online by clicking here.

Houston tech co. acquires New Zealand business

Photo via Onit.com

Houston-based Onit Inc., a legal software provider, announced that the company has acquired McCarthyFinch and its artificial intelligence platform.

"Our vision is to build AI into our workflow platform and every product across the Onit and SimpleLegal product portfolios," says Eric M. Elfman, Onit CEO and co-founder, in a news release. "AI will have an active role in everything from enterprise legal management to legal spend management and contract lifecycle management, resulting in continuous efficiencies and cost savings for corporate legal departments.

"Historically, legal departments have been thought of as black boxes where requests go in and information, decisions or contracts come out with no real transparency," Elfman continues. "AI has the potential to enhance transparency and contribute to stronger enterprise-wide business collaboration in a way that conserves a lawyer's valuable time."

The newly acquired software has the capacity to accelerate contract processing by up to 70 percent and increase productivity by over 50 percent. With the acquisition, Onit is enhancing its new artificial intelligence platform Precedent and the company's first release on the platform will be ReviewAI.

New sustainability-focused app launches at Climathon

Photo courtesy of Footprint

Houston-based Footprint App Inc. launched its latest carbon footprint education and action software during the Houston Climathon that was hosted earlier this month by Impact Hub Houston.

By tracking the user's sustainable habits, the student-focused tool allows users to compete to reduce their environmental impact. Footprint has launched in over 50 classrooms across the nation and is also being used by several corporations.

"With the state of Texas recently receiving an 'F' in climate education from the National Science Foundation, we see Footprint as the perfect tool for K-12 and beyond to help Texas students engage with climate science in a fun, competitive way," says Dakota Stormer, Footprint App, Inc. CEO and co-founder, in a news release.

Houston ranks among the top markets with most diverse STEM workforce. Getty Images

Houston ranks as the No. 6 best city for diversity in STEM

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Houston has long been known as a melting pot with almost 1 in 4 Houstonians being foreign born and no ethnic majority, but a recent study has shown that this diversity translates to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industry.

SmartAsset studied the demographics within STEM employment in 35 technology hubs in the United States. The company factored in racial, ethnic, and gender diversity using Census Bureau's 2017 one-year American Community Survey data and the Shannon index.

As a result of the research, Houston was named the No. 6 market for diversity among the tech hubs considered. Fifty percent of Houston's STEM workforce is not white, and of that, 21 percent are Asian, 15 percent are hispanic, and 14 percent are black.

Less exciting, Houston has some room for improvement when it comes to gender diversity, the study found. Only 27 percent of Houston's STEM workforce are women, and that's more of a middle-of-the-pack ranking compared.

Washington D.C. claimed the top spot for STEM diversity after jumping from 10th place on last year's report. The U.S. capital boasts the highest percentage of female workers in STEM at 43 percent. Behind DC is Philadelphia, Sacramento, New York, and Boston. Dallas also appears on the top 10 list, coming in at No. 9. Dallas was also called out for its low percentage of women in STEM with women making up only 24 percent of the STEM workforce — the lowest representation among the top 10.

In April, the city of Houston was named the most diverse city in America, according to data from personal finance website, WalletHub. That study analyzed 501 of the most populated cities in America across five key dimensions: socioeconomic diversity, cultural diversity, economic diversity, household diversity, and religious diversity.

When you zero in on technology specifically, Houston does pretty well with female representation in the industry. In a separate report from SmartAsset that was released earlier this year, Houston was named the fourth best major metro for women in technology based on quality of life, pay, and more.

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Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

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Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

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A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

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According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.