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

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

Forging new paths

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

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

Student at the wheel

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

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

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

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

Mapping it out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.