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.

A team of researchers out of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston has discovered a faster way of transportation. Photo via UH.edu

Houston researchers identify new tech for unprecedented transportation speeds

zoom, zoom

Researchers at the University of Houston and in Germany released a proof-of-concept paper this month that uncovers a new, fuel efficient means of transportation that they say could one day make air travel and traditional freight transport obsolete.

"I call it a world-changing technology,” Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH and author of the paper, said in a statement.

Published in the journal APL Energy, the paper demonstrates a new way of using superconductors to move vehicles along existing highways while transporting liquified hydrogen at the same time. Until now, the costs of using superconductivity for transportation has held back innovation in the field. This model also reduces the need for a separate specialized pipeline system to transport liquified hydrogen that's able to keep the fuel source at minus 424 degrees Fahrenheit.

The model uses a similar concept to what's behind already existing magnetically levitating trains that operate on a magnetized rail, with superconductors embedded in the train's undercarriage. In Ren's model, superconductors would be embedded into existing highway infrastructure and magnets added to the undercarriages of vehicles. Liquified hydrogen would be used to cool the superconductor highway as vehicles move across it.

The idea could apply to trains, cargo trucks, and even personal cars, according to the paper. Better yet, the vehicles could travel up to 400 mph while on the highway. Drivers would then use the vehicle's traditional or electric motor once they exit.

"Instead of 75 mph, you could go 400 mph, from Houston to Los Angeles, or Houston to New York in just a few hours," Ren said in a statement.

Ren adds that this method would also require drivers to consume less fuel or power, cutting down on cost and environmental impact.

Technical and economic details still need to be addressed. But Ren believes "the project’s potential long-term economic and environmental benefits, would outweigh the upfront costs," according to a statement.

The paper joins a number of other innovative concepts coming out of UH in recent months. Recently, a research team at the university upgraded at-home rapid COVID-19 testing to make results more detectable via glow-in-the-dark materials.

Late last year the university also opened its

new tech transfer facility, and early this year it signed an agreement with India to bring a data center focused on energy to campus.


cropfilter_vintageloyaltyshopping_cartlocal_librarydeleteThe illustration shows the theorized superconducting highway for energy transport and storage and superconductor levitation. Image via UH.edu

UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

University of Houston designs device that instantly kills COVID-19

ZAPPING COVID-19

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

Three UH researchers are revolutionizing the way we think the brain works. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

3 ways University of Houston researchers are innovating brain treatments and technologies

Brain teasers

While a lot of scientists and researchers have long been scratching their heads over complicated brain functionality challenges, these three University of Houston researchers have made crucial discoveries in their research.

From dissecting the immediate moment a memory is made or incorporating technology to solve mobility problems or concussion research, here are the three brain innovations and findings these UH professors have developed.

Brains on the move

Professor of biomedical engineering Joe Francis is reporting work that represents a significant step forward for prosthetics that perform more naturally. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Brain prosthetics have come a long way in the past few years, but a UH professor and his team have discovered a key feature of a brain-computer interface that allows for an advancement in the technology.

Joe Francis,a UH professor of biomedical engineering, reported in eNeuro that the BCI device is able to learn on its own when its user is expecting a reward through translating interactions "between single-neuron activities and the information flowing to these neurons, called the local field potential," according to a UH news release. This is all happening without the machine being specifically programmed for this capability.

"This will help prosthetics work the way the user wants them to," says Francis in the release. "The BCI quickly interprets what you're going to do and what you expect as far as whether the outcome will be good or bad."

Using implanted electrodes, Francis tracked the effects of reward on the brain's motor cortex activity.

"We assume intention is in there, and we decode that information by an algorithm and have it control either a computer cursor, for example, or a robotic arm," says Francis in the release.

A BCI device would be used for patients with various brain conditions that, as a result of their circumstances, don't have full motor functionality.

"This is important because we are going to have to extract this information and brain activity out of people who cannot actually move, so this is our way of showing we can still get the information even if there is no movement," says Francis.

Demystifying the memory making moments

Margaret Cheung, a UH professor, is looking into what happens when a memory is formed in the brain. Photo courtesy of UH Research

What happens when a brain forms a new memory? Margaret Cheung, a UH professor in the school of physics, computer science, and chemistry, is trying to find out.

Cheung is analyzing the exact moment a neuron forms a memory in our brains and says this research will open doors to enhancing memory making in the future.

"The 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel said that human consciousness will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways. I want to see how far we can go to understand the signals," says Cheung in a release.

Cheung is looking at calcium in particular, since this element impacts most of cellular life.

"How the information is transmitted from the calcium to the calmodulin and how CaM uses that information to activate decisions is what we are exploring," says Cheung in the release. "This interaction explains the mechanism of human cognition."

Her work is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science from the National Institutes of Health, and she's venturing into uncharted territories with her calcium signaling studies. Previous research hasn't been precise or conclusive enough for real-world application.

"In this work we seek to understand the dynamics between calcium signaling and the resulting encoded CaM states using a multiphysics approach," says Cheung. "Our expected outcome will advance modeling of the space-time distribution of general secondary messengers and increase the predictive power of biophysical simulations."

New tech for brain damage treatment

Badri Roysam, chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the project that uncovering new details surrounding concussions. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Concussions and brain damage have both had their fair shares of question marks, but this UH faculty member is tapping into new technologies to lift the curtain a little.

Badri Roysam, the chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is heading up a multimillion-dollar project that includes "super microscopes" and the UH supercomputer at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute. Roysam calls the $3.19 million project a marriage between these two devices.

"By allowing us to see the effects of the injury, treatments and the body's own healing processes at once, the combination offers unprecedented potential to accelerate investigation and development of next-generation treatments for brain pathologies," says Roysam in a release.

The project, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), is lead by Roysam and co-principal investigator John Redell, assistant professor at UTHealth McGovern Medical School. The team also includes NINDS scientist Dragan Maric and UH professors Hien Van Nguyen and Saurabh Prasad.

Concussions, which affect millions of people, have long been mysterious to scientists due to technological limitations that hinder treatment options and opportunities.

"We can now go in with eyes wide open whereas before we had only a very incomplete view with insufficient detail," says Roysam in the release. "The combinations of proteins we can now see are very informative. For each cell, they tell us what kind of brain cell it is, and what is going on with that cell."

The technology and research can be extended to other brain conditions, such as strokes, brain cancer, and more.

A startup without funding is just a great idea. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Startup funding: Know the bucks behind the business

Houston Voices

A Cadillac with an empty gas tank is just a really nice, really expensive decoration for your driveway.

Change my mind.

A startup company without funding, is just a really great idea. A dream. Just like a car without gas will never get out on the road, a startup without funding will never get its product out on the market.

"There are opportunities for startup funding out there, your job is to find them and take advantage," says Daniel Weisfeld, CEO and founder of Resthetics, a blossoming startup that takes waste anesthetics and converts them into safe, renewable resources.

Mohamed Hashim, Resthetics co-founder and chemist, chimes in, "You have to do your homework. It's a slow process and hard work, but it'll be rewarding once the money comes in."

Putting the fun in startup funding

According to Weisfeld and Hashim, Resthetics joined the Texas A&M New Venture Competition and won admittance to the Texas Medical Center Accelerator, in addition to funding. In fact, their company is backed by the Texas Medical Center to date.

Business plan competitions give hopeful entrepreneurs the chance to vie for funding of their technology's development. They also give young entrepreneurs real-world experience and a chance to refine their business plans. Business plan competitions offer entrepreneurs a better understanding of what it's like to get a new venture off the ground and helps them learn to commercialize their technology.

You can browse a few business plan competitions here, including a Houston-based one.

Angel networks

While on the surface, an angel network may seem like a religious TV station, it's actually something a little more beneficial to your search for funding. Angel networks are composed of angel investors, i.e., people who invest their own funds into the beginning stages of a startup, with the hope of seeing a big return on their investment later on. Angel investors who invest in startups that end up failing will lose their money. It's a big risk.

They are called "angel" investors because these individuals give their own money to support startups, unlike venture capitalists who use funds pooled together from a group of investors.

Weisfeld suggests that, "Even if you don't think that your company fits someone's investment criteria, you should still reach out to them. Always ask. An investor might like you or your tech enough that they'll make an exception, or they may even recommend you to someone they know who is willing to invest."

Fun fact: In the early part of the 20th century, wealthy business owners gave their own money to support stage plays, so the term "angel investor" was born from Broadway.

You can find local angel investors in Houston here.

Non-dilutive funding sources

Often times, a startup will garner funding but will have to give up partial ownership of their company in return. This is not the case with non-dilutive funding sources. One example of non-dilutive funding is a bank loan. Sure, you'll have to pay a monthly interest rate, but you'll also get to keep absolute ownership of your startup.

Another example of a non-dilutive funding source is revenue sharing. Revenue sharing places more emphasis on a company's growth rather than its equity (your assets vs. your debts). This is important because it is congruent with the interests of entities who provide non-dilutive funding. Funding entities are more concerned with how sustainable your startup is projected to be rather than how much it is worth. This makes non-dilutive funding one of the best avenues through which to receive monetary sponsorship

Accelerators

Startup accelerators support startups as they are, well, starting up. Focused on the early stages of companies, accelerators offer startup funding, mentorship, connections in the industry, and education. Resthetics, a finalist for the 2018 MassChallenge accelerator in Austin, was able to expand its young company thanks in part to the connections made at the MassChallenge accelerator. Weisfeld and Hashim gained access to global mentor networks through the MassChallenge accelerator. Mentors helped them with manufacturing, quality management systems, and guided them as they developed Resthetics.

One of the primary differences between accelerators and business plan competitions is that accelerators offer intensive training and rigorous mentoring to push entrepreneurs to learn the ins and outs of running a business in the span of a few months. It's a hands-on crash course in business, and not for the weak at heart.

Brave souls can find Texas accelerators here.

Bang for your buck

So you've finally received the funding you need for your startup. Now what?

As a kid, my old man never let a teachable moment pass him by. After I spent ten bucks on a single Pog, my dad's new mission in life was to teach me the value of a dollar.

This lesson becomes all the more important after you finally receive funding for your startup. Weisfeld stresses the importance of budgeting after funding is acquired.

"What's the furthest you can go with the smallest amount of money?" asks Weisfeld.

Weisfeld opines that while you must be comfortable spending money, you also have to be confident with your budgeting strategy so that you spend each dollar as efficiently as possible as you take your product to market. After all, what funder is going to want to invest in someone who is wasteful with money?

Whether it's negotiating with vendors, outsourcing, cutting costs, or using independent contractors, it is incontrovertible that financial efficiency should be your next goal after you've finally acquired your startup funding. As Weisfeld proclaims, "Every dollar you spend should in turn create the same amount of value to the company."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at 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.