Houston voices

Houston research: Understanding the limit to our professional networks

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory on how large human networks can realistically get. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

You go to conferences; you network; you collaborate — all researchers and academics do. But do you need more than 150 contacts? Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter — all of these platforms open us up to the possibility of thousands of acquaintances, though fewer we would refer to as "friends."

Studying the primate brain

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory of the "Dunbar number" for 30 years. Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of primates. "This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behavior of primates. Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group," wrote Christine Ro in a 2019 BBC.com Future article.

After the group reached approximately 150, it collapsed.

Your network

Is it true that humans based on their brain, and especially pre-frontal lobe size, are only able to connect in an intimate manner with around 150 other individuals? Defined as someone you would make plans to have a drink or coffee with if you bumped into them randomly on the street, Dunbar's claim is that it seems to be a consistent theme throughout history. Says the BBC: "This rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, military organizations, 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists."

The Dunbar number decreases by a "rule of three" where the next step down is the number 50 – those you consider "friends." Then about 15 in a closely knit circle, and four to six only in our familial or closest friend contacts.

Social media and COVID-19

"What determines these layers in real life, in the face-to-face world… is the frequency at which you see people," says Dunbar. "You're having to make a decision every day about how you invest what time you have available for social interaction, and that's limited." So, social media and COVID would seem to be game-changers for this theory.

Dunbar went on to study the process of "grooming" and light touch with astonishing results, which you can read about in the New Yorker. Basically, if a person has a face-to-face encounter with a friend, they are consequently able to withstand unpleasantness right afterwards (their hands stuck into a bucket of ice, for instance!) at a much higher rate.

"It makes sense that there's a finite number of friends most individuals can have," wrote Ro. "What's less clear is whether that capacity is being expanded, or contracted, by the ever-shifting ways people interact online …'It's extremely hard to cry on a virtual shoulder,' Dunbar deadpans."

And how has COVID changed Dunbar's theory? "While our culture has encouraged us to accumulate friends, both on- and offline, like points, the pandemic has laid bare the distinction between quantity and quality of connections," said a New York Times article. "There are those we've longed to see and those it's been a relief not to see."

The Big Idea

Many try to debunk Dunbar's number, by saying that primate and human brains differ and that the calculations are off. Robin Dunbar defends his theory thirty years after first proposing it in The Conversation.

The number of people you can just recognize according to Dunbar, is about 1,500, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are an extrovert and have an incredibly large network of collaborators – both online and offline.

University of Houston's central research department, the Division of Research, has about 100 members. But, your Linkedin network — check the number and see what it sits at. And if it's 600, ask yourself: do you really need that many contacts?

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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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Building Houston

 
 

This month, TMCi is welcoming a slew of health tech and cancer innovators who will advance solutions in medicine over the next several months. Image via TMC.edu

The Texas Medical Center has announced the latest cohorts of its two health tech accelerators.

The Texas Medical Center Innovation has named eight companies that are in the Spring 2023 Accelerator for HealthTech cohort. TMCi also announced 21 participants are set to join the 2023 Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics cohort. Both programs connect the entrepreneurs and innovators to experts at TMC’s campuses to solve unmet clinical needs and reach the next business milestone.

“At TMC Innovation, we start with a promise of uniting cutting-edge innovators in science and medicine with the talent found at the Texas Medical Center," says Emily Reiser, associate director of TMC Innovation, in a news release. "Our 2023 cohort members are tackling some of the most critical issues we face today in healthcare.

"We are excited to welcome a new group of researchers and companies to the TMC Innovation Factory, and to work collaboratively with our new cohort members and our partners from across the Texas Medical Center," she continues.

Here's what 2023 can expect from these two program's cohorts.

TMCi HealthTech Accelerator

The six-month, twice annual HealthTech Accelerator — originally launched in 2014 with over 225 alumni companies — focuses on digital health and medical device startups. The spring cohort are addressing solutions across maternal medicine, mental health, diagnostics, patient experience, and artificial intelligence.

"Uniting talented professionals from across the globe provides a unique opportunity for innovation, creativity, and development in diverse areas of expertise," says Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Healthtech at TMCi, in the release. "Our tailored program maximizes participants' experiences while determining the best match between these companies and Texas Medical Center’s network."

The cohort was selected following a November bootcamp that introduced potential startup members to the TMC and the Houston health care community.

The following companies will join the TMC this month:

  • Based in Roseville, Minneapolis, Bloom Standard is deploying the first self-driving pediatric ultrasound to earlier diagnose heart and lung conditions in primary care, remote and under-resourced settings.
  • San Francisco-based Ejenta automates remote monitoring and care using AI technology exclusively licensed from NASA. “Intelligent agents” learn from connected devices, claims and EMR data to monitor patients, predict health and to provide automated support for patients and automated workflow for clinicians.
  • Kintsugi, based in Berkley, California, is on a mission to see mental health more clearly by developing novel voice biomarker infrastructure to detect signs of depression and anxiety from short clips of free-form speech.
  • San Francisco-based Lana Health is modernizing patient experiences, across the care continuum with an end-to-end, scalable platform, enabling frictionless care transitions, high patient satisfaction, and better clinical outcomes.
  • Liberate Medical, from Crestwood, Kentucky, improves outcomes for mechanically ventilated patients using its breakthrough, non-invasive, respiratory muscle-protective, neurostimulation device, VentFree.
  • Limbix, headquartered in Palo Alto, has a mission to improve mental health with accessible technology.
  • Nua Surgical, from Galway, Ireland, Nua Surgical is an award-winning Irish start-up dedicated to innovating in women’s health.
  • Houston-based Prana Thoracic is developing solutions for the detection and intervention of early-stage lung cancer.

Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics

The TMC has announced the 21 researchers and companies tapped to join the 2023 Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

The nine-month program, funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in partnership with the Gulf Coast Consortia and the University of Texas Medical Branch, supports investigators and early-stage biotechnology companies with innovative solutions in cancer therapeutics. Participants will be mentored by a group of scientific, business, and innovation leaders to ultimately be positioned to apply for grants and pitch to investors and corporate partners to further the development of their innovative cancer solutions.

“For this third cohort, we focused on a strategic and extensive recruitment process, including the evaluation of 1,679 cancer research projects. From 56 applications, we selected 21 participants that will gain access to valuable resources, integrated training and mentorship to prepare for clinical trials,” says Ahmed AlRawi, program manager of Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, in the release. “Our 2023 cohort represents our most diverse cohort to date, including eight companies led by women entrepreneurs. We are excited to continue the momentum and build off the successes of our previous years.”

Forty-five participants have gone through the accelerator program since its launch in 2021, and collectively, the entrepreneurs have raised more than $90 million in funding and three projects are in the clinic.

The 2023 cohort participants are focused on a wide range of therapeutic assets, including small molecule, antibody, peptide/protein, cell therapy, and other. The 2023 cohort kicks off their nine-month program in January.

The participants include:

  1. Dr. Amit K. Tripathi – UNT-Health Science Center
  2. Dr. Darshan Gandhi (ImproveBio, LLC)
  3. Dr. Frank McKeon (Tract Pharmaceutical) – University of Houston
  4. Dr. Hemanta Baruah (Aakha Biologics)
  5. Dr. Joshua Gruber – UT-Southwestern
  6. Dr. Kyoji Tsuchikama – UT Health Science Center-Houston
  7. Dr. Maralice Conacci Sorrell – UT-Southwestern
  8. Dr. Michael Buszczak – UT-Southwestern
  9. Dr. Nadezhda (Nadia) German -Texas Tech-Lubbock
  10. Dr. Parsa Modareszadeh (HemePro Therapeutics) – UT-Dallas
  11. Dr. Robert Kruse (HydroGene Therapeutics)
  12. Dr. Xiang Zhang – Baylor College of Medicine
  13. Dr. Youngwook Won (Singular Immune, Inc.)
  14. Dr. Zhi-Ping Liu (Raphael Pharmaceutical LLC) – UT-Southwestern
  15. Dr. Jonathan Arambula (InnovoTEX Inc.)
  16. Dr. Isaac Chan – UT-Southwestern
  17. Dr. Olga Granaturova (Ruptakine Inc.) – UT Health Science Center-Houston
  18. Dr. Jim Song (Tranquility Biodesign) – Texas A&M-College Station
  19. Dr. Rosa Selenia Guerra-Resendez (Quetzal Bio, LLC) – Rice University
  20. Dr. Cassian Yee (Mongoose Bio, LLC) – UT-MD Anderson Cancer Center
  21. Dr. Manjeet Rao (Niragen, Inc.) – UT Health Science Center-San Antonio


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