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University of Houston launches new institute to promote drug discovery research

UH has announced a new multi-disciplinary institute to promote drug discovery. Photo courtesy of UH

The University of Houston has introduced a new institute to its campus. The multi-disciplinary program includes both on-campus and citywide collaboration.

UH has established the Drug Discovery Institute in order to streamline and modernize drug discovery. In partnership with the Texas Medical Center, as well as other organizations, the DDI will tap into technology and innovation to advance modern medicine. The institute will collaborate with the UH colleges of Pharmacy, Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Cullen College of Engineering.

"Our new Drug Discovery Institute could not have been launched at a more appropriate juncture. With the frantic quest for effective drugs to counter the current and future viral infections, the broad and deep strength of the University of Houston is being brought to bear and will no doubt advance the development of innovative cures," says Amr Elnashai, vice president for research and technology transfer, in a press release.

The university currently has about 100 faculty members conducting drug discovery-related research, but, according to the release, these efforts have been fragmented. With DDI, UH hopes to bring these efforts together under one roof in order to promote synergistic research.

F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, has been advocating for the idea of a collaborative drug discovery research center for more than a decade

"The breadth of this initiative will establish the institute and the University among the national leaders in drug discovery and become one of the first to fully embrace AI into its academic drug discovery programs," Pritchard says in the release.

The new institute will be led by Ruiwen Zhang, Robert L. Boblitt Endowed Professor in Drug Discovery at the College of Pharmacy,. He will hold the position of director for two years, before the title rotates through the collaboration of colleges.

"Working together is critical, none of us can do this alone," Zhang says in the release. "In drug discovery, a chemist needs a biologist, a biologist needs a pharmacologist, and so on. We will build a platform and infrastructure, along with the necessary tools, to bring everyone together."

The facility will work to promote each of the school's expertise across many aspects of the drug discovery process — including high-throughput screening technologies, organ-on-chip models, biosensing and biofeedback, molecular modeling and more.

"Practicing team science is key to making innovative discoveries and we are eager to collaborate with faculty across the University to develop cutting-edge research and ultimately to find treatments and cures for disease," says Dan Wells, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, in the release.

Additionally, DDI will offer seed grants for interdependent drug-discovery projects and encourage collaboration and the sharing of data with experts around the world

"I foresee one day in the near future that we are able to create some of the strongest databases and artificial intelligence approaches to drug discovery," Pritchard says in the release. "Rather than having to screen millions of compounds to find one therapy, we may be able to narrow that down to 1,000 and really streamline the process."

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Building Houston

 
 

Progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. Photo via Pexels

Houston is often touted as the most diverse city in the country, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we are creating inclusive and equitable opportunities that reflect the communities we serve.

With the current state of our country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social and political issues, employers across the city have searched for the right thing to say and do to help their employees and customers during this time when personal feelings and beliefs impact the workplace more now than ever. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing DEI across an organization, here are a few steps and considerations companies can take to ensure DEI is a priority moving forward.

Understand your audience

It's important to understand the perspectives of those you serve. Identifying your audience will help develop a DEI strategy that addresses concerns from multiple lenses. At Houston Methodist, we focus on our patients, employees and the communities we serve. Anyone building a DEI program needs to not only be cognizant of their audience, but also understand their needs in today's climate before spending time and resources to develop initiatives that will address those needs. Ultimately, this will help shape a more impactful approach to DEI within your organization.

Define success

When developing a DEI strategy, success may seem overwhelming or lofty. But, viewing success as progress will help your organization accomplish your goals in a way that employees and other stakeholders will benefit from in the long run.

Set strategic and measurable goals that clearly state what your organization wants to achieve through its DEI efforts. These goals need not be big at the onset; make sure they are attainable. Most importantly, it's critical to revisit your goals on a regular basis and identify gaps, and be willing to pivot, if needed, along the way so your organization eventually reaches its goals. At the hospital, we've developed a DEI dashboard for all departments in our hospitals to help us with setting those measurable goals. Once measurable goals are identified, a DEI scorecard will be used to identify progress for departments and our organization year over year. When people are able to easily track and see progress or gaps, it will make it easier to reach desired goals.

An organization can't be successful with any new type of program if everyone within the organization doesn't understand the importance of DEI in their department and within the company as a whole. Progress often starts with one person. Providing training to employees about the impact that DEI can have on their day-to-day work will help them champion that within the organization. For example, we've launched something at our hospital called "Together We Grow," a training program aimed at building a foundation for what DEI is by exploring everyday scenarios employees may encounter. This program first started with leadership and is now available to all employees within the hospital system.

Establish a timeline

Once measurable goals have been established, develop a timeline for accomplishing those goals. By selecting two or three goals that can be focused on over a particular time period (i.e., six months or one year), your organization can implement targeted programs and best practices to drive the success of DEI for a more long-term plan. It's ok if not every program is up and running within the year; creating milestones along the way will give your organization time to grow its DEI efforts and aspire to something meaningful for your employees, customers or community. The need for DEI doesn't go away, so it's important to continue efforts year-round with a growth mindset.

Evaluate how DEI holistically fits into your business

A DEI department, team or individual can't be successful if the work isn't aligned with the mission of the organization. It does not help if an organization has competing priorities, so DEI goals must be embedded in your organization's business goals.

Additionally, it's also important to have leadership set the tone for the rest of the organization to follow. Executive leaders that fully commit to the organization's DEI efforts and promote transparency, feedback and accountability for those programs will yield the most meaningful and lasting results.

Recognize your ‘why’

As a business, it's important to understand why DEI is important for your organization's success. You need to both be able to understand and articulate the business case for why diversity matters in your organization. Studies like this one from Boston Consulting Group continue to show a positive correlation between workforce diversity, innovation and overall company performance. The workforce is constantly changing and becoming more diverse, so making sure your organization is adapting to those different perspectives and taking into consideration why this work is vital to your employees, customers and your community will help turn DEI ideas into action.

For many health care organizations, health equity has shaped community engagement efforts and programs. Addressing health equity for racial, ethnic and social minorities in the Greater Houston area has been a priority for Houston Methodist for nearly 30 years, and this work has also informed and strengthened our DEI efforts in the communities we serve.

In conclusion, remember progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. For these initiatives to be effective, everyone within your organization must understand that each person plays a role in shaping the success of DEI efforts.

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Arianne Dowdell is vice president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist.

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