Houston voices

University of Houston looks at how to navigate which ongoing research is considered essential

Is all research essential? Nope. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Many researchers have begun to work from home due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic, and only essential personnel are allowed to work on university campuses. For a researcher, what is considered "essential personnel"? Isn't all research essential to the workings of a public research university?

In a word, no.

As much as one would like to believe their respective job is of the utmost importance to human existence, certain mitigating factors can overrule that sensibility – and the definition of the word "essential" – in a moment's time. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, a Ph.D. candidate researching diabetes at the University of Toronto said, "There is no single experiment or laboratory activity that is more important than saving the life of even a single individual in the community."

Your university or institution may not have closed completely, yet it is safe to suspect that you have been asked to complete most of your work remotely. With most counties in the nation declaring a shelter in place order, researchers who have been required to "ramp down" lab activities may be feeling extreme disappointment and even panic.

Allowances and exceptions for federally funded research

The NSF has extended deadlines for some applications and reports. For instance, it has extended the dates of all annual project reports due between March 1 and April 30 by 30 days. In addition, the charge of costs or fees that have been incurred due to COVID-19 can be negotiated, as long as there is proper documentation and the result is not a shortage of funds to eventually carry out the project.

The NIH released NOT-OD-20-086 on March 12, 2020 to alert the research community of certain flexibilities which apply to NIH applicants and recipients. Some of these include pre-award costs, extension of required reporting, prior approval waivers and expenditure of award funds – especially involving travel. There are other exceptions being made, including allowing salaries to be charged against grant monies in some instances.

So, you have to go to campus

If you are a researcher who ensures the continuity of key operations, such as an animal care operations worker, there are several things you can do to keep yourself and your colleagues safe, which will come as no

surprise:

  1. Very few researchers are allowed on campus. If you are working on campus, keep 6 feet away from your co-workers. There should be a greatly reduced number of researchers in the lab or facility at any given time.
  2. Wash your hands. Follow all environmental safety and hazardous material rules to a tee.
  3. Be careful when getting deliveries and regularly clean your workspace.
  4. Research the many funding opportunities that are available to contribute to the solution of COVID-19 related issues.

Just breathe…it’s going to be okay

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that an emergency plan is the best bet for staving off panic and flowing as seamlessly as possible into a remote working situation. As always, safety is goal one and this situation's trajectory is causing safety concerns to escalate. Your research will ramp up again, make no mistake, although for the time being it may have fallen victim to this outbreak. If you stay in close adherence to policies put forth by your institution and you keep your sponsor abreast of your next steps, all will work out in the end.

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

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Fertitta and his family have gifted $50 million to UH's medical school. Photo courtesy

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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