houston voices

Why its important to support student researchers, according to this Houston expert

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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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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