houston voices

Houston expert: Telework in research might be here to stay

The telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

How many of the research administrator's duties can be done from home? COVID-19 is showing us emphatically that the answer is many.

There are some aspects that take a little bit of inventive scheduling to make happen, but overall, the telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off.

Meetings and more meetings

Research professionals know that there are always meetings to attend – with faculty colleagues, research coordinators and institutional review boards. These can be accessed easily over the internet. Back-to-back meetings are much easier to jump on these days.

Sign away

The Society of Research Administrators International blog reminds us that contracts can be sent electronically for signatures: "Sponsors large and small have implemented electronic portals for proposal submissions. Is there a need to be at the office on campus? That is so pre-COVID."

Transportation

Transportation difficulties are all but eliminated in between meetings, and we spend little to no time commuting (as an aside, check out work-from-home discounts for work-from-home car insurance). "More than 30 minutes of daily one-way commuting is associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety," states flexjobs.com. So the telework environment helps to offset that stress. And that doesn't even take into account the environmental impact of fewer cars on the road!

The kids are alright

Childcare. When schools went virtual while some of us worked from home, a crisis was averted. Except for the danger of easy distraction that multi-tasking presented, families often grew closer in the home while working side by side. But essential personnel had a different tale to tell. For instance, Kelly Heath, the director of University of Nebraska – Lincoln Institutional Animal Care Program, said: "Organizing child care is particularly complicated for essential employees and it's added stress to the situation." His team has implemented a three-day consecutive schedule, alternating two teams. This schedule has helped, he said. "Staff are working the same number of hours, but the division provides protection so that if someone on Team A gets sick, Team B has not been exposed."

David Brammer, executive director of Animal Care Operations (ACO) at the University of Houston, developed a similar plan, segregating teams according to geographic location and limiting interaction between the teams. "UH also limited investigators' access to the animal facility until the ACO staff could complete their duties within the facility. The major concern for ACO was to have staff available to care for the animals in the event that a team was either ill or in quarantine due to contract tracing."

Saving money

"People who work from home half time can save around $4,000 per year," states flexjobs.com. "Car maintenance, transportation, parking fees, a professional wardrobe, lunches bought out, and more can all be reduced or eliminated from your spending entirely."

A word on animal care operations

Animal care in the research enterprise poses a significant hurdle. The veterinary care personnel have always been considered "essential." Creative scheduling, like the aforementioned three-day on, three-day off, two-team model has helped to offset the difficulty of having animals fed, watered and cared for.

For University of Nebraska – Lincoln, winter break and blizzards had always required this model to be the plan, but the duration of COVID has simply required this to go on longer than before. The animal care operation, "slowed down its work when possible and delayed taking on any new research projects …Those deemed mission critical or related to addressing COVID-19 got top priority," said a communicator.

The big idea...

Are we better off working at home? The argument can certainly be made that we are. There are aspects that aren't ideal – "Zoom Fatigue" comes to mind – but, overall, telework may be the new normal for many universities.

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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

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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