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Houston educator plans to lead her university into the future with her new role

Former University of St. Thomas business school dean, Beena George, is taking on a new role at the university: Chief innovation officer. Courtesy of UST

High school graduation numbers are decreasing, and, by 2025, far fewer college freshmen will be starting school. Some project as high as a 15 percent drop, says Beena George, inaugural chief innovation officer of Houston's St. Thomas University.

UST is looking forward to and anticipating changes and challenges within higher education like this, and one of the steps the university has been to create George's position.

"My role is to ferment that culture of innovation," George says. "Not just sit here and think of ideas."

As the school gets ready to welcome students back onto its Montrose campus, the former business dean gets ready to serve in her new role for the first semester. She spoke with InnovationMap about her career, goals, and the role UST plays within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap: What have you learned throughout your career that has prepared you for the role?

Beena George: I've always been interested in solving problems. If I saw something that was an opportunity, and we didn't take advantage of it, I'll keep thinking about it. I've been thinking about what makes me enjoy this role and stage in my career, and I think it's because most roles tend to be mostly operational, but this is thinking of new things and doing things differently and checking your own assumptions. That is what really engages me in my role. My career has given me different opportunities to use this, but not so much as now. When teaching, you have that opportunity every day — engaging students differently. Then as dean, it was about looking at new opportunities and programs for the business school, like our Master of Clinical Translation Management program.

IM: How did this clinical translation program come about?

BG: The idea of clinical translation is essentially to move a discovery from the lab to the patient's bedside — it's the commercialization of life sciences. The program trains students to shepherd a discovery from the lab to the commercial setting so that it's available to patients.It's a combination of business, life sciences, regulatory affairs. It's a one-year online program with some residency periods. It's the only of its kind in Houston and is one of less than 10 in the United States and, to my knowledge, the only of its kind in a business school.

IM: What does innovation mean to the University of St. Thomas and this inaugural position?

BG: I think innovation isn't entirely new on college campuses, but now is a time when higher education is in flux. There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way. Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase.

IM: What’s on your to-do list for this first year and within five years?

BG: Since this is a new role, my first goal for the next two to three months is the process of discovery — internally and externally. One of the cool things that's happening in Houston is all these partnerships and collaborations. That's what I'm trying to do — learn about the groups here and outside and make these connections. The other part of it is bringing information in from the outside. There are so many different ways of doing things. For instance, in higher education, it's been historically tied to credit hours. We know now there are many different ways to look at education. That's the kind of conversation I look to get started.

IM: You mention collaboration, and I think that’s key when it comes to higher education institutions within the innovation ecosystem, but how do you see that teamwork affecting the city as a whole?

BG: So I have been so glad to see that, because I've always believed that there has to be some competition — it ensures that everyone performs at their best. But there are some industries where you have to go beyond competition to the next level and manage competition and collaboration at the same time. We have two networks — Texas Medical Center and the academic partnership created by The Ion — and talk about what's happening on your campuses and how we can work together in Houston. There's also the 60x30 Texas, which has different advisory councils that offers that same conversation of collaboration to work together to meet our goals. Those types of conversations are important and having those types of venues to do that can have only a positive effect on Houston.

IM: How is UST finding new ways to prepare its students for the workforce?

BG: One thing that has gained a lot of attention here on campus is providing students with more experiential learning opportunities — more internships and apprenticeships and bringing the industry into the classroom. Carlos Monroy, a professor at UST, and his student worked on a project for the city. This is something that allows us to remain connected to the industry and it gives our faculty the idea of what the Industry needs and they can focus on that in the classroom.

IM: UST recently announced a major “renewal” plan. How is this going to affect innovation efforts on campus?

BG: I think the whole process is about innovation. What we have is an opportunity to recreate ourselves for the next millennium and create a sustainable operating model that will continue to provide for our students. I think it will affect everything.


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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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