Blog posts tagged in Edith and Peter ODonnell Awards

The following post is part of a special blog series highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. The 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients have each agreed to contribute to the blog series.

The fourth post in this series was written by Dr. Richard Bruick, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine. Dr. Bruick’s studies on cellular responses to maintain oxygen and iron homeostasis have helped lay the foundation for the development of small molecule therapeutics to replace erythropoietin as a treatment for anemia, to treat renal cell carcinoma, and to address iron overload disorders.

View Dr. Bruick’s presentation at the TAMEST 2014 Annual Conference.
View Dr. Bruick’s portion of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards tribute video.

The 2015 O’Donnell Awards recipients were announced in December through a press release and a video trailer on the TAMEST website.


Dr. Richard Bruick, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine

By Richard Bruick, Ph.D.

Perhaps the earliest and most frequent advice I’ve received over the years from the chair of our Biochemistry Department, Dr. Steve McKnight, is “make a discovery!” This should not be confused with “publish lots of papers!” as is often intended when well-meaning colleagues coach young faculty preoccupied with launching their careers. Rather, it’s a call to constantly tackle new and challenging problems that may pay off with life-changing advances. There is a great deal of risk associated with this approach. Progress may be slow and hard to measure with no guarantee of success—not exactly ideal selling points when trying to get grant funding.

Drs. Kevin Gardner and Richard Bruick

Drs. Bruick (right) and Gardner (left) have collaborated on the development of small molecules with the potential to treat kidney cancer.

Over a decade ago, my collaborator Kevin Gardner and I embarked on one such project. I had begun my independent career investigating mechanisms that our cells use to sense changes in oxygen availability. This work was highlighted by the identification of key regulatory enzymes that have subsequently been studied by countless groups, and are now the targets of candidate drugs to treat anemia. However, we were intrigued by a potential vulnerability we spied within a different player in the pathway that we hoped could be useful in the context of cancer treatments. This particular target was largely ignored by others in our field, in part because it did not fit into a known class of “druggable” protein targets.

Combining the expertise of UT Southwestern biochemists, structural biologists, and chemists, we sought to develop inhibitors that could exploit our hypothesized liability. Though we gained many insights along the way, the challenges were substantial and progress was often arduous. It wasn’t until 2011—after almost ten years of work—that we achieved the key milestone we aimed for at the outset: a chemical inhibitor that targeted this “undruggable” factor. This technology was licensed to a biotechnology start-up company here in Texas, Peloton Therapeutics, which successfully advanced these early lead molecules into clinical drug candidates for the treatment of kidney cancer. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the start of a clinical trial, and the first patients are receiving the candidate drug as I write this today. It is an exciting time for all involved and we can’t wait to see whether this off-the-wall idea in which we’ve invested so much time will finally pay off with improved treatments for cancer patients.

Structure of a small molecule inhibitor bound to a protein implicated as a key driver of tumor progression in kidney cancer

Shown is the structure of a small molecule inhibitor bound to a protein implicated as a key driver of tumor progression in kidney cancer.

I was very gratified to receive the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Medicine from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST). This award recognizes the efforts of dozens of talented individuals over the years as well as Dr. McKnight’s vision and the willingness of UT Southwestern to encourage bold research programs. I firmly believe the Department of Biochemistry at UT Southwestern was central to my success. Our work required significant investments in infrastructure, including shared facilities for small molecule screening, medicinal chemistry, biophysical analysis, and pharmacodynamics characterization. We relied on the excellent labs neighboring ours that span many scientific disciplines and the collegial environment fostered at our institution. As our work matures, new avenues of research continue to open up, allowing us to engage even more investigators to address ongoing opportunities in both clinical and basic research.

The O’Donnell Award validates the patience and trade-offs required to pursue high-risk, long-term objectives and acknowledges the outstanding mentorship I’ve received as well as the terrific colleagues, collaborators and trainees I’ve worked with over the years. The O’Donnell Award provides the freedom to think as creatively as possible, and helps researchers like me all across this state to boldly recruit the next generation of students and fellows to explore new opportunities. I’m thrilled to be in the company of so many outstanding Texas scientists who have been selected for O’Donnell Awards since the program began. Texas is fortunate to have an organization like TAMEST fostering innovation in our state through this unique, life-changing awards program, which will continue to drive innovation in Texas for years to come.

Dr. Richard BruickDr. Richard Bruick is associate professor of biochemistry and a Michael L. Rosenberg Scholar in Medical Research at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The following post is part of a special blog series highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. The 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients have each agreed to contribute to the blog series.

The third post in this series was written by Dr. Thomas Truskett, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Engineering. Dr. Truskett was recognized for fundamental contributions in three areas—self-assembly at the nanoscale, dynamics of confined liquids, and structural arrest of complex fluids—that are important for applications ranging from biomedical imaging to the delivery of therapeutic proteins.

View Dr. Truskett’s presentation at the TAMEST 2014 Annual Conference.
View Dr. Truskett’s portion of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards tribute video.

The 2015 O’Donnell Awards recipients were announced in December through a press release and a video trailer on the TAMEST website.


Dr. Thomas Truskett, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Engineering

By Thomas Truskett, Ph.D.

Through discovery and innovation, scientists and engineers have a long history of addressing challenges critical to our health, prosperity, and security; i.e., to our quality of life. Since the latter is a priority for the citizens of most communities, a practical question arises. What can be done now (e.g., as a city, state, nation, etc.) to encourage and support a lasting culture of discovery and innovation? More specifically, what actions can be taken to help create and sustain the necessary human capital and infrastructure, as well as the resources and incentives, for these activities to thrive over the long term?

The answers are, of course, community specific and require understanding a complex landscape of political, strategic, and economic considerations. Private investors and companies have financial incentives to support development of promising and profitable technologies, and—all else equal—they favor investments in locations with a healthy business environment, a vibrant technological sector, and a highly skilled workforce, often in close proximity to prestigious tier-one research universities. The latter can be particularly helpful because the intersection of education and the world-class research characteristic of tier-one institutions not only helps to attract and retain top faculty and students, but it also produces a steady stream of graduates educated in a culture of discovery and innovation. More broadly, the tier-one university goals of educating future leaders and creating and disseminating new knowledge complement those of a robust technological sector.

Image of clustering in a simulated model dispersion of therapeutic proteins

An image of clustering in a simulated model dispersion of therapeutic proteins. Colors identify individual clusters. Image credit: Jon Bollinger and Thomas Truskett, UT Austin.

But that still leaves the question of what to do to cultivate an environment conducive to the long-term success of tier-one research universities? In addition to providing the necessary funding for world-class faculty and facilities (dollar amounts that get repaid many times over by the economic impact of these institutions), further investments need to be made to broadly support a culture of discovery and innovation. In Texas, one successful and forward-thinking example of such an initiative is The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST), founded a decade ago to recognize and bring together the top innovators in the state of Texas, including members of The National Academies as well as rising stars. Through its annual conferences and critical issues forums, as well as through the annual O’Donnell Awards, TAMEST has created something truly unique in Texas: a relevant innovation connection point for top educators, researchers, professionals, industry practitioners, media, and the public.

I experienced first-hand the benefits of TAMEST over the last year after being selected as the recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award for Engineering. It’s hard to describe how quickly giving an O’Donnell Awards Lecture at the annual conference in front of hundreds of Academy members and rising stars opens new doors for collaboration. This type of broad exposure is especially important in highly interdisciplinary fields like some of those in which I and my collaborators work, including computational material design and engineering liquid forms of biological therapeutics for at-home treatment of disease. Based on interactions and conversations associated with the O’Donnell Awards and the annual conference, I learned of fascinating complementary approaches, techniques, and ideas from other areas of science and engineering that advanced our research capabilities, and I have also established entirely new collaborations that are broadening the impact of our work. As the new year approaches, I look forward to the chance to return and participate in the annual conference and contribute to what has become a powerful and enlightening interaction forum for discovery and innovation in Texas.


Thomas Truskett, Ph.D.Dr. Thomas Truskett is Department Chair, Les and Sherri Stuewer Endowed Professor, and Bill L. Stanley Leadership Chair in Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).

The following post is part of a special blog series highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. The 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients have each agreed to contribute to the blog series.

The second post in this series was written by Dr. James Walker, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation. Dr. Walker was recognized for his pioneering work, development, and modeling in impact theory, penetration mechanics, material characterization and response under dynamic loading, and their application to resolving problems of international importance in personal protection and safety for defense and the space program.

View Dr. Walker’s presentation at the TAMEST 2014 Annual Conference.
View Dr. Walker’s portion of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards tribute video.

The 2015 O’Donnell Awards recipients were announced in December through a press release and a video trailer on the TAMEST website.


Dr. James Walker, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation

Decreasing the Analysis Time to Speed Up Development of Ground Combat Vehicles

By James Walker, Ph.D.

I was a principal investigator in the DARPA Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program, which is wrapping up this year (2014). AVM was a large research program with the ambitious goal of reducing the time from concept to production of a ground combat vehicle by a factor of five. There are many topics that come into play in the development and production of a new vehicle. Given our specific expertise in impact and blast, the Engineering Dynamics Department at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), located in San Antonio, Texas, was in charge of delivering the survivability analysis tools. Our effort included three divisions at SwRI and four subcontractors.

The aim was that the vehicle be “correct by construction.” To achieve the AVM program goals, accurate modeling of vehicle systems’ behaviors is required. We delivered survivability tools that greatly sped up the design and analysis process. The SwRI team’s role in this program was to provide survivability models for ballistic, blast, and corrosion protection, and human factors models.

Our work produced significant survivability tools, highlighted by five major innovations:

  • Innovation #1. Multi-fidelity analysis/varying levels of refinement in physics models, so that faster/lower fidelity computations could be performed in initial design space exploration, and more detailed analysis was performed during design refinement,
  • Innovation #2. Automated meshing and connecting of parts for complex vehicle structure, with particular success in our automatic welding and bolting tools,
  • Innovation #3. Uncertainty quantification and development of 95% bounding models thus indicating for minimal additional computational cost the robustness of the design,
  • Innovation #4. Sophisticated large deformation/material failure material model library and more accurate blast loads, since the results of the computations cannot be more accurate than the material characterizations and the applied loads, and
  • Innovation #5. Automating the whole survivability pipelines for blast and ballistics—essentially the designer can launch the entire analysis from CAD, making the survivability analysis tools easy for the designer to use.

In the DARPA AVM program, these tools went through an extensive testing beta test and a Gamma Test exercise by both commercial firms and engineering R&D laboratories. In that exercise, the SwRI team survivability tools received extensive praise, including

  1. “[Survivability tools] are much, much, much faster than the way we typically do things.”
  2. “Weeks of work done in an hour” [referring specifically to the automesher, autowelder, and shader]
  3. “Very impressed with the automation in blast and ballistics.”
  4. “There is nothing else like it [ballistic Shotline Viewer].”
Figure 1. Images from computations during DARPA AVM showing hull deformation

Figure 1. Images from SwRI team computations during DARPA AVM showing hull deformation due to blast and an automatically meshed vehicle hull with internal structural members.

As an example of automating an important behavior, consider the ability to handle welds and heat affected zones (HAZs). In the SwRI team software, this was completely automated, with the software looking for all finite elements that were in contact with a weld and then placing HAZ material properties into those elements. Figure 2 shows the bottom of a double V hull where, on the left, the heat affected zone is not included, while on the right, it is. There is a clear difference in the amount of damage and hull deflection. Accurately modeling the hull deformation requires these capabilities, which traditionally have been very labor intensive to include in a vehicle model prepared for analysis.

Figure 2. Blast computation on a conceptual hull

Figure 2. Images of a blast computation on a conceptual hull without a heat affected zone (HAZ) (top) and with an HAZ (bottom), showing the importance of including the HAZ. The HAZs and the welds in these examples were automatically produced by the SwRI team survivability tools.

An additional feature of the SwRI team survivability tools was the development of uncertainty-based bounds on the blast response. Given the variability in blast events, the uncertainty-based bounds are extremely helpful in identifying robust solutions. The bounds are obtained by assuming probability density functions (PDFs) for the main variables with variation or uncertainty in the blast problem: the charge density, energy, and geometric shape, the soil density and moisture content, and finally the depth of burial of the charge and the standoff with the bottom of the vehicle. With assumed distributions on these variables, the resulting probability density functions for the upward velocity, jump height, and a computed Dynamic Response Index (DRIz) spinal injury metric (with and without a blast seat with active mechanisms) are all computed. These PDFs allow the determination of a 95% bounding solution. A technique was then developed for rapidly determining the 95% bounding solution for similar blast cases, thus not requiring a recomputation of the PDF in each case, thus providing excellent nominal response values and bounds on the blast response (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. nominal-and-95-percent-upper-bound-for-each-plate-response-for-increasing-charge-mass-for-a-test-case

Figure 3. Nominal and 95% upper bound for each plate response (jump height, maximum vertical velocity, DRIz, and DRIz_seat) for increasing charge mass for a test case.

These examples are specific details that add up to analysis tools that address the larger goal of quicker turnaround for ground vehicles that can provide crew protection for a variety of threats. We are proud to support our troops and to work to provide them the best protection possible. Historically Texas provided ground vehicles to the U.S. military and hopefully such manufacturing will occur in Texas in the future. Nonprofit research establishments such as ours (SwRI), whose mission is “benefiting government, industry and the public through innovative science and technology,” will continue to promote efforts to provide protection to individuals in threatening environments of any kind, both natural and manmade. I’m pleased that The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas recognized the importance of our efforts to understand impact and blast events and to provide protection in such events. The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation in 2014 was great recognition of our work in protection systems over the years, from work on bullet proof vests to work on shielding the International Space Station. The recognition invigorated our entire research team and is much appreciated.

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards are unique awards that encourage, promote, and recognize Texas researchers by recognizing them by the Texas residents of the National Academies and by the heads of research universities and organizations. These awards are highly regarded by the leadership of the various institutions and demonstrate that resources invested in various programs have been good investments. I know that Southwest Research Institute leadership was very excited by our O’Donnell Award in Technology Innovation, the first O’Donnell Award to be awarded to a San Antonio researcher. Further, O’Donnell Awards recognition brings the work of the recipients to a wider audience. Recognition of research demonstrates to various professional organizations and funding agencies that it is valued and has been reviewed by prestigious committees, and thus helps us quickly convey the importance and the relevance of the work.

Texas is a large state with lots of ongoing research, both basic and applied. Recognition of good research programs helps us advertise our work and attract funding and collaborators, both within and outside the state. Scientific and engineering research is an important component of the growing Texas economy. By recognizing innovation and cutting-edge technology advancements that occur in Texas laboratories, such as our work at Southwest Research Institute, it helps build connections and increase industrial outreach, which helps the economy and promotes more growth. Texas and the nation benefit by growth of high-technology positions and industry, and the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards help highlight science and technology success and promote more innovation and investment.


James Walker, Ph.D.Dr. James Walker is an institute scientist at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a nonprofit engineering research and development center based in San Antonio.

In anticipation of the upcoming announcement of the 2015 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards recipients, we are highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. We have invited 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients to contribute a post to this special blog series.

The first post in this series was written by Dr. Zhifeng Ren, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Science. Dr. Ren has made seminal contributions to five scientific fields: carbon nanotubes, thermoelectrics, zinc oxide nanowires, high temperature superconductivity, and molecule delivery/sensing. He was the first to grow aligned carbon nanotube arrays in large scale, make nanostructured bulk thermoelectric materials with much improved properties, and synthesize hierarchical zinc oxide nanowires.

View Dr. Ren’s presentation at the TAMEST 2014 Annual Conference.
View Dr. Ren’s portion of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards tribute video.

The 2015 O’Donnell Awards recipients will be announced on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, through a video trailer on the TAMEST website.


Dr. Zhifeng Ren, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Science

By Zhifeng Ren, Ph.D.

Receiving the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Science was great, an important reminder for me and everyone in my research group that good work will eventually be recognized. It has made us work even harder and driven us to want to achieve much more in the years to come.

High transmittance and large stretchability of flexible transparent electrodes

Fig. 1. High transmittance and large stretchability of flexible transparent electrodes. (Top) High transmittance is shown by the clear letters below the electrode, and (bottom) the electrode is stretched at least 100%.

In just the 10 months since the awards were announced, we have published about 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals and filed 10 patent applications, all as we continue our work on high-performance thermoelectric materials and other devices for efficient thermal energy conversion. In addition, we have also started several other exciting programs, such as extremely stretchable conducting transparent electrodes for potential applications in wearable optoelectronic devices, along with work in novel nano materials and our work to create devices for drug delivery into and out of cells, work which can be used to interrogate the activities inside the cells and ultimately may provide a new method for killing cancer cells.

The O’Donnell Awards are an important acknowledgment of scientific and technological achievement in Texas. But the state still has a long way to go to reach its potential as a center for science and technology, and the economic benefits that would come with that.

Nano size of the grains of newly developed thermoelectric material MgAgSb

Fig. 2a. Microstructure and thermoelectric properties of a newly developed thermoelectric material MgAgSb. This shows the nano size of the grains.

Everyone knows that the United States has had the largest economy in the world for decades. The question is, why? The answer is that the United States has the most advanced science and technology because of the continuous governmental support for both the basic research and practical technologies programs, in addition to a good academic system and a stable political system. These programs have discovered numerous basic science phenomena and also invented many technologies, and simultaneously educated many people over the last century. These talented people come from all over the world, drawn here to pursue their American dream.

Thermoelectric figure-of-merit and its energy conversion efficiency of thermoelectric material MgAgSb

Fig. 2b. Microstructure and thermoelectric properties of a newly developed thermoelectric material MgAgSb. This shows the thermoelectric figure-of-merit (left) and its energy conversion efficiency (right) in comparison with the state-of-the-art bismuth telluride.

In my own lab at the University of Houston, I have found both the financial support – for both financial assistance for graduate students and for facilities – and importantly, through the collaborations with colleagues, to be crucial. It has been especially important to work with researchers from the UH Cullen College of Engineering, and about one-third of my Ph.D. students come from the college, in the fields of mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, electrical engineering, and chemical and biological engineering. These students and their advisors view the projects my group is carrying out from different angles, allowing us to solve challenging issues by bringing different approaches to the problems.

Molecular extraction by spearing cells

Fig. 3. Molecular extraction by spearing cells. (A) An external magnetic field drives multiple wall carbon nanotubes (MCNTs) toward a cell cultured on a polycarbonate filter. To indicate the molecular extraction, the cell is transfected for GFP overexpression beforehand. (B) MCNTs spear into the cell under magnetic force. (C) MCNTs spear through and out of the cell and extract GFP. GFP-carrying spears are collected in the pores of a polycarbonate filter. (D) GFP representing the intracellular signal molecules can be used for analysis of individual pores.

But even though the United States has been at the center of science and technology internationally for many years, Texas clearly has not been at the nation’s center of science and technology. That honor has gone to Massachusetts and California, which have the largest number of top research universities and probably most technology-driven startups. Boston alone has seven of the nation’s top 50 research universities, and California has 9.

Texas, the second most populous state in the country, should put more funding into universities to boost existing programs and attract many more top scientists. When Texas catches Massachusetts and California, it will draw more talented people to Texas. They will make new discoveries and create new technologies, which will generate new jobs and, ultimately, spur a better future for Texas.

In summary, science and technology are key for Texas to become the economic center of the United States, but we are not there yet.


Zhifeng Ren, Ph.D.Dr. Zhifeng Ren is M.D. Anderson Chair Professor in the Department of Physics and principal investigator at the Texas Center of Superconductivity at the University of Houston.