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.
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.
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.
By David E. Daniel, Ph.D.
In the early 1990s, the federal government launched a 15-year program to map the human genome, and in the process revolutionized the way researchers conducted science. The Human Genome Project required the collaborative work of biologists, engineers, computer scientists, clinicians and more. It involved a hefty investment of research funding that, by some estimates, returned $141 for every dollar spent.
Now, Washington’s research establishment has issued a new challenge to the scientific community — the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). This bold idea — that we can develop ways to provide a real-time view of the working brain — is of great interest here at UT Dallas, which has long been dedicated to discovering the brain’s inner workings.
Last year alone, the National Institutes of Health awarded 14 UT Dallas faculty members a total of 23 new grants to research the brain. These projects are spread across the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.
These federal grants support research that will help our scientists and engineers better understand anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, aging of the brain and autism. They support efforts to develop new methods for delivering molecules across the blood-brain barrier.
Researchers here realized long ago that advancement was likely to come faster if experts across an array of academic specialties worked together, as reflected in the varied missions of the Center for BrainHealth, the Center for Vital Longevity, the Texas Biomedical Device Center and the Department of Bioengineering, as well as in partnerships among researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center, UT Arlington and UT Dallas.
These researchers not only focus on their own quest for knowledge but also pay keen attention to training future generations of neuroscientists. Our undergraduate neuroscience program is still relatively young, first enrolling students in 1996. Enrollment has more than tripled in the past eight years. Our master’s program in applied cognition and neuroscience and the doctoral program in cognition and neuroscience have both steadily increased in size.
Grants from the NIH and other sources support faculty inquiry, and also bring students into the lab to gain hands-on research experiences. For example, Drs. Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez and Sven Kroener were awarded a grant with a provision that undergraduate students be trained as researchers to investigate the mechanisms behind anxiety disorders. Upwards of 30 undergraduate volunteers spend time in our larger neuroscience research labs. More than 80 are involved in work in the Texas Biomedical Device Center, according to a report given recently by the center’s director, Dr. Rob Rennaker. The valuable experience these budding researchers gain can provide a major advantage when applying to top graduate schools.
It remains to be seen what will be discovered through the nascent BRAIN Initiative and where those discoveries will lead. But we expect that within this generation of scientists and researchers working on the project there will be a significant number of important connections and discoveries here at UT Dallas, where we focus on creating the future.
David E. Daniel, Ph.D., is president of UT Dallas. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and past president of TAMEST.
In 2005, the National Academies published Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS), which provided clarity to what many of us had suspected with respect to science and math education in this nation. Complementary NSF data documented the declining interest in high school graduates to follow STEM careers. The 2010 National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 lamented the fact that the needle was not moving forward.
At the same time, many educational working groups identified a bright point: the critical role played by the Informal Science Education (ISE) community of museums and science centers in motivating youth to follow STEM careers. It was recognized that we need to not only educate our youth, we need to inspire them—as well as their parents, and the community. I personally observed the strength of inspiration from the many hundreds of speeches I have given about space exploration to world-wide audiences, for more than three decades. It wasn’t surprising to me: I am a bit biased in this regard. Inspiration from the Apollo program motivated me to study algebra, and then later to leave the ranch so that I could help build Space Shuttle Columbia.
We have many STEM challenges in Texas, as well as proposed solutions. These were addressed in the TAMEST report, The Next Frontier: World Class Math and Science Education for Texas. Houston has its own unique challenges, which we hope to successfully address through the UH STEM center. This Center will serve to promote collaboration within existing university programs, strengthen those that are successful, incorporate best practices, and participate more proactively in external partnerships and networks. The UH programs include teachHouston, replicated after UTeach, the Scholar Enrichment Program (SEP) for science and math undergraduates, PROMES for engineering undergraduates, the Mars Rover Program for elementary and middle school students, and various teacher enrichment programs.
When I was the President and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, I made several observations which I hope to bring to bear in my new role at the University of Houston. One of the strengths of the museum is its focus on the people, not just the history and the “things” of aviation and space. We incorporated local aviators, engineers, innovators, designers, and astronauts into the exhibits so that our young K-12 visitors could see themselves in these roles. We also included “hands on” experiences and interactive exhibits, as well as “inspirational” visual media.
In the TAMEST report, I was particularly struck with a similar thought by Dr. Larry Faulkner, President Emeritus of The University of Texas at Austin: “In the world at large, a more positive image of STEM careers and the people who pursue them must be conveyed.” The report discussed the role that the media and the internet have on the public perceptions of science and engineering and the people who are in those careers. I suggest that the role that the media plays is far more critically significant than we currently understand, and that we will not make the large scale STEM preparation and enrollment changes we need to make in the short time we have left, unless we engage those who control the planned content in all public media and participate more fully in contributing to its content.
There are many examples of how we have lost control of the message in the last 50 years, as the primary communication mediums have changed from newspapers, TV stations which had much more local programming, and radio, to cable TV, the Internet (with Facebook and Wikipedia), and portable phones with texting and Twitter. Let me provide three very recent personal examples of the results of poor STEM imaging:
- In a recent encounter with a high school counselor, she advised me that she didn’t recommend engineering to her students because “my students like to work with people.”
- At a recent luncheon with about forty 17-year-old young women invited to the NASA Johnson Space Center to participate in the WISH program, they told me that while they were encouraged into STEM by their parents and teachers, they didn’t understand why “society” wasn’t encouraging them. I asked what they meant by “society,” and they answered “you know, the internet and reality TV shows.” They shared with me that they thought “society” valued them more for how they looked, rather than what they knew or did.
- On a recent CSI episode (Miami), the female Ph.D. Aerospace Engineer, who was widely published and successful, murdered a woman so that she could take her place as a TV soap opera lead. Her reason? To change careers because she couldn’t get a date as an engineer.
In order to address the imaging and messaging challenge, the UH STEM Center is not only developing the “traditional” website (to be launched soon), but also has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. So do I. Engaging in Twitter and Facebook can be daunting and risky, but used intelligently and carefully, it can provide more positive and realistic imaging for youth (and many adults). When I meet with students or scientists and engineers, I often take a “phone” picture and tweet it. My staff will also post it to Facebook. Some of those pictures are included in this blog. These are faces of future engineers and scientists. We have also engaged PBS Ch8, which resides at the UH campus. President Lisa Shumate is a strong supporter of STEM programming, and we are working together to find funds for new content. Even this may not be enough. It is time that we engage the networks, Hollywood, cable TV, the producers, Google, Bing, and the “writers” at a national level. They need to see our data. They use the technology we develop; in fact, their business models depend upon it. In 2008, the National Academies published Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering to provide well vetted public messaging about STEM careers. How do we move it forward?
Dr. Bonnie J. Dunbar’s professional experience spans industry, academia, government, and the non-profit sectors. She has been a practicing engineer recognized as a “Fellow” by peer groups and appointed to lead national teams evaluating future space exploration technology development, microgravity science development, and human space operations for the National Academy of Engineering. She was a five-time Space Shuttle Astronaut with more than 50 days in space and an integral member of the research and operations development teams for those flights. Recognized with NASA Spaceflight and Leadership medals, Dr. Dunbar is the recipient of seven honorary academic degrees and invited university lectures. She has been recognized for developing and supporting STEM programs in schools and with Informal Science Education (ISE) institutions. She is skilled at developing operational excellence within culturally diverse environments and creating a collectively supported strategic vision. Dr. Dunbar is an internationally recognized speaker who is frequently requested to lecture on topics related to human spaceflight, spacecraft design, spaceflight research operations, microgravity research, and STEM careers.
Dr. Dunbar was recently elected to the august Executive Committee of the International Association of Space Explorers (ASE) at the XXV Planetary Congress of the ASE, held last year in Saudi Arabia. She is the first woman space flier in that committee’s 25-year history. In April, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida.
In 2013, she returned to the University of Houston as a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and to lead a new STEM center (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), dedicated to improving STEM education and literacy and encouraging more young people to study these fields in college. In June, Dr. Dunbar was also named the new director of the college’s Aerospace Engineering Program.
Dr. Dunbar was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2002 and was a founding member of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) Board of Directors in 2004.