Blog posts tagged in Texas

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.

Chancellor William H. McRavenThe TAMEST Membership is honored to have new University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven kick off its new member event at the 12th annual conference on Wednesday evening, January 21, 2015, at Houston’s Omni Hotel. The new member event was added to the agenda at TAMEST’s 2012 Annual Conference in Houston and quickly became a popular tradition for acknowledging the previous year’s members who were either elected to the National Academies or relocated to Texas.

We look forward to Chancellor McRaven’s welcoming remarks at the Wednesday evening event. He will be introduced by TAMEST’s Co-founder and Honorary Chair Kay Bailey Hutchison. As noted in Chancellor McRaven’s bio, his last assignment with the Navy was Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, during which time he led a force of 69,000 men and women with an annual budget of more than $10 billion. We understand from his comments to the media there are many parallels between his previous position and his new one as head of The University of Texas System. He also is a recognized national authority on U.S. foreign policy and has advised the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security and other U.S. leaders on defense issues. He has worked extensively with leaders on Capitol Hill, and as a three- and four-star admiral, he was routinely involved in national policy decisions during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Of particular interest to TAMEST Members are Chancellor McRaven’s remarks regarding the value of research recently made to the UT System’s community commenting, “I understand and value the work in a way that others may not, because a lot of the research that starts in Texas has saved lives on the battlefield. I have seen it firsthand.” He is committed to collaborative efforts between academia and industry stating, “I am also excited about the prospects of partnering with the other great academic and research institutions and with industry in the state and beyond. I will quickly reach out to leaders in these areas to find ways to improve collaboration and cooperation for the good of all the people of Texas.” The full text of his message is available here.

Chancellor McRaven created quite a stir in the media with his May 2014 commencement speech to his alma mater at UT Austin going viral with over 3 million views on YouTube.

We envision a long and productive relationship with Chancellor McRaven advancing scientific research and innovation across the UT System, TAMEST Member Institutions, and industry throughout Texas.

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).

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.