Six Rice-TMC research teams earn seed grants

Funded collaborations include projects to study surgical safety, antibiotic resistance, medical racism, personalized transplant treatments


A small fungal enzyme could play a significant role in simplifying the development and manufacture of drugs, according to Rice University scientists.

Six research collaborations between faculty from Rice and institutions in the Texas Medical Center (TMC) have received seed grants through programs facilitated by Rice’s Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health (ENRICH).

The grants include the third round of awards from ENRICH and Baylor College of Medicine’s Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery and inaugural grants from the Rice Provost’s TMC Collaborator Fund.

Established in 2016, ENRICH advises the provost on TMC collaborations, engages faculty in starting and strengthening those collaborations and helps remove barriers to them. In 2020, more than 21% of Rice faculty were engaged in active collaborations with TMC research partners, and one-third of projects funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Research Fund included TMC collaborators.

“Partnerships with TMC are an institutional priority, and they enable our faculty to translate their research to clinical practice, directly benefiting the Houston community,” said Marcia O’Malley, special advisor to the provost on ENRICH and the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering. “ENRICH has been instrumental in facilitating faculty engagement with TMC partners, reducing barriers to collaboration and investing institutional resources in new partnerships.”

The Provost’s TMC Collaborator Fund awarded $60,000 in grants to:

  • Jason Hafner ’98, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice, and Carly Filgueira ’09, assistant professor of nanomedicine and cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist Research Institute, to explore the development of an optical sensor for clinical detection of cholesterol. Unlike many clinically available tests, one based on light scattering from gold nanoparticles has the potential to directly measure levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol either from blood or directly from the skin.
  • Lan Li, assistant professor of history at Rice; Ricardo Ernesto Nuila, associate professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine; and Fady Joudah, a poet, literary translator and physician at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, for a pilot study of community health care access that addresses larger questions about medical racism in Houston. The study will focus on neighborhood institutions like community centers, churches, temples, charities and schools that house clinics and offer services to patients seeking care beyond the TMC.

  • Oleg Igoshin, professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Anna Konovalova, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s McGovern Medical School, to explore new targets for antibiotic treatment by probing the feedback loop between two important stress-response pathways in bacteria. The study will use a combination of microbiology experiments and mathematical modeling to search for ways to overcome antibiotic resistance by simultaneously perturbing the two pathways.

Rice ENRICH and Baylor’s Interdisciplinary Surgical Technology and Innovation Center (INSTINCT) awarded $60,000 in grants to:

  • Pulickel Ajayan, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering and chair of Rice’s Department of Materials Science and Nanoengineering, and Crystal Shin, assistant professor of surgery at Baylor, for development of a self-charging, wireless microsensor capable of detecting changes in flow in blood vessels that have been replaced in heart bypass surgery.
  • Meng Li, Noah Harding Assistant Professor in Statistics at Rice, and Gabriel Loor, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to study inflammation following lung transplantation and search for the cause of inflammatory responses that differ between men and women. The research may point to personalized treatment protocols for transplant patients. Also, the development of methods for identifying biomarkers from small samples with false discovery control will be broadly applicable in personalized medicine.

  • Vaibhav Unhelkar, assistant professor of computer science at Rice, and James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to explore how artificial intelligence can augment surgical training. Using a surgical simulator, the researchers will gather data from expert surgeons and trainees, and use the data to train machine learning models to recognize the differences between suboptimal and ideal surgeries.




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