It's no secret that Houston is spearheading transformative growth and innovation around the world. Rice University commands a unique position as a top-tier research institution within Houston, and its collaborative relationships with industry leaders like the Texas Medical Center and NASA enable Rice’s faculty and students to investigate big ideas and see them come to fruition. Here are six ways Rice University and Houston are changing the world via cutting-edge research.
The NEWT (Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment) Center, is Rice’s newest venture in water sustainability. A joint effort between researchers at Rice, Arizona State University, Yale University and the University of Texas at El Paso, the center harnesses nanotechnology to create new water filtration options for both drinking water and industrial wastewater.
“The importance of water to economic development and public health cannot be overstated. The game changer for us is the use of nanotechnology,” said Pedro Alvarez, director of NEWT and George R. Brown Professor of Environmental Engineering. NEWT is developing sustainable nanoparticles that work with limitless, cheap fuel supplies like the sun. As a leader in nanotechnology and the energy sector, Houston is the ideal place for Rice to conduct water filtration research.
Alvarez notes that the city’s oil and gas companies are natural partners for NEWT. The results of these collaborations are systems that can be implemented anywhere in the world, providing areas lacking in sufficient clean water a sustainable solution through NEWT's technology.
Using nanotechnology to treat water applies tiny design to a huge idea, but Rice’s environmental goals are even larger. The vision of the Energy and Environment Initiative (EEi) is to develop Rice into a world leader in transformational, technology-driven research that supports sustainable energy.
“There are three factors that contribute to an energy resource’s sustainability,” says Ramon Gonzalez, director of EEi. “First is the availability of the resource and the technology needed to exploit it. Second is its economic viability for commercialization. Third is its environmental and social impact. EEi and its research initiatives critically consider each of these components.”
For example, think of the power inherent in the intersection of energy and big data. Oil and gas reservoirs can be simulated with greater detail than ever before by using computers to better predict their properties and production levels. Not only can this method assess the capacity of a given site and the potential profits and costs associated with extraction, but it can also predict the impact it may have on the environment and communities near it.
EEi is partnering with Houston’s major players in the energy sector and beyond, but Rice isn’t stopping there. “By leveraging great minds in the sciences, engineering and fields beyond,” Gonzalez says, “we consider energy challenges more holistically, ultimately enabling us to develop safer and greener carbon-based fuels that are sustainable into the future.”
Medicine is another area in which Rice and Houston excel. The Texas Medical Center, situated next to Rice's campus, houses some of the most innovative hospitals in the world.
This is not lost on Amina Qutub, whose research is making sense of the vast quantities of data each patient produces. By uniting biology and data, Qutub explains that her research is “mapping out the internal workings of cells like one might map out stars in the universe.” It will help doctors conduct better analyses of patient data, isolating specific areas of concern.
Qutub also works with the National Science Foundation’s and National Institutes of Health’s U.S. BRAIN Initiative, where she and her team are gaining a greater understanding of the regenerative power of the brain. In particular, they are studying how stem cells form beautiful and functional neural networks. The implications are huge, especially for those facing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Qutub points out that risk is sometimes needed to make room for the realization of big ideas. Rice has served as the ideal platform for this, allowing for cross-departmental work that will resonate with the entire medical community.
While Qutub likens data points to stars, David Alexander is helping Rice shoot for them. “Space isn’t just a destination,” Alexander says. “It’s a resource.” Rice is playing an integral role in tapping into the opportunities the universe offers.
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the Houston Spaceport as the nation’s tenth licensed commercial spaceport. Alexander has been a key advisor in its development.
“The Spaceport is a catalyst for changing how we ‘do’ space in Houston,” Alexander remarked, explaining that the world is currently in a time of transition. In the past, we have viewed space as something accessible only to government-led exploration; now, it is the object of more and more commercial and private-led initiatives.
If your mind goes to orbiting hotels and space tourism, think even bigger. “The Spaceport will allow Houston to bring together people, data and industry to apply Earth-based solutions to space, and vice versa,” Alexander says.
By working in collaboration with NASA, other universities and commercial enterprises, Rice is helping to enhance Houston’s economy and secure its enduring legacy as a leader in space exploration and industry.
Research at Rice isn't limited to cutting-edge science. The Moody Center for the Arts, a multi-million-dollar endeavor that will create an on-campus creative laboratory, will open in fall of 2016. This venture, overseen by Executive Director Alison Weaver, offers a unique opportunity for Rice students to take interdisciplinary research to the next level.
“The Moody Center will provide a setting for creative minds to come together to examine challenging and interesting issues,” says Weaver. “It will allow people from a wide array of disciplines to explore in a risk-free environment, paving the way for more interesting solutions that otherwise may never have been considered.”
This tangible exploration of ideas is more than a celebration of Rice’s unparalleled creative expression and support for the arts. It provides an avenue through which Rice can connect with the greater Houston community, forging new partnerships throughout the city.
Establishing a space that will encourage creation and innovation while providing a home for the interdisciplinary needs that are the wave of the future will further enhance faculty and student research on campus. The Moody Center is an opportunity to change the way individuals at Rice interact with one another intellectually, as well as how Rice interacts with Houston as a whole.
Another significant driver of Rice’s relationship with Houston is the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. A multidisciplinary research center established five years ago with three decades’ worth of data, the Kinder Institute has tremendous power to address public policy issues in Houston and beyond.
The Kinder Institute joined 25 other institutions and 20 cities this September to create the MetroLab Network, an association of municipal governments and research universities focused on exchanging ideas and information. “Soon it will be standard operating procedure for major cities to partner with distinguished research universities like Rice to address their problems,” says Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton.
By working alongside its national partners, Rice will conduct research and gather data that the City of Houston and other municipalities can use to make decisions on issues that all major cities face — such as neighborhood gentrification that displaces lower-income residents, traffic and congestion, and the social integration of migrants.
“We are finding that where you live determines a lot about what your life is like, even how long you live,” says Fulton. “Our research is earning Houston more and more recognition, both nationally and internationally, as the cutting-edge place for emerging urban issues.”
From using innovative technology to make fuel more sustainable, to using data to address big questions in medicine, urban policy and emerging space economies, research at Rice University is making an impact on Houston, the world and worlds beyond.