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Alumni Making an Impact
Features alumni who are making a difference for Rice on campus and in their communities.

Alumni in the News
Highlights stories that are gathered from the media through the hard work of the ARA's Alumni Recognition Committee, which recognizes and celebrates achievements of Rice alumni, faculty, students, staff and university friends by sending hand-written notes and emails. If you are interested in volunteering for the committee, contact Tara Quell, assistant director, alumni relations at 713-348-4694.

Rice Gets Creative With Its Interdisciplinary Research Endeavors

“Creativity is all about that conversation between different things producing something new in their collaboration,” says Anthony Brandt, an associate professor of composition and theory at Rice. It’s an apt description for Brandt’s day job as a composer, which sometimes requires synthesizing disparate instruments into compelling harmonies. The same holds true for another of his jobs: exploring how the brain processes creativity with neuroscientist David Eagleman ’93. Their partnership is just one of many fascinating interdisciplinary collaborations at Rice that are leading to new discoveries and alternative ways of seeing the world. 

Here is a small sampling of interdisciplinary projects currently underway at Rice: 

Composer Anthony Brandt + Neuroscientist David Eagleman '93

To composer Anthony Brandt and neuroscientist David Eagleman ’93, the answer is a resounding yes, and their forthcoming book, tentatively called “The Creative Drive: How Our Cognitive Software Remakes the World,” promises to change the way we think about the origin of ideas and the importance of the arts.

“Creativity is not something that’s happening in one way in a scientific part of the brain and another way in an artistic part of the brain,” Brandt explained. “It stems from a single cognitive mechanism — the intense process of deriving unexpected, original and fantastic ideas from a lineage of past experiences — and takes place in every human mind. If you look at the arts, not just as a means of expression but as a way to generate new knowledge and ideas, you see a manual for applying creativity in anything you do. The arts are the open-source software of creativity.

"Our brains are incredibly plastic, and we revise our model of the world on a daily basis."
Anthony Brandt

“Our brains are incredibly plastic,” he continued, “and we revise our model of the world on a daily basis. The arts give us a particularly concentrated, meaningful and powerful way of revising this internal model. In that sense, they’re very much a part of our reality, because they change the way we experience things. This is why I get really excited about the meeting of the arts and the sciences. As a composer, I don’t have a piece of marble or a canvas to work with; a piece of music doesn’t have a concrete existence. All I’ve got are my listeners’ memories. It’s what happens inside their minds that matters, and working with David to illuminate the scientific basis of the process is fascinating for me.” 

Sociologist Justin Denney + sociologist Rachel Kimbro '01 + environmental engineer Rob Griffin 

Adult asthma. Respiratory disease. Heart disease. Heart attack. Stroke. Poverty. Education. Air quality. All of these are tied to socioeconomic status, and all are significant causes of mortality and morbidity in the United States. They also share a link to air pollution.

"It was exciting to get a different perspective on how our atmospheric data could be made more socially relevant."
Rob Griffin

That’s why environmental engineer Rob Griffin and sociologists Rachel Kimbro and Justin Denney have collaborated with the University of Houston and UT Health to determine which of Houston’s neighborhoods have the greatest concentrations of small particulate matter. Now, they are using this knowledge to examine how significant concentrations correlate to residents’ well-being.

“Is poor air quality important to everyone? Is it more important for people in poor communities than for others?” asked Denney. “These are the sorts of questions we seek to answer, and our findings will give policymakers the information they need to make better decisions for Houstonians.”

The interaction between the engineers and sociologists on the project has been gratifying. “It’s easy to sit comfortably in your own academic silo and keep doing the same kind of research for your entire career,” Kimbro commented, “but breaking out of self-imposed boundaries and taking a risk brings great rewards. Working with engineers has given us sociologists a deeper understanding of how particulate matter works — especially how it is distributed across Houston and what it is composed of — than we would have had working alone.”

“It was exciting to get a different perspective on how our atmospheric data could be made more socially relevant,” Griffin said. “I also appreciated the fact that there are very few roadblocks to such work here at Rice. Thinking outside the box is encouraged and facilitated.”

Data scientists Richard Baraniuk and Daniel Williamson ’08 + cognitive scientists and educators nationwide

Richard Baraniuk is the founder and director of OpenStax College, a Rice-based nonprofit that produces full-color, peer-reviewed textbooks that are inexpensive to print and free to use online. OpenStax’s free textbooks have been used by more than 300,000 students to date, and since the cost of textbooks has risen at almost three times the rate of inflation during the past decade, these books are a financial boon for students. And it’s not the only game-changer being spearheaded by the OpenStax team.

"If students spend an hour cramming for a test, they might do well on the exam, but a few weeks later they will have forgotten much of what they learned."
Daniel Williamson ’08

Working in conjunction with cognitive scientists, OpenStax created an adaptive learning program, OpenStax Tutor, which uses learning algorithms to improve students’ retention of information. “If students spend an hour cramming for a test, they might do well on the exam, but a few weeks later they will have forgotten much of what they learned,” explained Daniel Williamson ’08, OpenStax’ managing director and Rice alumnus. “OpenStax Tutor spaces that same hour of practice over a period of time that is customized for each student, thus encouraging the student to retrieve the information at spaced intervals. This type of retrieval improves a student’s long-term retention.”

The OpenStax team also works with college instructors, who write, review and test OpenStax’s content prior to publication; and teachers, who help make OpenStax as user-friendly as possible. The input of all their partners, combined with their own expertise in data science, enables OpenStax to optimize learning for students in any discipline.

“Folks from all disciplines care deeply about education and want to improve it,” Baraniuk says. “Each discipline has something distinct to contribute.”

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