NSM Faculty/Staff Newsletter

From the Office of the Dean

Recognition & Honors

Dinler Amaral Antunes (Biology & Biochemistry) and scientists from Rice University, Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, and Brazil’s Federal University of Ceará collaborated to create the webserver DINC-COVID. Their work published in the journal Computers in Biology and Medicine. DINC, which stands for Docking INCrementally, is an online tool that can screen whether a drug can bind to a protein that’s being targeted for treatment. Antunes helped develop the tool while a postdoctoral researcher in Lydia Kavraki’s lab at Rice University. The team built the DINC-COVID version specifically to test drugs’ ability to dock to multiple conformations of SARS-CoV-2 proteins. The webserver uses molecular dynamics simulations to produce a “movie” of the motions of proteins. Researchers then extract representative “pictures” of what was captured by the movie, and they offer this ensemble for users to test the binding of their drug candidates. More than 500 people have used the server from 54 different countries. DINC-COVID enables people with limited computational resources and those who do not have a computational background to test their own molecules.

Shuo Chen and Zhifeng Ren (Physics, TcSUH) are included among the Clarivate list of Highly Cited Researchers for 2021. This elite list recognizes researchers for their exceptional research influence, demonstrated by producing multiple highly-cited papers that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and year in the Web of Science. Chen and Ren were sited for cross-field performance, a category which identifies researchers who contribute papers in several fields.

Albert Cheng (Computer Science) presented his plans for real-time COVID-19 risk assessment app at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) conference HPC (High Performance Computing) for Urgent Decision Making. The system for real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation, called RT-CIRAM, is designed to work on mobile phones and will analyze up-to-date data from multiple open sources. The goal is to provide real-time insight into the best times to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home. Cheng’s work will be published in IEEE Explore.

Mini Das (Physics) has been named as a Fellow of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. She is one of 58 SPIE members named Fellows in 2022. According to the society, members are inducted as Fellows in recognition of their technical achievements, as well as for their service to the optics and photonics community and to SPIE. Through the society, Das also received the SPIE Community Champion Award in 2019 and 2020.

Zhigang Deng (Computer Science) was named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery. ACM named 63 Distinguished Members in 2021 for outstanding contributions to the field. All inductees are longstanding ACM members and were selected by their peers for a range of accomplishments that advance computing as a science and a profession. Deng was selected for his scientific contributions. His research covers the broad areas of computer graphics, computer animation, human-computer conversation, and robotics.

Jerry Do, Jessica Feil, and Anh Nash (Chemistry) and Lawrencene Dourseau (Mathematics) received Cougar Cudos awards from UH Staff Council. These awards recognize staff for exceptional service to the University of Houston.

Jangmi Han (Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) was awarded a $233,315 grant from NASA: “Coordinated Microanalyses of Refractory Inclusions and Insights into Their Condensation Origin.” This research grant is a 3-year award to study primitive meteorite samples by collaborating with NASA Johnson Space Center and UCLA.

Alex Ignatiev (Physics) was named a 2021 Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and will be inducted during the academy’s annual meeting in June. Election to NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. Ignatiev is one of two UH faculty named as Fellows in 2021. The other is Ganesh Thakur (Petroleum Engineering). The academy said both scientists have “demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.”

Liming Li (Physics) received NASA and National Science Foundation grants to continue his work to understand the weather of giant planets–their clouds, storms, winds, vortices, and waves. The research could lead to a fuller understanding of the weather and climate on Earth. The NASA grant focuses on the atmosphere of Jupiter while the NSF grant investigates the role of clouds in the atmospheric systems of Jupiter and Saturn and exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system. The work will involve analysis of data from several NASA missions–Cassini, Juno, and New Horizons–as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. The combined grants provide nearly $1 million in funding.

Martin Nuñez (Biology & Biochemistry) and a group of international collaborators published three articles related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the journal Biological Invasions. Their studies take a closer look at the makeup of the journal itself. The group tackles three topics: national affiliation of corresponding authors, editorial board demography, and gender inclusivity at the journal. Nuñez is author on all three studies and lead author of the publication titled, “Two decades of data reveal that Biological Invasions needs to increase participation beyond North America, Europe, and Australasia.” This study analyzed submissions, reviews, and publications in the journal from its first issue in 1999 to 2020.

Stacy Smeal (NSM Office of Research) presented “Lessons Learned for Engaging Research Faculty” at the Society of Research Administrators International Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Her co-presenters were Courtney Hunt (UH College of Pharmacy) and Ben Mull (UH Division of Research). The presentation covered lessons learned for engaging faculty from the university and college administration perspectives, including different event formats, topics, and participant backgrounds. They discussed case studies comparing metrics from an evolving series of research-focused events at UH.

David Stewart (NSM Office of Research) was elected President of the Southwest Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association. This regional chapter covers members in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. AMWA’s mission is to promote excellence in medical communication and to provide educational resources in support of that goal.

Tom Teets (Chemistry) and Fan Wu (Office of the Provost) carried out a study at the start of the pandemic that examined student motivation and engagement in Teets’ spring 2020 “Fundamentals of Chemistry I” course. Their findings published in the Journal of Chemical Education. Their study measured four factors of student engagement: skills, emotion, participation, and performance. Of 516 students enrolled in the course, 431 completed a 19-question survey. The qualitative portion of the study was based on student responses to an additional, optional essay question, which asked: “After the coronavirus outbreak, how has online instruction changed your learning in the general chemistry course?” 406 students answered this question. From the quantitative results, they found students’ engagement decreased after the coronavirus outbreak. From the essay responses, motivation and self-regulation emerged as the two clearest themes. The next most-prevalent themes were decreased focus and increased distraction.

Madhan Tirumalai and George Fox (Biology & Biochemistry) and a colleague from The Houston Forensic Science Center published “Net Charges of the Ribosomal Proteins of the S10 and spc Clusters of Halophiles are Inversely Related to the Degree of Halotolerance” in Microbiology Spectrum. The other author was a high school student who volunteered in the Fox lab. The ribosome is a universal molecular machine (comprised of RNA and proteins) which catalyzes coded protein synthesis. The electrostatic properties of ribosomal proteins (RPs) stabilize interactions with the negatively charged rRNA in the ribosome structure. In this study, the net charges (at pH 7.4) of the RPs comprising the highly conserved S10-spc cluster were found to have an inverse relationship with the halophilicity/halotolerance levels in bacteria and archaea. In non-halophilic bacteria, the S10-spc RPs are generally basic, contrasting with the overall acidic whole proteomes of the extremely halophiles. The contrasting charges in the S10-spc RPs have potential implications for the rate of passage of these RPs through the ribosomal exit tunnel. The universal RP uL2 lying in the oldest part of the ribosome, is always positively charged irrespective of the strain/organism it belongs to. This has implications for its role in the prebiotic context.