NSM Faculty/Staff Newsletter

From the Office of the Dean

Recognition & Honors

The Journal of Neuroscience Kevin E. Bassler (Physics, TcSUH), Krešimir Josic (Mathematics) and Jiahao Guo (Physics, TcSUH) published in The Journal of Neuroscience with colleagues representing Creighton University, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, and Carnegie Mellon University. The paper, “Hierarchical Modular Structure of the Drosophila Connectome,” was featured on the cover of the journal. The team applied novel community detection methods to analyze the synapse-level reconstruction of an adult female Drosophila melanogaster brain containing >20,000 neurons and 10 million synapses. Using a machine-learning algorithm, they found the most densely connected communities of neurons by maximizing a generalized modularity density measure. They resolved the community structure at a range of scales, from large (on the order of thousands of neurons) to small (on the order of tens of neurons). The team found that the network is organized hierarchically, and larger-scale communities are composed of smaller-scale structures. Their methods identify well-known features of the fly brain, including its sensory pathways.

John Castagna, John Suppe, and Kurt W. Rudolph (Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) have been selected as lecturers for the 2023-24 American Association of Petroleum Geologists Distinguished Lecture program. Only seven lecturers were chosen for 2023-24. Lecturers serve for a year and can be requested for in-person presentations. The lectures are also recorded as videos and can be streamed or downloaded from the AAPG website at any time. While EAS faculty have served as distinguished lecturers in previous years, having three in one year is a first for UH EAS!

Olafs Daugulis, Brad Carrow, and Maurice Brookhart (Chemistry) are part of a UH research team receiving a $4 million Catalyst for Discovery Program Grant from The Welch Foundation. Megan Robertson of Cullen College of Engineering is the project lead. The research team includes additional members of the engineering faculty and aims to develop innovative chemical processes to transform plastic waste into useful materials. Members have a wide range of expertise in polymer synthesis, polymer physics, and materials science. The chemists on the team will lead the development of unique polyolefins with new material properties and functions, while the chemical engineers will study their physical behavior and properties, such as strength and adhesion. This knowledge is crucial for creating new materials that can be recycled and reused more effectively.

Paige Evans (teachHOUSTON, Mathematics) and the teachHOUSTON program received $1 million to pilot the expansion of a teacher residency program for degree holders. The program, called UTeach for Texas, provides a one-year pathway for participants to complete coursework and collaborate with an expert mentor teacher to observe and co-teach in a local K-12 school. The funds were awarded to the UTeach Institute from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. UTeach selected teachHOUSTON to pilot the expansion at University of Houston.

George Fox and Madhan Tirumalai (Biology & Biochemistry) published “Ribosomal Protein Cluster Organization in Asgard Archaea” in the journal Archaea with colleagues from University of Texas at Austin and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. It has been proposed that the superphylum of Asgard Archaea may represent a historical link between the kingdoms Archaea and Eukarya. The ribosome (with its roots dating back to the origins of life) translates the message from the DNA into protein and is composed of ribosomal proteins and RNA. These ribosomal proteins themselves are encoded in the genome in discrete gene clusters. This study shows that in many cases, ribosomal protein gene clusters/operons are less conserved in their organization in the Asgard group than in other Archaea. Thus, as one goes across phylogeny from bacteria to archaea to asgard archaea to eukaryotes, the gene order is increasingly dispersed (less conserved).

Shuhab Khan (Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) and Geology Ph.D. student Otto Gadea developed a more efficient way to detect the formation of critical minerals, also known as rare earth elements (REE), in rock formations. Their findings were published in IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters. With their new method, the relative amount of bastn̈asite and how it varies spatially across rock surfaces can be determined quickly and efficiently through a simple mathematical expression calculated from reflectance data in hyperspectral images from rocks. Bastn̈asite is a fluorocarbonate mineral that is rich in REEs, particularly cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and europium. These elements are essential for various electronics, magnets, and components to power electric vehicles. Traditional methods of detecting REEs have proven to be time consuming and costly for companies, often requiring extensive drilling and laboratory analysis. Their method is adaptable to screen large regions through the use of drones, airplanes, and satellites.

Weiyi Peng (Biology & Biochemistry, CNRCS) is part of a team receiving an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) award of $45 million. The team aims to rapidly develop a sense-and-respond implant technology that could slash U.S. cancer-related deaths by more than 50%. The team, led by Rice University, includes researchers from seven states. They will fast-track development and testing of a first-of-its-kind approach to cancer treatment that aims to dramatically improve immunotherapy outcomes for patients with ovarian, pancreatic, and other difficult-to-treat cancers. Peng is co-principal investigator and one of three group leaders of the project. She will provide expertise in tumor immunology and lead preclinical testing of the targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation, or THOR, technology, along with discovery of biomarkers associated with efficacy. Her portion of the project is $2.1 million.

Dawnelle Prince (NSM Career Center) received a Cougar Cudos Award for October. The program, created by UH Staff Council, allows staff to recognize other staff members for exceptional service to the University that goes above and beyond.

Rakesh Verma (Computer Science) published collaborative research with Nachum Dershowitz of Tel Aviv University. Their opinion paper, ‘Rebutting Rebuttals,’ addresses the impact of the author rebuttal process in computer science conferences. It published in Communications of the ACM. Their findings could change how computer science conferences are organized in the future.

Wa Xian and Frank McKeon (Biology & Biochemistry) have discovered five disease-causing stem cells in the lungs of patients with advanced cystic fibrosis, and that these variants drive key aspects of CF pathology including inflammation, fibrosis, and mucin secretion. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. They found that cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CTFR)-modulating drugs did not suppress the proinflammatory activity or gene expression of the three CF variants that drive inflammation. These findings raise the possibility that these inflammatory stem cell variants are the source of the persistent inflammation in patients treated with CTFR modulators. If true, their findings suggest that the inflammatory stem cell variants are key targets for drug discovery to augment the major therapeutic advances brought by CFTR modulators. Other UH authors on the paper include Shan Wang, Suchan Niroula, Ashley Hoffman, Melika Khorrami, Melina Khorrami, Bovey Liu, Justin Li, and Matthew Vincent.