Innovation: An Aggie Way Of Life
Innovation has long been a Texas A&M strength–institutionally and on an individual basis—and now more than ever before.
That bright prospect is underscored by the vast array of experiments and studies being conducted as part of the broad-based research program being conducted by the university and its associated agencies, including Texas AgriLife Research, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Combined, their investments in research total more than $820 million annually, ranking among the leaders nationally and tops in Texas.
“The Chancellor’s Research Initiative was created to stimulate and encourage innovation across multiple disciplines,” said John Sharp, Chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. “Aggie leadership on creative solutions to a wide variety of challenges has literally made the world a better place. Research and innovation will always be a major part of the Texas A&M mission.”
Institutionally, Texas A&M and its related agencies—through the work over the years of thousands of faculty, staff and, in some instances, students—have been instrumental in producing a host of developments that have helped improve the quality of life– and have saved countless lives.
They include numerous advances led by agricultural scientists in crops and livestock production. Perhaps the best example from a layman’s perspective was the development by what is now Texas A&M AgriLife Research of the “10-15” onion, which, because of its more advantageous growing period and marketability, has had a major impact on the South Texas economy. In the life-saving category, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute engineers’ concept to use bundled 55-gallon oil drums as crash bearers at major concrete dividing points on freeways represented a major safety milestone, along with the break-away highway signs they developed for use along the sides of interstate and other major highways.
Individually, scores of Texas A&M graduates could be cited for their trailblazing work in a variety of fields and under various circumstances, underscoring their creative and critical-thinking abilities and commitment to lifelong learning—and innovative application of what they’ve learned through real-world experience.
The late George Mitchell, a 1940 graduate, is a prime example. He was, for decades, a legend in oil and gas exploration and, in the twilight of his career, introduced transformational technology in the recovery of shale gas and perfected fracking techniques that hold high promise for making the United States energy self-sufficient. On still another front, he was a visionary leader in urban development, attested by his building from scratch The Woodlands, the model suburb community north of Houston.
Then there’s Greg Hall, a 1982 Texas A&M graduate, who developed and implemented the faster and more efficient drilling operation to rescue 32 Chilean coal miners in the accident that attracted worldwide attention in 2010. Government officials had estimated it would take six months to rescue the miners. Using Hall’s new drilling techniques and operating under his direction, the rescue effort was accomplished in 69 days.
Numerous other examples of highly innovative and creative work by former students abound, with many of them recorded in accounts regarding recipients of the Distinguished Alumnus Award that are posted at http://www.aggienetwork.com/tribute.
Innovative Help On Campus
Today the university stands even more ready to nurture innovation in a variety of ways.
The Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Mays Business School, for example, provides encouragement, education and assistance to entrepreneurially-minded students, faculty, alumni and Texas businesses through an array of programs designed for various individuals and groups, including disabled veterans.
Also, there’s Startup Aggieland, a student-run business accelerator for students that is affiliated with the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship. Now in its second year of operation, Startup Aggieland students have already come forth with concepts and ideas that are judged to have real potential for marketplace success.
One of the faculty advisors for Startup Aggieland is Professor of Architecture Rodney Hill. He teaches a class on creativity—a class for which an over-abundance of students seek to take each year. Also it’s a class for which students must sign in advance a non-disclosure agreement so as to protect classmates who conceive ideas that could be transformed into marketable products or processes.
The Dwight Look College of Engineering sponsors a new innovative series of programs titled “Aggies Invent.” It involves 48-hour programs to promote innovation and build an entrepreneurial mindset among students at Texas A&M. It’s held once a semester in the Engineering Innovation Center and each session focuses on a different theme. The inaugural Aggies Invent program focused on healthcare technologies and the most recent one focused on helping first responders. To learn more about Aggies Invent, go to: http://engineering.tamu.edu/easa/areas/enrichment/eic/programs/aggies-invent.
There’s even an office to help Texas A&M inventors protect their ideas through patents and copyrights, as well as providing licensing assistance in helping them link up with entities that could manufacture their products or market their ideas. That would be the Texas A&M System Technology Commercialization (TCC). It provides the link between the laboratories where innovative new technologies are being developed and industry partners that will bring them to fruition as a product. The TTC protects these new innovations developed by A&M System researchers through patents and copyrights and seeks to transfer the intellectual property to industry by royalty-bearing license agreements for commercial products that result in economic development and public benefit. It interacts with hundreds of companies each year as it seeks to find commercial partners to commercialize A&M System innovations. As a result, more than 700 license agreements have been executed since the TTC was established in 1992.
Capitalizing On Aggie Research
Examples abound of spinoff companies based on research conducted at Texas A&M. One of the older and more established ones, RBC Technologies, was recently featured in an article in the Bryan/College Station Eagle. The material sciences and engineering firm, which opened in College Station in 1989, initially focused on making better batteries for such devices as hearing aids, now specializes in air-activated chemical heat devices that have several potential civilian and military applications. These include warming of thermoformable splints that become flexible when heated for both battlefield and civilian field injuries and for warming prepared food or cosmetics or pre-moistened towelettes for both civilian and military applications. The firm has maintained close ties with the university, employing Aggies and recently offering its first student internship.
The university, through the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, keeps track of Aggie-owned and operated companies—some of which were established on the basis of Texas A&M research—and recognizes the fastest-growing with the “Aggie 100” competition each year, honoring the Aggie owners and operators each year at a big campus banquet.
Innovations and related endeavors emanating from Aggieland total in the hundreds, so any attempt to list them all would be unwieldy at best. However, here is a sampling of recently highlighted research-related projects from around the university:
- When it comes to state spending and success rates, cost savings, and overall bang-for-your-buck bottom lines, it’s hard to beat the TABS buoy system that relays vital information all along the Texas gulf coast. With support from the Texas General Land Office, Texas A&M researchers have developed the only buoy system of its kind in the United States and one of the few of its kind in the world. The Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS) supplies critical data allowing modelers to accurately predict the movement of oil spills and provides other current data that helps protect the 367-mile Texas coastline. Now in its 20th year of operation, the buoy system operated by researchers at the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) in the College of Geosciences has proved to be extremely valuable in the fight against oil spill damage. “The buoys have more than paid for themselves many times over,” John Walpert, senior research associate, explains.
- Anti-terrorism efforts could receive a major boost from technology developed at Texas A&M University that enables the identification of explosives, biological agents or hazardous chemicals from distances of a half mile and farther. The technology, which was developed by a team of researchers that includes Professor Vladislav Yakovlev of the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, makes use of lasers to traverse long distances and identify dangerous materials present within powders that commonly act as carriers for explosive nitrates and lethal biological agents such as anthrax and ricin. In addition, the laser-guided system has agricultural applications, particularly as a tool for precision farming, and forensic capabilities.
- Texas A&M AgriLife Research, ranked No. 1 in agricultural sciences expenditures by the National Science Foundation, continued its century-old success in developing new varieties of food, fiber and flora with the release of many new varieties. Two new wheat varieties were developed: TAM 114 which has excellent milling and baking qualities for bread making, and TAM 204 which is a bounteous feed for cattle because its seed head doesn’t have the awns, or stiff “hair,” that makes other wheat hard to swallow. A new white clover, Neches, was developed to produce higher yields and much earlier flowering and seed production than any heretofore variety adapted to East Texas and the southeastern U.S. AgriLife Research scientists also played a role in the release of the first peanut genome sequences to the public, an effort that should have major effects on Texas peanut production for years to come and help with releasing new varieties to improve grower profitability and consumer health. For landscapes, five winter-hardy hibiscus lines should hit the market in 2015. The research aimed at hibiscus varieties with very unusual flower color, shape and leaf color previously unavailable on the market.
- Researchers in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB) at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences are working to understand parasite infection and discover possible preventions and treatments. Dr. Karen Snowden, a professor, and her graduate student, Dr. Jessica Rodriguez, are studying Heterobilharzia americana, a waterborne flatworm trematode parasite, commonly thought to affect wildlife that can also infect both dogs and horses.
- With the K-12 learning landscape constantly changing, many teachers are searching for innovative ways to keep students engaged–and keeping their attention is only part of the equation in designing effective lessons. To address these concerns and better prepare pre-service math teachers, an interdisciplinary team of professors in the College of Education and Human Development initiated the Knowledge for Algebra Teaching for Equity (KATE) Project in 2010 with funding from the National Science Foundation. The KATE research team includes Gerald Kulm, Trina Davis, Donald Allen, Kathryn McKenzie and Chance Lewis. The project enriches STEM teacher education by using emergent technology to provide early teaching experiences in a simulated classroom environment. The project’s goal is to help pre-service, middle school mathematics teachers design, implement and critically evaluate lessons that address topics in algebra and equity.
- Finding innovative ways to satisfy today’s consumers is at the heart of what they do at The Center For Retailing Studies (CRS) in Mays Business School. This year, CRS partnered with GameStop and IBM in founding the GameStop Technology Institute (GTI), a consortium of leading technology corporations and academic institutions focused on discovering and delivering business innovation and technology solutions to better address the needs of today’s empowered consumer. The CRS brings to the table its in-depth retail research, consulting projects and classroom case studies, providing the GTI with a level of retail expertise rarely seen from academia.
- Researchers in the Chemical Engineering Department have identified a new way for the optimal isolation of propylene from propane, producing only propylene. The process, called counter diffusion, involves individual applications of metal ions and organic ligands to the film, instead of using a mixture to coat it. With high metal ion concentration inside the film, ligands remain highly concentrated outside the film, while counter diffusing in various directions. Chemical engineering Associate Professor Hae-Kwon Jeong said: “This is the first report where we demonstrate that a very high selectivity and a very high flux of these gas molecules is possible.”
- If an interdisciplinary team of Texas A&M faculty has its way, video game-based learning will become an integral part of education, enhancing critical thinking skills and learning outcomes for students at all levels. The Learning Interactive Visualizations Experience Lab, a new group led by André Thomas, a new faculty member in the Department of Visualization, is comprised of faculty and student designers, coders, and educational specialists from visualization, educational psychology, computer science and engineering departments who, through research and a rigorous scientific process, are collaborating with the video game industry to create and champion a new, exciting genre of innovative, interactive educational software.
- Many futurists envision a world where computing isn’t limited to desktops and mobile devices but rather a ubiquitous function of everyday items — appliances, cars, coffee mugs, clothing, sprinkler systems — all networked into an “Internet of everything.” Prototypes of the software-based electronic devices that will define this emerging world are being built and tested in the College of Architecture’s Embodied Interaction Laboratory. Established with a $326,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the new lab is headed by Francis Quek, professor of visualization.
- Professor of Economics Li Gan of the College of Liberal Arts initiated and currently serves as the director of the China Household Finance Survey (CHFS), providing the first substantial step in understanding China’s economy at the household level. This information can play a vital role in both the creation of Chinese public policy and further research on the world’s second-largest economy. “People of academia, industry and public policy want to know how Chinese households behave financially, and this understanding can only be gained through a household level survey,” Gan said. Founded by The Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, China, the Research Center for China Household Finance biennially conducts the CHFS, which gathers micro-level data about Chinese household financial information such as business assets, income, insurance, and expenditure. Gan notes that detailed household level research is typical in the United States and collectively provides the information needed to explore scholarly, industrial and public questions about American households.
- Bush School Professor Valerie Hudson plays a critical role in an innovative project designed to ensure the safety and security of women globally. The WomanStats Project (http://womanstats.org)is the largest and most comprehensive database on the global status of women. Including issues such as violence against women, access to education, employment and healthcare, and freedom to participate in political institutions, the database helps researchers and policy-makers understand the link between the lives of women and the security of nation-states.
- A new test for tuberculosis (TB) could dramatically improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis for one of the world’s deadliest diseases, enabling health care providers to report results to patients within minutes, according to a study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie. TB REaD™ improves the speed and accuracy of a TB diagnosis, allowing health providers to deliver results in 10 minutes and begin treatment in the same patient session. Jeffrey Cirillo, Ph.D., professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in collaboration with GBDbio, a Texas A&M spinoff company, and investigators at Stanford University, have identified a new chemical compound to spot the bacteria that cause TB with a level of sensitivity that currently takes months to produce.
- Texas A&M University School of Law has been chosen to participate in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Law School Clinic Certification Pilot Program. The program is part of the law school’s Center for Law and Intellectual Property (CLIP) and will give law school students a unique opportunity to practice as student attorneys before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the nation’s hub of innovation. Students provide legal counsel to individuals and small businesses regarding their patent and trademark needs, and engage personally with patent and trademark examiners regarding legal issues. Texas A&M Law School was one of five schools selected for both the patent program and the trademark program, based on its solid intellectual property curriculum, pro bono services to the public and community network and outreach.
- Incidental capture in commercial and artisanal fisheries represents a serious threat to sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly Northwest Atlantic loggerheads. Turtle excluder devices, known as TEDs, reduce sea turtle deaths in shrimp trawls — but only when made and operated properly. Texas Sea Grant, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), has launched a pilot program to help shrimpers correctly install and operate TEDs and to develop a process to certify those that do. This vessel certification will help consumers choose “turtle-safe” wild-caught Gulf shrimp at their local supermarkets.
Internal bleeding is a leading cause of death on the battlefield, but a new, injectable material developed by team of researchers from Texas A&M, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could buy wounded soldiers the time they need to survive by preventing blood loss from serious internal injuries. The potentially life-saving treatment comes in the form of a biodegradable gelatin substance that has been embedded with nano-sized silicate discs that aid in coagulation. Once injected, the material locks into place at the site of the injury and rapidly decreases the time it takes for blood to clot – in some instances by 77 percent, says Akhilesh Gaharwar, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Texas A&M and member of the research team.
- An obscure swatch of human DNA once thought to be nothing more than biological trash may actually offer a treasure trove of insight into complex genetic-related diseases such as cancer and diabetes, thanks to a novel sequencing technique developed by biologists in the College of Science. The game-changing discovery was part of a study led by doctoral candidate John C. Aldrich and Dr. Keith A. Maggert, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, to measure variation in heterochromatin. This mysterious, tightly packed section of the vast, non-coding section of the human genome, widely dismissed by geneticists as “junk,” previously was thought by scientists to have no discernable function at all. In the course of his otherwise routine analysis of DNA in fruit flies, Aldrich was able to monitor dynamics of the heterochromatic sequence by modifying a technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (QPCR), a process used to amplify specific DNA sequences from a relatively small amount of starting material. He then added a fluorescent dye, allowing him to monitor the fruit-fly DNA changes and to observe any variations.
- An international collaboration with strong Aggie ties has figured out how to make a longer cotton fiber – information that biologist Alan Pepper, an associate professor in the College of Science, believes could potentially have a multi-billion-dollar impact on the global cotton industry and help cotton farmers fend off increasing competition from synthetic fibers. The research, funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of International Research Programs, is published in the most recent edition of the journal Nature Communications. “This technology allows improvement of fiber quality in upland cotton, which is widely grown everywhere,” said Pepper, senior author of the paper that was led by a former Texas A&M graduate student now in Uzbekistan.
- Globally more than one-quarter of all deaths and disease can be attributed to the environment. A research team led by Cheryl Lyn Walker, Ph.D., with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, along with partners from across Texas A&M and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston, is intent on altering that staggering statistic. Together, they have created an unprecedented, cross-institutional initiative known as the Center for Translational Environmental Health Research (CTEHR). Recently named by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the newest National Center of Excellence in Environmental Health Science, the center will serve as the cornerstone for integrated environmental health research, translation of research advances into practice and community outreach and engagement aimed at improving human health.
- Researchers at Texas A&M University at Galveston have found a use for the hundreds of tons of stinky seaweed that have washed up on Texas and Louisiana beaches. They have devised a way to bale the stuff like common hay and have even found a way to possibly make it edible. Tom Linton and Robert Webster, researchers who have been studying the seaweed problem for years, have adapted a farm compactor to bale the seaweed, technically called sargassum, that floats atop the Gulf of Mexico waters in huge clumps that can be miles long. It can then be packed into blocks similar to how hay is bundled. Once baled, the sargassum can be mixed with sand and, combined with existing beach vegetation, help stop beach erosion that has plagued the area for decades, the researchers say. In addition, there is yet another twist to the seaweed problem: a way has been devised to take out iodine that is found in much of the sargassum and thereby possibly make it edible and, if so, perhaps opening up some additional opportunities for its use.
- In a move that could have huge implications for national security, researchers have created a very sensitive and tiny detector that is capable of detecting radiation from various sources at room temperature. The detector is eight-to-nine orders of magnitude – 100 million to as high as 1 billion times faster than the existing technology, and a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor, Luke Nyakiti, is a key player in the discovery.
- A research project led by a Texas A&M University at Qatar petroleum engineering faculty member could lead to safer, more environmentally friendly wells for the oil and gas industry. Dr. Mahmood Amani, associate professor in the Petroleum Engineering Program, says that a new testing procedure he and his colleagues developed could help the petroleum industry ensure the safety of their wells and to make sure the wells don’t leak chemicals into groundwater.
- A research team that includes physicists from Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) is taking the “fiction” out of “science fiction”. Laser physicist Dr. Wieslaw Krolikowski, a professor in the Science Program, and his research team in Qatar and at Australian National University (ANU) have moved small glass spheres with a laser beam much like a tractor beam sci-fi fans have become accustomed to seeing on movie and television screens.