HARNESSING HUMAN ENERGY FOR STEM SUCCESS

December 8, 2015

 

All the way from K through 12 and beyond, the impact teachers have on our lives can send ripples of influence that last decades and span across career trajectories. According to Robert C. Robbins, M.D., president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, much of his personal accomplishments are indebted to that influence.

“I always tell people that the most important factor in my success has been the mentors that I’ve had,” he said to an audience of K through 12 educators at TMCx. “Not just my high school teachers, but college professors, medical professors and even coaches. It was having people who guided me and encouraged me to always work hard and remain intellectually curious throughout my whole life.

“And all of you here are still grinding away and trying to learn new things,” he added. “It’s essential that you keep asking, ‘What new things can I learn about that I can teach to my students.’”

That insatiable intellectual curiosity was the impetus behind this year’s Texas STEM Summit, “Harnessing Human Energy for STEM Success,” held from Nov. 11-13. Sponsored by Chevron, TASA and Syfr Corporation, the three-day event guided participants from the Children’s Museum of Houston to the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education (MITIE) to explore  environments in energy, medicine and space.

On Friday, Nov. 13, the summit’s participants concluded their immersion into Houston’s STEM ecosystem with a session at TMCx. The day’s discussion topics extended from the vascular systems inside our bodies to the outer reaches of the solar system. From a presentation on pediatric hand prostheses to an exploration of 3-D printing capabilities for regenerative medicine—and even a discussion spearheaded by astronomers from The University of Texas at Austin—the micro and the macro were all up for consideration.

“I want to take you on a journey of where we’re looking for the future,” said Jordan S. Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University, as he led a discussion on 3-D printing for regenerative medicine. “If you think back 50 years ago, the idea of creating a bionic human was really science fiction—the idea that any problem in the body can be treated by a device. But today, we have pacemakers, full knee replacements, hip replacements, cochlear implants to enable people to hear and there’s even real progress on retinal implants.

“But what is the next 50 years going to look like for regenerative medicine?” he added. “We really need to think about technologies that we can develop that can utilize cells to build replacement tissue.”

Throughout the rest of his presentation, Miller outlined his lab’s ambitions—creating a dissolvable scaffold that can create hollows within printable organs, mimicking our own blood vessel networks.

“When you look at the anatomy, the concept of a solid organ is a bit of a misnomer,” he said. “Solid organs are not actually solid at all; they have incredibly complex fluidic structures that take the form of the organ’s vasculature.”

While the inspiration behind the material that Miller uses for his lab’s 3-D printed vascular networks—sugar, surprisingly enough—came from cooking shows, Gloria Gogola, M.D., pediatric upper extremity surgeon at Shriners Hospital for Children, had a similarly simple source of inspiration.

“When we talk about prosthetics, there’s a lot of hype and misconception,” she said in her talk on the 3-D printing of pediatric hand prostheses. “But, actually, the kids will tell us what they need. They need something that’s light, durable, low-cost, easy to fix and customizable. This is really what we’re working on—building 3-D printed hands that fit all of those criteria for children. The kids will tell us what they need, but we need to listen.”

After a working lunch, led by Christine E. Drew and Richard Erdmann of Syfr, during which attendees discussed how to implement the insights they gleaned into their curriculum, the summit concluded with a presentation entitled, “From Human Energy to Dark Energy…Our Final Year: Space.”

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