What does it mean to be truly innovative?  When does something new become revolutionary?

The hundreds of people in attendance at the 47th Chancellor’s Council Annual Meeting & Symposium found answers to these questions in real-life examples of how novel thinking has led to radical breakthroughs in science, education and medicine.

Powered by Innovation

The five pioneering individuals interviewed on Friday, May 2, 2014, are engaged in work that is transforming education, research and health care across Texas and beyond. The innovators, who were interviewed by Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, discussed how we can make our brains smarter, treat strokes faster, use supercomputers to optimize cancer care and use technology to educate the world.

Understanding the Brain

The brain “is our greatest asset and natural resource,” says Sandra Chapman, Ph.D., chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas. Many people accept as fact that cognitive ability declines with age, but they shouldn’t, she asserts. Research conducted by Chapman and her team has shown that people, of any age, can literally rewire their brains.

Chapman also addressed a concern about the link between concussion and brain damage. Are contact sports, such as football, bad for the brain? Should our children be allowed to play these sports? The benefits of playing sports far outweigh the risks, Chapman assures. “When we look at our youth, the risk of addiction, depression and dropping out of school is extraordinarily high.” The strongest protective factor is playing team sports, where youth “exercise, learn to be leaders and team players and get better sleep.” The risk for brain damage, she states, comes from repeated concussions, as cases involving high-profile athletes have shown.

The main idea Chapman and her team want to convey is that nothing about the brain is fixed: not our IQs, not cognitive function, not injury-related damage. “The brain is the most regenerative organ in the body.” It’s resilient. Once we understand that, she says, we can be the true “drivers and mechanics” of our brains.

Visit the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas. Read more about Sandra Chapman.

Bringing the Hospital to the Stroke Victim

Every minute counts when parts of the brain are starved for glucose and oxygen, which is what happens during a stroke: an artery to the brain is obstructed, most often by a clot, blood cannot travel its natural path, and brain cells, unnourished, die.

That critical time-treatment relationship has driven efforts at the UT Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSC-H) to build the nation’s first Mobile Stroke Unit. “We are going to bring the stroke doctor and CT scanner to the patient,” says Sean Savitz, M.D., professor of neurology at UTHSC-H.

“If we can shave off even a minute, it will result in one more day of a healthy life” for the patient. By deploying the Mobile Stroke Unit, with the essential diagnostic tools on board, UTHSC-H hopes to reduce the time needed to diagnose and treat a patient by “as much as 60 minutes.”

If the Mobile Stroke Unit is a step forward, the “second revolution” in stroke treatment will be telemedicine. “If we can see the patient remotely” through a computer screen, “we won’t have to send a stroke doctor out,” notes Dr. Savitz, which will reduce the cost of operating the Mobile Stroke Unit.

Visit UTHSC-H. Read more about Dr. Sean Savitz.

Opening the Classroom to the World

Before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to go to a place where musicians were playing. Daniel Bonevac, a philosophy professor at UT Austin, used this analogy to convey how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) could potentially transform online learning and higher education.

Bonevac was among the first UT faculty members to teach a MOOC and roughly 35,000 students from around the world enrolled in his Ideas of the 20th Century course. “It was a little bit daunting,” Bonevac acknowledges. Still, he was excited about the global reach and the opportunity to test-drive a humanities class in an online environment dominated by science courses.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Bonevac, was condensing a 50-minute class into a 15-minute video segment. “I had to get to the essence of the message.” He also had to learn how to personally connect with his students, 75 percent of whom lived outside the United States. The discussion board was his tool and Bonevac says he was delighted by the rich discussions he found there among his students. 

Now that UT Austin has entered the MOOC cybersphere, there is no turning back, observes Bonevac. “Think about UT's slogan: ‘What happens here changes the world.’ We're in the midst of a revolution in higher education.” It’s important, he states, for UT Austin to “be in the forefront” of helping determine the outcome of that revolution.

Visit edX and Ideas of the 20th Century. Read more about Daniel Bonevac.

Using Technology to Reach Stage Zero

If we recognize that disease is as multi-dimensional as the human beings who become ill, then we can better appreciate the complexity of medicine, observes Lynda Chin, chair of genomic medicine at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson). We can also understand how the Oncology Expert Advisor (OEA) has become an indispensable tool for physicians who want to provide their patients with the best treatment possible.

Powered by IBM Waston—a cognitive technology that understands natural language—the OEA “takes your patient’s clinical story and the existing medical literature,” and identifies effective therapeutic approaches based on that data, adds Dr. Courtney DiNardo, assistant professor at MD Anderson. 

Dr. DiNardo, who specializes in treating leukemia, says the OEA will never take the place of physicians because there is “always a level of patient care that is apart from the knowledge base,” and it’s in that “realm of the patient-physician interface” that decisions about treatment approaches are made. Still, DiNardo believes that the OEA can help her “provide exactly the right treatment for that individual. It’s the ultimate in personalized medicine.”

For Dr. Chin, OEA represents just one of the myriad efforts at MD Anderson to eradicate cancer. “Today’s best cure isn’t good enough, that’s why we have a cancer center,” Dr. Chin states. She remains optimistic that by leveraging technology, like that of IBM Watson, she and her colleagues will accelerate the pace of progress to reach their ultimate goal: to reach Stage Zero and eliminate cancer altogether.

Visit UT MD Anderson. Read more about Drs. Chin and DiNardo.

End Notes

The University of Texas Longhorn Singers and The University of Texas Drumline capped off the 47th Chancellor’s Council Annual Meeting & Symposium with a heartfelt rendition of “The Eyes of Texas.”

Photos by Holly Reed