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Whatever Happens

(03/09/17 7:15pm)

Whatever happens, the Student Association is great and so are all of you.Last week, the Thresher deemed my Facebook post announcing my decision to write-in to the Student Association presidential election “breaking news.” I have never been breaking news before and I highly doubt I will be again.

Former death row inmate recounts road to innocence

(11/18/15 9:40am)

Somerville, Texas; 1994. A family was murdered by a man named Robert Earl Carter. Law officials coerced Carter under the pretense of a plea bargain into falsely implicating his acquaintance, Anthony Graves, as his accomplice. Graves was incarcerated for assisting Carter in multiple murders, and subsequently sentenced to death row. “[The law officials] caught the guy who did it, and told him, ‘If you tell us who your accomplice was, we will let you go,’ thinking that no one acting alone could kill six people,” Nicole Bremner Casarez, Graves’ attorney, said. 21 years later today, Graves is a free man. He and Casarez spoke respectively at lectures hosted by Rice University’s Scientia Institute on Nov. 10. The two described how Casarez and her University of St. Thomas journalism students found the truth leading to Graves’ exoneration.“It was a horrible, horrible crime in which an entire family was killed,” Graves said. “The town wanted justice. The mayor of the town even said, ‘Whoever did this should be caught and hanged.’” When Carter gave Graves’ name, the police went immediately to Graves’ house.“When I asked why [they arrested me], they wouldn’t say,” Graves said. “They asked me my name and then they read me my Miranda rights. I wasn’t panicking because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Then, I was accused of capital murder.”Graves served over 18 years behind bars, many of which were spent in solitary confinement and on death row. He had two execution dates scheduled and cancelled.“I didn’t know anything, but the [law officials] didn’t want to hear the truth,” Graves said “They wanted me to tell a lie. It took 6,640 days to get home. I witnessed thousands of deaths, guilty people, mentally ill people, innocent people being executed, deaths where they would execute one man and then clean the table off for the next.”Many law officials knew of Graves’ innocence yet did nothing.“Everyone was reading the same boxes but they made the decision to keep kicking the can down the road,” Graves said. Graves’ path to freedom began in 2001, when Casarez began teaching an Innocence Investigations with Journalism class at the University of St. Thomas. Students randomly assigned to investigate the case of Anthony Graves examined existing material on the case and obtained an affidavit from Carter’s brother. As a result of the students’ investigation, Graves’ case was overturned in 2006 and he was released in 2010.Casarez and her students began to see disparities based on race and socioeconomic status in cases they analyzed. Casarez said one in three black Americans goes to jail in their lifetime compared to one in 27 whites and one in 17 Hispanics.“I’ve been waiting for this [statistic] to change for a long time and it hasn’t,” Casarez said. Casarez also views socioeconomic status as an important source of criminal justice inequalities.“Criminal justice isn’t black or white,” Casarez said. “It’s green. If you can afford good representation, you don’t get sent to death row.”Graves said he saw these disparities firsthand. “All the injustice stems from ignorance, hatred and bigotry,” Graves said. “No one cares about the other person. Everyone wants to win. I was the little man.”Graves emphasized the importance of the public knowing about justice system inequalities.“We need a change in our system and we have to be that change,” Graves said. “As is, one day you’ll wake up and say, ‘I know someone who is innocent in prison who is on death row.’”Graves said he views exercising the right to vote as instrumental in achieving change.“We can change laws all day long but we have to want the system to work,” Graves said. McMurtry College sophomore Anna Thomas said she was struck by Graves’ perspective.“The most remarkable part was Graves’ persistently positive outlook and determination to make good use of his life since being exonerated,” Thomas said.

Humanities to launch research practicum

(11/18/15 9:33am)

The Humanities Research Center is partnering with Houston institutions and university archives to provide semester-long student practica in the fields of medical humanities and cultural heritage starting in spring 2016. John Mulligan, a Rice University lecturer, will be managing the program.The students will receive three hours of humanities credit under HURC with the expectation of spending five to 10 hours a week on site. Mulligan will check in with students weekly and institutions monthly. Students will submit a mid-semester write-up on their work and will present at a symposium at the end of the semester on the results of their research.“The research the students will engage in is flexible with respect to the institution,” Mulligan said. “It will draw on some unrealized potential an institution has that a student can make the most of and learn some skills along the way.”The practicum is sponsored by the Public Humanities Initiative, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant managed by principal investigators Melissa Bailar and Fares El-Dadah. “The grant is designed to take humanistic potential at Rice and give students an opportunity to plug into the cultural landscape of Houston,” Mulligan said. “We want to try to make what we do as publicly relevant as possible and find a way of reminding people how important to daily life the humanities can be.”10 of 14 students have already been placed and three others will be placed next week. Five students will conduct medical humanities research and eight will focus on cultural heritage.“We have a really interesting mix of students -— some science-y people, some double majors,” Mulligan said. “Nobody has done deep archival work though.”Lovett College senior Emily Higgs plans to pursue a master’s degree in library and information science after graduating and applied for the practica to get a better idea of the field. “I am going to be processing small collections at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center,” Higgs said. “Once we know what’s in these collections and organize them in a way that is accessible to researchers, they can be mined for a wealth of historical information about Texas and Houston.”Higgs said she is most looking forward to going through the collections.“You never know what kind of material you’ll stumble on,” Higgs said. “The archivists I’ve talked to love to tell stories about the treasures they’ve discovered in these collections.”Psychology major Christian Capo said he wants to work in pediatric mental health in his future career. He was placed in the Institute for Spirituality and Health to focus on improving children’s knowledge of these topics.“I hope to instill true understanding and appreciation of interfaith practices into Houston-area children, as well as alleviate their mental and physical health crises,” Capo, a Jones College sophomore, said.Capo said he is most looking forward to the novelty and uniqueness of the experience.“I am excited to be doing something so new and so different from anything else that I have ever done at Rice,” Capo said. “I never thought that I would have an opportunity like this, especially as a non-humanities major working with the Humanities Research Center.”Mulligan does not expect students to continue their research in subsequent semesters. However, he is open to that in the future.“I don’t believe we will be rolling students over but have discussed for larger projects and especially for group projects,” Mulligan said. “Once we are certain the one semester with one student on one given project is working, we will revisit making changes.”

Wolfe discusses US approach to NTDs at Baker Institute conference

(10/09/15 6:44am)

Mitchell Wolfe spoke on U.S. strategy, particularly at the U.S.-Mexico border, for neglected tropical diseases and health in general at the Baker Institute for Public Policy for “The United States and Mexico: Addressing a Shared Legacy of Neglected Tropical Diseases and Poverty,” a conference organized by the Baker Institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences and the Mexico Center in conjunction with Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine and the End Fund, on Sept. 29.Neglected tropical diseases are a group of parasitic and bacterial diseases that infect many people, especially children and those living in poverty, according to the Global Network for Tropical Disease.Wolfe is the deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Global Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.“I am a doctor and an epidemiologist,” Wolfe said. “Part of my job and our office is being health diplomats.”Wolfe said his office works to connect public health and foreign policy and draw that connection to advance policy.Wolfe further expanded on his definition of his job to explain diplomacy in his work. He said diplomacy is getting things on people’s agendas that might not have been there previously by working with foreign governments, individuals, NGOs and other entities to ultimately protect the health and security of Americans.According to Wolfe, the 2014 Ebola outbreak was an example of why the Department for Health and Human Services and his office specifically must maintain a global sense of diplomacy in their work.“The Ebola outbreak should remind people that diseases don’t respect borders,” Wolfe said. “At HHS, we have an obligation to act globally and have agencies such as the National Institutes of Health with depth and breadth. There is a real demand for us [at the Office of Global Health] to engage as diplomats with global stakeholders to ensure an organized and coordinated response to health issues.”Wolfe said he views the U.S.-Mexico border as a unique region due to its population, geography and disease patterns.“The U.S.-Mexico border is a very dynamic region,” Wolfe said. “It contains about 50 million largely underserved individuals suffering from poverty and facing poor health outcomes. The patterns of disease here are distinct from the rest of the U.S.”Wolfe views NTDs as a source of tremendous suffering because of their disfiguring and sometimes fatal impact. According to Wolfe, they are neglected because they persist only in the poorest, most marginalized areas.U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Mexico’s Secretary of Health Mercedes Juan Lopez head the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission. Wolfe deals with the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission through his office.“This commission was the result of a bilateral agreement to address health and wellness at the border and improve surveillance and reporting,” Wolfe said. “We [the Office of Global Health] and the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission are attempting to address health disparities and understand the ‘why,’ why there is such a concentration of NTDs at the border, why programs like ours that link public health and policy development are so important.”The Smith Clinic in Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward, a neighborhood that falls below the poverty line for a family of four, provides access to health care to Houston’s underprivileged, a population often impacted by NTDs.“Poverty is an overwhelming risk factor for NTDs,” Wolfe said. “It includes the lack of window screens, high unemployment and significant shortages of health care providers. The Smith Clinic is providing similar services here in Houston to what we are offering at the border.”Baker Institute for Public Policy intern Anjali Bhatla attended the talk and saw the conference’s importance for Houston and Rice.“Houston was the perfect city for this talk given that South Texas has the burden of NTDs,” Bhatla, a Baker College junior, said. “Hopefully this conference will spur interest in NTDs in Rice undergraduates.”

Former MD Anderson president discusses clinical cancer research

(09/09/15 3:11pm)

John Mendelsohn, M.D., a distinguished cancer researcher, spoke at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Center for Health and Biosciences on Sept. 2 about his professional journey and the future of cancer treatment.Mendelsohn is an L.E. and Virginia Simmons Fellow in Health and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute. After previously serving as president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Mendelsohn currently sits as the director of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at MD Anderson.The institute focuses on preclinical research and clinical trials in order to employ personalized cancer therapy and optimize patient outcomes, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s website.Mendelsohn went to University of California, San Diego where he founded a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center. There, Mendelsohn and Dr. Gordon Sato eventually succeeded in targeting and suppressing specific tumors through the production of a certain antibody.Targeted cancer therapy is the focus at the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy.“Precision, or personalized, cancer treatment involves taking advantage of all information available about the patient and his or her cancer in order to prescribe treatments most likely to succeed in achieving a cure or substantial prolongation of life,” Mendelsohn said. The goals of the Institute emphasize improved prognoses for cancer patients and education for doctors and patients.“We now know most of the genetic abnormalities that cause cancer and can detect biomarkers in an individual’s cancer in a reasonable time frame for a reasonable cost, about the same amount as two MRI scans,” Mendelsohn explained. “Clinical trials using this approach have been successful, showing that for prolongation of life, targeted treatment is better than randomly assigned.”This type of therapy affords a potential opportunity to cure the incurable, according to Mendelsohn. “If standard therapy, surgery, radiation and chemo are not producing a cure, we wanted to be able to screen genes, develop clinical trials to bring therapy to these patients, and provide decision support to help physicians and patients,” Mendelsohn said.Mendelsohn said it is clear from the data that this personalized therapy is working overall, but there is still much to learn.“We need more trials with combinations of therapies,” Mendelsohn said. “We need to work with multiple drug companies, handle toxicities, understand sensitivity and resistance better. We need a vast knowledge network to create a research computational platform.”According to Mendelsohn, the work of the Sheikh Khalifa Institute is changing the way cancer is treated, while showing pharmaceutical companies that the modern way to fight cancer is not necessarily what they expected.“Once we have shown that something works, it goes into the standard of practice and any doctor and any patient can benefit from that,” Mendelsohn said. “The [pharmaceutical] companies dream of drugs that work against all types of one cancer, but there won’t be one. The companies are retooling and making sense of the fact that there won’t be a ‘blockbuster’ drug.”Jones College sophomore Alina Mohanty decided to attend Mendelsohn’s talk, which was entitled “Precision Medicine: Past, Present, and Future,” after learning of all he had accomplished.“I was drawn by Dr. Mendelsohn’s positions and achievements,” Mohanty said. “I figured if he had accomplished so much, he would definitely have something to say that I could learn from.”Mohanty enjoyed the talk due to Mendelsohn’s incorporation of medicine, science and policy.“Dr. Mendelsohn’s talk was exciting and informative,” Mohanty said. “While the lecture was very scientific, he explained step-by-step how he came about producing Erbitux. Not only did we learn about cancers and cancer treatment, but also we learned about the experiences of a successful physician and his views on policy that should be implemented in his field of medicine. It was altogether a very well-rounded talk.”

Rice, UT launch Public Health Scholars program

(08/27/15 11:46am)

Rice University and the University of Texas School of Public Health have partnered to offer Rice students the opportunity to start a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science with a Master of Public Health their senior year at Rice. The program, which begins this fall, allows students to finish the MPH in the year following graduation.The program is co-directed by Dr. Kristen Ostherr, a recent Master of Public Health graduate, and Dr. Nicholas Iammarino, a Rice faculty member. According to Ostherr, the program stems from a growing need for public health awareness. “The idea came from a recognition of the growing importance of public health to our daily lives, to the nation’s future and to the careers of future physicians,” Ostherr said. “Because Rice has so many [pre-medical students] who are interested in issues related to health disparities, global health and the environment, a joint program in public health made perfect sense.”Vice Provost for Strategic Partnerships Dr. Daniel Carson said the connection across institutions is what makes the program distinct.“The UTSPH already had similar programs with other UT campuses,” Carson said. “This told us setting this up was possible, but didn’t provide a clear guideline for how to do this between institutions.”Administrative details proved most challenging at its start, according to Iammarino.“Questions like transferring course credit, the financial implications and coordinating our academic years and scheduling all needed to be sorted through,” Iammarino said.The proper handling of these issues was imperative, according to Ostherr.“It’s critical to do it right to help ensure the program’s longevity,” Ostherr said.Besides Iammarino and Ostherr, Carson and Rice Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson were instrumental in the program’s creation.“Dean Hutchinson played a key role along with Vice Provost Daniel Carson in working with [Rice’s and UTSPH’s] administrations to solve these issues while also anticipating many unique questions we knew would arise from our students, creat[ing] a special FAQ sheet to begin addressing the questions,” Iammarino said.The 2015-16 cohort is five Rice seniors selected from 20-30 applicants.“This being our first year, we had to hustle to get the word out quickly to obtain applicants at the end of the [2014-15] year but were very pleased at our response and applicants,” Iammarino said. “However, we expect the numbers to grow as students learn about this option and can actually plan for it earlier in their undergraduate careers.”The program will expedite the path to a MPH, according to Iammarino.“The most exciting part of this new program is the opportunity to enroll concurrently in the UTSPH and take up to five courses during their senior year,” Iammarino said. “In essence, they will be able to potentially complete their MPH degree in one year rather than the typical two years.”The program also encourages public health studies across majors and has plans for growth.“We want more cross-fertilization between all of the different divisions on campus,” Dr. Ostherr said. “We deliberately do not limit participation to students from any one major … and will be issuing another call for applicants this fall.”Wiess College senior Brooke Evans is a member of the 2015-16 cohort. Having pursued the Global Health Technologies minor since freshman year, Evans said the program aligned well with her interests and previous experience.“I learned about this program in one of [the Global Health Technologies] classes and was so excited about the opportunity to learn about public health on a graduate school level,” Evans said. “I hope my education in public health will help me understand medicine on a larger scale and critically analyze and work toward improving the health of the greater public.”

Baker Institute hosts talk with Meir Dagan, former director of the Mossad

(10/28/14 4:32pm)

Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy hosted a question-and-answer session on Israel’s regional security issues with Meir Dagan, former director of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, on Oct. 14. It was moderated by the Honorable Edward P. Djerejian, the founding director of Baker Institute.