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Medical humanities, advanced materials and sustainability institutes launch

Jennifer Liu / Thresher

By Adam Leff     9/13/23 12:03am

Rice established three new research institutes this summer in medical humanities, advanced materials and sustainability. The university also increased funding for the Ken Kennedy Institute and Smalley-Curl Institute, investigating interdisciplinary uses of artificial intelligence and applied physics, respectively, and approved a Synthetic Biology Institute to complement these programs, according to Executive Vice President for Research Ramamoorthy Ramesh. 

Ramesh said that when comparing Rice to other undergraduate institutes in the country, Rice was behind some of its peers in the quality of research being produced.

“Rice is a … good research institution. But are we on par with Stanford and MIT? Not yet. Should we be on par? Absolutely, yes,” Ramesh said. “That means that our balance has to change. We don’t want to compromise on our undergraduate excellence, but we want to build on that, we want to enhance that by putting more focus on the research.”

Ramesh said these new research institutes centralize and coordinate existing disparate initiatives while increasing funding. The institutes hope to serve as an investment into research in the future.

“The expected outcomes are definitely to elevate our intellectual reputation and push interdisciplinary research. As a consequence, we will get a lot more external funding,” Ramesh said.

The multiple research institutes can also collaborate and investigate similar issues from different angles. Lane Martin, the director of the new Rice Advanced Materials Institute, said that this approach will make the research more useful and applicable.

“We might look at the same problem from three or four different perspectives to have a more holistic or comprehensive solution,” Martin, Welch Professor of Materials Science & Nanoengineering, said. 

Kirsten Ostherr, the director of the Medical Humanities Institute, said she is hoping to hold town halls with the Rice community and faculty steering committees to gather input about what the institute’s goals and research focuses should be. 

“The first things that we plan to do are host some events that bring faculty together and that brings students together with us to talk to them about what we envision for the institute,” Ostherr said. “[We also want] to hear from them, both faculty and students, about what they might hope to see, how they might want to be involved [and] areas of opportunity that they see or would like to explore.”

Ostherr also said that one of the Medical Humanities Institute’s first programs will be developing an undergraduate research opportunity relating to artificial intelligence for healthcare.

Martin said more research opportunities and funding for faculty means more research opportunities available to students. As a result, these institutes will impact all members of the Rice community. 

Sophia Peng, who is a medical humanities minor and is involved in research at Rice, said she hopes the institutes will enable more events, similar to the speaker series and lunches she sees in the anthropology department. 

“I [would like] more workshops, opportunities, things that Rice can host or Rice’s departments can invite people in for,” Peng, a McMurtry College senior.

Peng said that many students seem unaware of the new research institutions at the moment, since it most directly impacts faculty. She believes as these institutions begin to impact students, they will likely take notice.

Martin said that once the new institutes get underway, they will reshape the way the university does research. 

“It’s a time for growth,” Martin said. “It’s a time for us to think as a campus, ‘What’s missing? What do we need to have to be impactful in a meaningful way?’”

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