Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

UH College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

NSM Pride: Awards and Honors

Share News of Your Achievements

NSM is proud of the achievements of our outstanding alumni, students, staff and faculty. Submit news of your awards, new jobs and honors to or contact Kathy Major at or 713-743-4023.


Nikhil Navkar (Computer Science Ph.D. ’13) is an Academic Research Scientist at Hamad Medical Corporation in Doha, Qatar. His job focuses on innovation of new technologies that solve unmet surgical needs and brings impact to patient care. This involves initiation, planning and execution of multidisciplinary R&D projects across engineering and clinical teams. Navkar’s research interests include human-computer interaction for medical devices, computer simulations for preoperative planning and training, and algorithms for image-guided robotic interventions.

Brian-Tinh Vu (Physics ’20) was named a Marcus L. Urann Fellow by the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi. Vu received $20,000 to support his bioengineering doctoral program which he started this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fan Yang (Computer Science Ph.D. ’20) is working at Amazon’s Alexa headquarters in Boston after excelling at internships with Visa and Amazon. During his Amazon internship, he worked with a team that built language-understanding models for the virtual assistant Alexa. He hopes to continue his fundamental research goal – to build a machine that can better understand all human languages.


Arvand Asghari (Ph.D. Student, Biology) won NSM’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition, and Mohammad Rajiur Rahman (Ph.D. Student, Computer Science) was voted the “People’s Choice” winner. Six Ph.D. students representing NSM’s departments participated in the competition held virtually in October. Presenters must use only one PowerPoint slide while they describe their research in a three-minute timeframe.

Society for Exploration Geophysicists EVOLVE Program
A team of six Earth & Atmospheric Sciences Ph.D. and M.S. students – Spencer Fuston (Ph.D., Team Captain, Geology), Andrew Stearns (M.S., Geology), Anne Fosli (M.S., Geophysics), Joseph Stone (Professional M.S. Geophysics ’20), Regan Robinson (M.S., Geophysics ’20), and Matthew Storey (M.S. Geophysics ’20) – participated in the 2020 SEG EVOLVE Program. The team was recognized for presenting the “Best Investment Opportunity,” as well as the most “Aggressive Investment Opportunity” in their basin. John Castagna was their faculty advisor. SEG EVOLVE is a 5-month, non-competitive, annual prospective basin evaluation program that gives students an opportunity to work with real world oil and gas datasets and generate investment opportunities. Twenty-three teams from around the world participated. The dataset provided to the UH EAS team was the offshore Northland Basin of northwestern New Zealand. The goal is to recommend the “Best Investment Opportunity” to a board of potential investors. The EVOLVE Program also provides students with the ability to gain a fundamental understanding of the economics involved in prospecting by examining the study area from a petroleum engineering perspective.

Lucien Nana Yobo (Ph.D. Student, Geology) received a $20,000 GEM Fellowship from the National GEM Consortium, an organization that aims to increase the participation of underrepresented groups at the master’s and doctoral levels in science and engineering. He will use the fellowship to further his study and research of paleoclimatology with his advisor, Alan Brandon. Read More

Stephanie Suarez and Maritza Montoya (Ph.D. and M.S. Geology Students) were awarded an E-an Zen Fund Geoscience Outreach Grant from the Geological Society of America. These grants are intended to fund projects that communicate geoscience information to non-geoscience audiences. Two grants are awarded annually. Suarez and Montoya’s outreach program introduces planetary Earth science concepts through hands-on activities to underserved K-5 students in the east side of Houston. They had a successful outreach event earlier this year at Jaime Davila Elementary with about 70 students. Jose Daniel Velazco-Garcia (Ph.D. Student, Computer Science) will provide technical support to accommodate virtual projects and presentations due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Related Photo in Scenes Around NSM


The research paper of Maurice Brookhart (Professor, Chemistry), Olafs Daugulis (Robert A Welch Chair, Chemistry) and postdoctoral fellow Xing-Wang Han was highlighted in Spotlights on Recent JACS Publications. The group has developed a clever and straightforward strategy to incorporate a reactive aldehyde group on the terminus of polyethylene in a single step. As a small trial, they demonstrated that the terminal aldehyde could be used to couple polyethylene with dyes, which opens the door for future modifications with unlimited possibilities.

Albert Cheng (Professor, Computer Science) has been appointed an associate editor of an Association for Computing Machinery journal, ACM Computing Surveys. The journal’s comprehensive, readable surveys and tutorial papers give guided tours through the literature and explain topics to those who seek to learn the basics of areas outside their specialties in an accessible way. The journal provides an excellent way for researchers and professionals to develop perspectives on, and identify trends in, complex technologies.

Seamus Curran’s (Professor, Physics) startup company, Integricote, was named as one of the 2020 MassChallenge Texas in Houston Top 10 finalists. The 10 companies competed in a final round of judging in October for equity-free cash prizes. The top 10 were selected from the MassChallenge Texas’ accelerator program held from June-September that involved 56, high-impact startups vetted by a community of more than 500 expert judges. MassChallenge is a global network of zero-equity startup accelerators.
   Curran Biotech has been named a finalist in the Industry Driven – Healthcare Tech category for the 2020 NC TECH Awards – Virtual Beacons, North Carolina’s annual statewide awards program recognizing innovation, growth and leadership in the tech sector.

Loi Do (Associate Professor, Chemistry) has been funded as one of the co-principal investigators of a new, multi-institutional Center for Integrated Catalysis. The NSF awarded $1.8 million to six researchers from four different universities to collaborate and create the center. This joint venture gives the collaborators the ability to work on science they cannot do individually, drawing on the strengths of different investigators to work on challenging, high-risk high-reward ideas. The research by Do and his collaborators will focus on taking abundant, simple molecules, such as carbon dioxide and ethylene, and converting them to useful materials, such as plastics, in a streamlined way.

George Fox (Moores Professor, Biology & Biochemistry) and Madhan Tirumalai (Research Assistant Professor, Biology & Biochemistry), along with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, published a paper in FEBS Open Bio. An image from the work was selected as the October issue cover. The paper addresses the first cryo-electron microscopy structure of ribosomes from Halococcus (Archaea), and related species, obtained at subnanometer resolution of 6.4 angstroms. Understanding the evolution of the ancient macromolecules, namely the ribosomes, is central to understanding how life evolved. In the light of insertions and extension sequences, the addition of ribosomal segments goes in parallel with the increase in organismic complexity.
   Fox and Mario Rivas Medrano (NASA Postdoctoral Fellow) recently published a comprehensive structural analysis of the Pseudo-Symmetrical Region that has been proposed to be the precursor of the Proto-Ribosome, an entity that represents the ancestor of extant ribosomes from all living species. This work addresses the implications of early RNA/RNA interactions and the role of metallic cations, like magnesium, in the stability and early evolution of the Proto-Ribosome. The ribosome has been recognized as a critical biomolecule, whose early evolution is of special interest because many aspects of its origins likely predate the Last Common Ancestor. This paper, included in the journal Life’s special issue “The Origin and Early Evolution of Life: Prebiotic Systems Chemistry Perspective,” was selected as the cover of Life’s September Issue.

Omprakash Gnawali (Associate Professor, Computer Science) led an initiative to create free video lessons for children in his home country of Nepal during the pandemic. The videos prepare students for their national exam which is a pathway to scholarships and advanced education. In the span of a month, eight UH current students and alumni developed 350 videos for YouTube and a website to store the videos. Read More

Erin Kelleher (Associate Professor, Biology & Biochemistry) was awarded $1.8 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to conduct her evolutionary biology research on transposable elements in the genome, also known as “jumping genes.” Transposable element activity is implicated in the onset and progression of many tumor types and age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Understanding how specific genetic variants of the bruno gene provide tolerance to developing fruit fly eggs may point to similar mechanisms in tumor cells.

Mariam Manuel (Instructional Assistant Professor/Master Teacher, teachHOUSTON, Mathematics) received a Special Award for Outstanding Contributions to STEM Education from the UTeach STEM Educators Association. The award recognizes those who have displayed passion and dedication for STEM disciplines. Her research involves exploring the intersection of engineering design and culturally responsive pedagogy as it relates to science and mathematics instruction.

Zhifeng Ren (M.D. Anderson Chair Professor, Physics, and Director, TcSUH) leads the academic journal Materials Today Physics as its editor-in-chief. Just three years after its launch, the journal earned an impact factor putting it in the top 2% of all scientific journals. Materials Today Physics earned an impact factor of 10.443, the first year it was eligible for the rating. According to, an impact factor of 10 or higher is considered “excellent.” Fewer than 2% of scientific journals reach that benchmark, the organization reported; physics and astronomy journals have an average impact factor of 2.9.

Jiajia Sun (Assistant Professor, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) will serve as an associate editor for a new section on “Multiphysics and Joint Inversion” that will be introduced in Geophysics, the flagship peer-reviewed journal published by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.
   Recent work by Sun and his student Felicia Nurindrawati was featured as an AGU Editor’s Highlight on Fewer than 2% of journal articles are featured in this way. Their article, “Predicting magnetization directions using convolutional neural networks,” published and featured on the cover of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, explores the performance of machine learning methods in the interpretation of (aero)magnetic anomaly maps. They tested various sets of convolutional neural networks (CNN) and trained the two optimal CNN designs (one for declination and one for inclination) to predict declination and inclination directly from input total field maps. The CNN approach largely bypasses issues with classic interpretation and is anticipated to develop into a welcome addition to the existing tool kit for magnetic anomaly interpretation.

John Suppe (Distinguished Professor, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences), Dan Davis of SUNY Stony Brook, and the late Tony Dahlen of Princeton University received the 2020 Best Seminal Paper Award from the Petroleum Structure and Geomechanics Division of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. The award recognized three of their classic papers from the 1980s on the mechanics of fold and thrust belts and accretionary wedges. This work showed that the mechanics and kinematics of mountain belts is akin to that of a wedge of soil or snow that forms ahead of a bulldozer blade.

Arthur Weglein (Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair, Physics) has been invited to serve as the closing speaker for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists/Dhahran Geophysical Society workshop, “Challenges & New Advances in Velocity Model Building,” scheduled March 9-11, 2021, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
   Seismic Imaging and Inversion: Application of Linear Inverse Theory, published in 2012 and co-authored by Robert H. Stolt of ConocoPhillips (retired) and Weglein, will be published in Chinese. Cambridge University Press, in collaboration with the Chinese publisher, Petroleum Industry Press, will publish the translation for sale in China. The text is the first of a two-volume graduate textbook in seismic physics.

Julia Wellner (Associate Professor, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) was elected as a fellow of the Geological Society of America. She is one of 48 Fellows elected in 2020. According to the GSA, election as a Fellow is an honor “bestowed on the best of our profession.” Wellner was recognized for her leadership in Antarctic research. She is making significant contributions to the fields of glacial geology, marine geology, sedimentology and stratigraphy and has been Chief Scientist and Co-Chief Scientist on ocean expeditions to the Antarctic.

Judy Wu’s (Assistant Professor, Chemistry) research was highlighted in Chemistry World in a feature article, “Antiaromaticity relief mechanism linked to DNA photostability.” The article covers the work of Wu’s research group in collaboration with Henrik Ottosson of Uppsala University in Sweden. The researchers have put forward a theory to explain the intrinsic photostability of DNA that is based on relieving antiaromaticity.

Wa Xian (Research Associate Professor, Biology & Biochemistry) received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. She, along with Frank McKeon (Professor, Biology & Biochemistry, and Director, Stem Cell Center), is developing new drug therapies to selectively destroy rogue cells they found in biopsies of pediatric Crohn’s patients, to create new treatments for the disease.

Melissa Zastrow (Assistant Professor, Chemistry) received a $1.9 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to develop protein-based metal sensors that will be able to function in the gastrointestinal tract, a low-oxygen environment, to examine how gut bacteria respond when trace metal nutrients, like iron and zinc, are thrown out of balance either through diet or disease. Read More

Yingcai Zheng (Associate Professor, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences) has been named a Robert and Margaret Sheriff Professor in Applied Geophysics. Zheng was chosen for his outstanding research, high stature among his peers in the field of applied geophysics and for his service to the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and NSM. The professorship is named after Robert Sheriff, a former professor of geophysics at UH, and his wife Margaret Sheriff. The two were enormous benefactors of the department, donating nearly $2 million, establishing five endowments.

NSM Staff Service Awards

Thirty-six NSM staff members were recognized for reaching service milestones at the end of the academic year. Congratulations to all and special recognition to three employees with 30+ years of service to UH – May Lew (Computer Science): 39 years, Jim McGee (NSM-IT): 34 years, and Debbi Loya (NSM Business Office): 30 years!

Biology & Biochemistry

  • Hoang Hoang, Systems Administrator 2 - 15 years


  • Seth Evans, Financial Coordinator 2 – 5 years
  • Hao Li, Research Associate 2 – 5 years
  • Mauricio Perez, Office Coordinator – 5 years
  • Crystal Gonzalez, Assistant Business Administrator – 10 years
  • Tatyana Makarenko, Research Tech 2 – 10 years
  • Jerry Do, Assistant Manager, User Services Support – 15 years
  • Hans Hofmeister, Instrumentation Director – 20 years

Computer Science

  • Babu Sundaram, Systems Administrator 3 – 20 years
  • May Lew, Financial Coordinator 2 – 39 years

Center for Nuclear Receptors & Cell Signaling (CNRCS)

  • Heidi Scheier, Financial Coordinator 2 – 5 years
  • Aiwu Jin, Research Lab Manager – 10 years
  • Lihua Tao, Researcher 1 Nat Phys Science – 10 years

Dean’s Office

  • Eduardo Cerna, Program Manager 2, Scholar Enrichment Program – 5 years
  • Gerardo Cervantes, Skilled Trades Tech 3 – 5 years
  • Brianna Johnson, Assistant Business Administrator – 5 years
  • Antoinette Marvels, Financial Coordinator 1 – 5 years
  • Ryan Nguyen, Systems Analyst 1 – 5 years
  • Rebecca Pryor-Oestreicher, Academic Advisor 2 – 5 years
  • Stacy Smeal, Research Liaison Officer – 5 years
  • M. David Stewart, Research Liaison Officer – 10 years
  • Gosfrey Gutierrez, Application Developer 4 – 15 years
  • Debbi Loya, Financial Manager – 30 years
  • Jim McGee, Application Developer 4 – 34 years

Earth & Atmospheric Sciences

  • Jennifer Dowell, Financial Coordinator 2 – 5 years
  • Jim Parker, Academic Advisor 1 – 5 years
  • Smita Ketkar, Assistant Business Administrator – 20 years
  • Laura Bell, Program Manager 2 – 25 years


  • Callista Brown, Program Manager 2 – 5 years
  • Avani Dave, Departmental Business Administrator – 15 years
  • Minh Nguyen, Program Director 1 – 15 years
  • Treina McAllister, Communications Manager – 20 years
  • Cindy Nguyen, Program Director 1 – 20 years
  • Emilio Ontiveros, Financial Coordinator 1 – 25 years


  • Candace Guy-Anzaldua, Office Assistant 2 – 5 years
  • LaTonya McQuillon, Financial Assistant 2 – 5 years