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Research Vanguard


July 25, 2013

New international collaborative tackles critical health problems and information issues

The Weizmann Institute of Science is considered one of the foremost centers of multidisciplinary research and graduate study in the world. Established in 1934 in Rehovot, Israel, it is committed to basic science research that has led to groundbreaking medical and technological applications. The institute, which is divided into the five disciplines of mathematics/computer science, physics, chemistry, biochemistry and biology, encourages its faculty to partner with university faculties and scientists around the world.

Renyi Zhang and Brittany Turner
Reyni Zhang and Brittany Turner are among the 
researchers working on the Texas A&M-Weizmann 
Collaborative Program.

With more than $700 million in research funding and a top-tier national ranking, Texas A&M already has active partnerships and collaborative agreements with researchers and institutions in 39 other countries worldwide. All of these factors made Texas A&M a likely candidate for a venture with Weizmann.

The opportunity for Texas A&M and Weizmann researchers to collaborate came about in 2009 when officials from each institution signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) creating the Texas A&M-Weizmann Research Collaborative. Once details of the program were finalized, a formal call for proposals was issued to Texas A&M faculty in 2011.

“World-class scientific discoveries often take years to develop and increasingly involve international teams of scientists,” said Charles A. Johnson, Texas A&M’s senior associate vice president for research. “Our partnership with Weizmann will enhance those discoveries, give our researchers new opportunities to join forces with scientists around the world and ultimately solve some of society’s most complex issues.”

Basic Science—Amazing Results
The 2011 call for proposals at Texas A&M yielded 22 responses in the life sciences, natural sciences, cosmology and mathematics. The selection committee chose eight projects to receive two years of seed funding. To continue their work after two years, faculty researchers must seek federal or international grant funding or private gifts.

Four projects address health, such as finding a treatment for a deadly form of meningitis prevalent among populations with high HIV-infections, or strengthening the body’s ability to fight autoimmune diseases, such as type I diabetes, lupus or arthritis and improving its ability to accept transplanted organs. Another project addresses the processes by which healthy tissue can be recreated or regenerated. The hope is that one day physicians may replace diseased organs with healthy organs grown from a patient’s own tissue. Still another health-related project may enhance drug discoveries through a transformative process for studying proteins.

Two projects address “green” issues: clean air and renewable energy. The clean air study seeks answers about air pollution caused when organic particles from sources such as fire, soil and sea waves interact with sunlight. Such pollution accounts for almost half of atmospheric particles. A second “green” project involves converting fats and triglycerides into renewable sources of fuel such as biodiesel or other useful chemicals under cleaner and safer industrial processes.

Two additional projects that involve quantum computing and development of a new algorithm for processing large data sets could dramatically increase the speed and accuracy of research. The new algorithm in the classification and regression project seeks to better determine real relationships from false correlations in massive, complex data sets to produce a more accurate analysis. Quantum computing seeks to reinvent computer processing, and dramatically increase processing speed, by harnessing the spin cycles of electrons.

The Team Behind the Teams

Tina and Paul Garner
Tina and Paul Gardner '66

A husband and wife team with passionate ties to Weizmann and Texas A&M had advocated for a collaboration between the Texas and Israeli institutions for several years. Tina and Paul Gardner ’66 of College Station were introduced to Weizmann by her father, the late Milton T. Smith, a successful Austin businessman and philanthropist. The couple continued Smith’s commitment to philanthropic causes, growing especially close to the institute. The relationship turned personal when they learned that a Weizmann discovery helped Tina Smith win a 10-year battle with lymphoma in the early 2000s.

The Gardners visited with several Texas A&M officials about a formal research collaboration between Texas A&M and Weizmann. Dr. Mike McKinney, former chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, found the idea worth exploring. Meetings ensued between representatives from the Texas A&M System and Weizmann that led to 2009 MOA.

A New Direction for Research Funding

Funding this collaborative reflects a new direction for Texas A&M. While each institution provided seed funding, the MOA states private philanthropy will be pursued to support future endeavors.

Johnson says that in today’s international research environment, multiple sources are necessary to sustain projects, such as private individuals or foundations along with government, industry and academic institutions.

The Texas A&M-Weizmann MOA calls for individuals and foundations to fund the two- or three-year projects. Donors may choose to name the project they support and to build a relationship with the researchers. The Gardners donated $300,000 toward a research project named in honor of McKinney and his wife Lou Ann.

“If there is one thing we’ve learned about raising funds,” said Paul Gardner, “it’s that you can’t ask anybody to do something that you haven’t done yourself.”

The Gardners are not the sole private benefactors of the project. Although they have not yet directed it to a particular research project or professor, in 2011 the M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation of Dallas made a $25,000 gift to support the program.

“Paul and Tina Gardner have seen firsthand how basic scientific research leads to game-changing discoveries,” said Johnson. “Their gift, and that of the Zale Foundation, is an example of an exciting new area of philanthropy for Texas A&M in the coming years.”

By Leanne South ’94

You can support research like this at Texas A&M University with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation. Request your A&M Support Kit to learn how you can help.

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