Meet the Two Distinguished Professors Coming to UT on Gov. Abbott’s New Grant


Ten distinguished researchers are coming to Texas universities as a result of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s new Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) grant program, his office announced in a press release Thursday. Two of them are headed for the Forty Acres.

The GURI program aims to bring the best researchers to Texas, specifically to three schools: Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, and the University of Texas at Austin. The initiative was put into law in 2015 and was one of Abbott’s top priorities in the last legislative session. (Read the Alcalde interview with Abbott to learn more about the initiative.)

The grants are backed by more than $34 million in one-to-one matching grant commitments from each university. The researchers named are members of esteemed societies including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and The Royal Society in the United Kingdom.

UT received $5 million in total grant funding to recruit both chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke and molecular biosciences professor Wei Yang.

Here’s more about Brennecke and Yang:

Joan Frances Brennecke is currently a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Notre Dame University, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Sustainable Energy. Brennecke is internationally known for her research in the development of solvents, specifically the design, synthesis, and testing or supercritical fluids and ionic liquids. Brennecke obtained her B.S. from UT and her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She has received awards from the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the U.S. Department of Energy, and others.

“I am so excited about coming back to UT. I was an undergraduate at UT in the 1980s, and I even had Dr. [John] McKetta for two classes and was his grader,” Brennecke says. “I think my blood is burnt orange.”

She will conduct research focusing on energy and sustainability at UT. She will start Aug. 1, 2017 as a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and a holder of an endowed chair at UT. Her grant total is $1.8 million.

“I am excited about bringing the expertise on ionic liquids to UT and collaborating with other faculty in chemical engineering and around campus who are experts in many technologies and applications where ionic liquids could be useful,” Brennecke says. “It is amazing that the governor and the state of Texas value quality research and teaching so much that they are willing to bring the best and the brightest to Texas. I love teaching thermodynamics and separations and can’t wait to start doing that next fall.”

Wei Yang is currently a tenured senior investigator and section chief at the National Institutes of Health, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been a fellow since 2012 for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Yang uses molecular techniques to understand mutations, how cells normally to repair them, and how these repairs fail in cancer syndromes. According to UT’s press release, her work has shed light on the molecular makeup of several cancers, uncovered how chemotherapeutic drugs work, and how resistance to these drugs develops. After growing up in Shanghai, China, Yang obtained her B.A. in biochemistry from SUNY at Stony Brook, and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia University. She received the Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin Award in 2011.

“During my visit to UT, I met a number of professors and research scientists there,” Yang says. “I think there’s a great synergy because everyone has different perspectives and their own approach, so I think we’ll all be a great mix.”

Upon her arrival at UT, Yang’s research will have her working with the school’s office of technology commercialization to focus on the mechanisms human cells use to find and repair DNA mutations and lesions. Yang will start Aug. 1, 2017 as a professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and a holder of the Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Arnold, Sr. Regents Chair in Molecular Biology. Her grant total is $3.28 million.

“I think the strength of UT—besides the great mix of technical expertise among the faculty—is the outstanding graduate students and the graduate program,” Yang says. “The young people bring a tremendous amount of energy, intelligence, and drive, which to me is priceless.”


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