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Gov. Abbott’s University Research Initiative Brings Two Distinguished Professors to UT Austin

With key support from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s new Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) grant program, UT Austin has recruited two renowned researchers and national academy members to join its faculty.

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AUSTIN, Texas — With key support from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s new Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) grant program, The University of Texas at Austin has recruited two renowned researchers and national academy members to join its faculty: chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke and molecular biosciences professor Wei Yang. 

Gov. Abbott signed the GURI program into law in 2015 during a ceremony at The University of Texas at Austin to bring the world’s best and brightest minds to Texas universities to spur innovation and drive economic activity. Brennecke and Yang are two of 10 researchers to receive the GURI grants in 2016 to come to Texas universities, marking the program’s first round of awards.   

“Through our Governor’s University Research Initiative, Texas is making a strategic investment to vault the standings of our public colleges and universities into the top-ranked nationally,” Gov. Abbott said. “Our investment into GURI will help our universities recruit even more Nobel laureates and national academy members to the Lone Star State and will serve as a catalyst for further economic development.”

The initiative provides up to $5 million in matching funds per researcher to assist eligible institutions of higher education in Texas to recruit highly distinguished scholars. The program is operated within the Office of the Governor in the Economic Development and Tourism Division. 

UT Austin has received $5 million in total grant funding to recruit both Brennecke and Yang, providing important resources as the professors set up their labs and begin their research. 

“I thank Gov. Abbott for his unparalleled support of higher education in Texas and our efforts to promote research that will both improve the world and drive the economy,” said UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. “Joan Brennecke’s work is already improving energy efficiency and storage, and Wei Yang’s research is improving drug therapy for cancer patients.”

Brennecke, who received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UT Austin in 1984, comes from the University of Notre Dame and will begin her appointment in the Cockrell School of Engineering on Aug. 1, 2017. She is a pioneer in the development of ionic liquids (liquid-state salts) for use in sustainable chemical processing and energy storage applications. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012.

Yang, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, comes from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases — part of the National Institutes of Health — and will begin working in the College of Natural Sciences on Dec. 1, 2016. She is internationally recognized for her work determining the ways that cells find and repair flaws in DNA that cause disease. Yang’s recruitment was also supported by an established investigator grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

About UT Austin’s GURI Grant Recipients:

Joan Brennecke is a chemical engineer whose research focuses on energy and sustainability. She is best known for the design, synthesis and testing of ionic liquids to selectively remove CO2 from the gas exiting into the atmosphere from coal and natural gas power plants. Her research also focuses on the design of ionic liquid systems for safer, more reliable and longer-lasting batteries. 

Brennecke is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has received awards from the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the U.S. Department of Energy and others. She has published more than 130 research papers garnering over 13,000 citations. Brennecke received her B.S. from UT Austin and both her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She will be a professor in UT Austin’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering.

Wei Yang is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her research applies diverse and cutting-edge molecular techniques to understand how mutations occur and how cells normally repair these mutations — and how these repairs fail in specific cancer syndromes. Her work has illuminated the molecular basis for several cancers and uncovered how chemotherapeutic drugs work, and how resistance to these drugs develops. 

Yang, who grew up in Shanghai, China, received her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia University, where she stayed on as a postdoctoral fellow before assuming a research position at Yale University. She will be a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Molecular Biosciences.