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UT Austin’s 2021 Research in the News Highlights

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Vial of vaccine

National and international media outlets widely reported on an array of research from UT Austin this year, from vaccines to black holes, from energy blackouts to dinosaurs, relationship dynamics, and the history of the Texas-Mexico border. Here are a few highlights from 2021 media coverage of UT Austin research.

UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium Provides Critical Information on Spread of Virus

Led by College of Natural Sciences professor Lauren Ancel Meyers, the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium has been instrumental in helping local, state and national officials model and assess the fluctuating spread of the COVID-19 virus. The consortium’s research was cited consistently in national media outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN and many others.

Researchers Reveal New Insights About Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Creatures

Researchers at the Jackson School of Geosciences painted a clearer picture of some of the creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. Research from Matthew Brown revealed that the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known animal to take to the sky, likely leaped, jumping at least 8 feet into the air before lifting off by sweeping its wings. The research was featured by national news outlets like CNN and the BBC.

Christopher Torres, also a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, conducted research that revealed ancient birds’ brain shapes helped them survive extinction, which may help explain why birds are the only surviving dinosaurs.

Giant Black Hole Discovered Inside Satellite Galaxy of Milky Way

Astronomers at the McDonald Observatory discovered an unusually massive black hole at the heart of one of the Milky Way’s dwarf satellite galaxies, called Leo I. Almost as massive as the black hole in our own galaxy, it could redefine our understanding of the evolution of galaxies, the building blocks of the universe. The discovery was covered by Newsweek, Universe Today, SPACE, IFLScience, and other outlets.

Human Trials Begin for a Low-Cost COVID-19 Vaccine to Extend Global Access

This spring the New York Times broke the news that researchers at UT Austin, working with international partners, developed a new low-cost vaccine for Covid-19, now entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. Jason McLellan (College of Natural Scienes), whose work on the COVID-19 spike protein was integral to the major mRNA vaccines now in use around the world, played a key role in the new low-cost vaccine, alongside UT researchers Ilya Finkelstein, Ching-Lin Hsieh, Jennifer Maynard and other colleagues. The vaccine, NDV-HXP-S, can be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius and is made in eggs, a method also used for flu vaccine manufacturing. These factors mean that affordable manufacturing capacity already exists in each of the countries involved with trials. The vaccine candidate continues to attract attention, most recently for reports of its potential administration through a skin patch.

Texas Performing Arts Co-Commissions Kronos Quartet Work on African American Experience

National Public Radio reported on a new musical work co-commissioned by Texas Performing Arts and Kronos Quartet that premiered at Texas Performing Arts in November. The project commissioned National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finnery to collaborate on “At War With Ourselves — 400 Years of You,” a work that condenses the four centuries of history since Africans first arrived in America.

Hydrogel Tablet Can Purify Liter of Water in an Hour

Scientists and engineers at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering created a hydrogel tablet that can rapidly purify contaminated water. The tablet could contribute to solutions for countless people around the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water. Today, the primary way to purify water is to boil or pasteurize it. But that takes energy, plus a lot of time and work. That isn’t practical for people in parts of the world without the resources for these processes. The hydrogel tablet production process requires zero energy input and doesn’t create harmful byproducts. The novel invention caught the attention of reporters around the world, including in India, China, and the United Arab Emirates.

Energy Researchers Shed Light on Causes and Effects of February Winter Storm Blackouts

Using both public and confidential data previously unreviewed, 12 faculty and researchers from across UT Austin revealed several new insights into the February 2021 winter storm power outages and their financial ramifications. Researchers gained a clearer picture of the system failures across the ERCOT grid, the unprecedented stress placed on the state’s natural gas infrastructure, and the effectiveness of financial mitigation steps taken by state regulators. Their research was covered by news outlets around the state and has provided critical information to lawmakers and state officials.

LIDAR Uncovers New Secrets in Ancient Mayan City of Tikal

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala continues to yield amazing secrets thanks to research by scholars at UT Austin’s College of Fine Arts and College of Liberal Arts. Using light detection and ranging software, or lidar, a team from UT and Brown University found that hills at Tikal long thought to be natural were actually buildings modified to the shape of the citadel in Teotihuacan, in modern-day Mexico, the largest and most powerful city in the ancient Americas. The discovery was reported by outlets around the world, including The Daily Mail, CN (China News), and Yahoo! News.

Google Makes People Think They’re Smarter Than They Are

That intelligent feeling you get after googling an arcane fact on your smartphone and sharing it with friends? Well, it may be a bit of an illusion. Research from Adrian Ward at UT’s McCombs School of Business explored the way googling information can lead people to overestimate their own knowledge. News outlets around the world reported on the study, including The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, and the Science Times, describing the phenomenon as a version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which causes people with limited insight of a subject to overestimate their knowledge. Google it, and perhaps you too will feel smarter.

Natural Disasters and COVID Might Just Improve Your Relationships

Research from UT’s College of Natural Sciences revealed that couples who blamed the pandemic for their stress levels were happier in their relationships. The research was featured by U.S. News & World Report, Scientific American and other outlets.

Another study from the College of Natural Sciences revealed that natural disasters can actually bring married couples closer together. The research was featured by Axios, The Daily Mail, KXAN-TV and Futurity, among other outlets.

Social Media Language Use Can Predict an Impending Breakup

Evidence of an impending breakup could exist in the small words used in everyday conversations and on social media. Researchers from UT’s College of Liberal Arts analyzed more than 1 million posts by 6,800 Reddit users one year before and one year after they shared news about their breakups. CNN reported on the study, which was featured in many other news sites, including Mic and The Conversation.

Farm Pesticides Mixed Into “Cocktails” Are Killing More Bees

A study from UT’s College of Natural Sciences showed that agricultural pesticides sold in pre-mixed “cocktails” can kill twice as many bees. Researchers say that commercial formulas that mix multiple chemicals should require their own licenses. Bees and other pollinating insects are crucial to the health of crops, natural habitats, and food security. This research was covered extensively by news outlets around the world, including the BBC, The Independent, and Vox.

New Technique Can Better Predict Response of Tumors to Cancer Therapy

Collaborative research from UT’s Dell Medical School and the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences has resulted in a new mathematical modeling technique that can accurately predict the response of tumors in breast cancer patients to treatments such as chemotherapy soon after treatment initiation. The new method stands in stark contrast to other, more popular trends in contemporary oncology research that favor a “big data” approach.

UT Historian Wins MacArthur “Genius Grant” for Research on the Texas-Mexico Border

Historian Monica Muñoz Martinez (College of Liberal Arts) was one of this year’s MacArthur fellows and the recipient of a “genius grant” for her work to recover untold histories of racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, as reported by NBC News and other outlets. Martinez’s research and public history bring long-obscured cases of racial violence to the forefront so communities can reckon with their past and work toward healing. She shared insights from her research with many outlets throughout the year, including CNN, Slate, and The Washington Post.

Also widely reported:

  • “‘Hiding In Plain Sight’ Corrects The Record On Lady Bird Johnson,” review of a new book by Julia Sweig (LBJ School of Public Affairs) – National Public Radio
  • “7 heritage sites with deep cultural and historical roots to Latinos are in need of preservation, group says,” a project by Manuel Galaviz (College of Liberal Arts) and colleagues at the Hispanic Access Foundation – CNN
  • “Americans are still spanking their kids. A new study shows how harmful that is,” reporting on a study by global spanking expert Liz Gershoff (College of Liberal Arts) – The Washington Post
  • “UT Austin researchers are creating a statewide system to track drug overdoses,” reporting on new public service research led by Kasey Claborn (Dell Medical School / Steve Hicks School of Social Work) – KUT
  • “Exercise Vigorously for 4 Seconds. Repeat. Your Muscles May Thank You,” reporting on metabolism research by Ed Coyle (College of Education) – The New York Times