All research is valuable, but research at the University of Houston that informs policy translates to a qualitative improvement in the lives of Houstonians. For instance, Andrew Stearns, a graduate student, used millions of dollars’ worth of commercially collected LiDAR data to study the erosion and deposition of sediment caused by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. What he found was that sediment was stranded downstream on drainage banks, such as Buffalo Bayou Park near downtown Houston and in the Houston Ship Channel. His faculty advisor, Julia Wellner, Ph.D., associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and he decided to tread lightly.
Still, they opted to take the problem to policymakers. In the city of Houston, arguments rage about whether to continue modifying stream flow to move flooding and associated sediments out of neighborhoods. It sounds like a good plan, until the realization that the neighborhoods spared are the richest, and that the poorest will deal with the fallout from subsequent storms. And as if the human aspect was not enough, the budgetary issues that arise are also monumental.
“It’s hard to believe that a pile of sand can grow from a single grain to a volume that costs millions of dollars to dredge and remove. It takes a project like this to come in and observe these piles of sand on a citywide scale and say: yes, we are free to straighten or pave channels, but that pile of sand, that sediment, grows especially after large floods and we have to understand the budget implications down the road or, more often, downstream,” said Wellner.
Similarly, Sandra Guerra Thompson, J.D., professor of criminal law, translated her research into policy. Entrenched in scandal, errors made in the crime lab in Houston often resulted in the guilty going free and the innocent sitting in prison. “Bad science wreaks havoc,” said Guerra Thompson in her book, “Cops in Lab Coats.” Her research in wrongful convictions led to her appointment to the Board of Directors of Houston’s pioneering forensic laboratory, the Houston Forensic Science Center.
Since then, her writings have informed the discussion for crime labs to become independent entities rather than police organizations. She even testified before a Congressional committee to that end. Now, the Houston Forensic Science Center is a world leader in quality control. The change came too late for individuals like Houstonian George Rodriguez who was wrongfully convicted of rape and served 18 years. But going forward, the Houston Forensic Science Center will continue to advocate for good science and remain an independent public agency, serving as a model of integrity favoring neither law enforcement nor criminals, but rather blind justice.