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“A Stepping Out Into the World”: Author Wendy Paris on Writing, Relationships and her UH Experience

Posted on: April 8th, 2016


By Joelle Carson

There was a strong sense of UH pride when Wendy Paris (’89) visited the University of Houston Honors College to discuss her new book, “Splitopia,” last month. As Dr. Chris Brunt (‘06) introduced her to the group of students gathered to hear about her new book and creative life, he recalled how he signed up, almost arbitrarily, to receive a mentor when he was an incoming freshman at the Honors College. Paris, who was living in New York at the time, was his assigned mentor. The mentorship grew into a friendship, which strengthened through “epic” email exchanges, and blossomed over the years. It’s amazing to realize that it started via one chance UH sign-up sheet.

Paris included a piece of her more recent correspondence with Brunt within the book, which she read aloud. “Over the years, we wrote our way through some crises,” Brunt explained to the audience. Those “crises” include Paris’ divorce from her husband, with whom she has one son: the subtitle of “Splitopia” is “Dispatches from today’s good divorce, and how to part well.” She describes the non-fiction book as one-third memoir, one-third journalism, and one-third research. In addition to her extensive journalism experience — her work has been published the New York Times, Psychology Today and the Guardian, among many others — Paris also brings her own personal experience as a child to the process; in addition to her own divorce, she recalls her parents’ divorce when she was five years old.

But, as she explains in the book through her “Seven Principles of Parting,” divorce does not have to be a wholly destructive experience for families. “I realized that I didn’t have the same negative view of divorce as my friends and so many others did,” she said, explaining her inspiration for the book. “I realized that it has been a huge part of my life and personal history.” She notes that while there are books about the legal side of divorce and the psychological side of divorce, hers is currently the only one that covers both angles, in addition to her own personal experience and interviews with 200 people in positive, post-marriage relationships. Though the book is well-researched, her background as a personal essayist drives the tone and approach of it. “I wanted to give a voice to the feelings that readers may be embarrassed or feel too vulnerable to talk about themselves,” she said.

While earning her M.F.A. in non-fiction creative writing at Columbia University in New York, Paris honed her skills in not only deciding what to include in her writing, but also what to leave out. “Writing non-fiction is about finding patterns, meaning and metaphor,” she said. “You have to decide, what does the personal say about the universal?” The question of what to include and leave out from her personal experience was a central challenge to writing “Splitopia.” One student asked if the writing about her divorce was therapeutic for Paris. She replied that it intensified the experience, for good and bad. Writing it in the moment allowed her to capture the intense emotions about divorce; if someone asked her to write the book now, she wouldn’t be able to.

Attending UH and the Honors College gave her a firm foundation in inquisitive thinking. After touring UH as a high school student with her father, she moved across the country from Michigan to enroll, motivated by a sense of adventure and intellectual curiosity — not to mention warmer weather. After graduation, her first job was as an arts reporter at KUHF-FM, and her knowledge was immediately put into play. “I felt, in a way, as if I’d majored in Cocktail Party Conversation,” she said. “This was not explicitly a work skill, but it let me feel comfortable in very erudite or sophisticated settings. As a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with highly accomplished people in all sorts of fields. The education I got in the Honors College really carried me through, and shaped my view of the world and our place in it more broadly.”

Paris also received a full academic scholarship from the Honors College, which cemented her desire to attend. “The scholarship also made me feel like the Honors College had faith in me,” she said. “They extended themselves to me — their trust in me as a student and thinker — and that fact made me want to work harder and prove them right.” Recognizing how it benefited her, she has become a donor herself. “I don’t want students to have the weight of debt over them,” she said. “I am very aware of the money I got from the school, and how valuable the education was. Graduating without student debt made me incredibly grateful.”

Since finishing “Splitopia,” Paris is helping couples in another way: through divorce coaching, “which is a form of life coaching,” she explained. “Coaching can help people connect with and remember their personal strengths during a tough transition, and really be the best, most compassionate version of themselves.” More books may be in her future as well: “I think it would be great to write a book about co-parenting, and how to have a fabulous second marriage!” While she explores the changing American family, she continues to support her UH family. She recalled how she felt as a new UH student: “I had the idea that college should be a stepping out into the world.” Now, like Brunt, she continues to hold the door open for the next generation of Honors students.

Celebrating Student Success: The Paul and Barbara Frison Scholars

Posted on: March 22nd, 2016

Frison Scholars

“Thank you all for coming today,” Paul Frison addressed the long table at Eric’s Restaurant in the UH Hilton. “It means a great deal to us.” It is rare that a group of busy students and professionals, some not having been on campus since graduation, are all able to attend a midweek lunch at their alma mater. However, every Coog who has benefited from the Paul and Barbara Frison Scholarship over the years seized the opportunity to come to their UH home and visit with their benefactors, celebrating generosity, student success and the Cougar ties that bind.

“It is a thrill for us,” said Mrs. Frison. “It gives us pride that we are able to help out, especially since most of the students worked and went to school at the same time.” Their hard work has been rewarded, not only with the Frison scholarship, but in the professional world.

A luminary in technology-based business and founder of the Houston Technology Center, which serves as a business incubator and accelerator for entrepreneurs, Mr. Frison has been a board member at the University of Houston’s College of Technology since 2000. He brought up the idea of establishing a scholarship to Mrs. Frison, who is also his high school sweetheart, a few years after joining the board, and the couple agreed that helping young people finish their education was an essential part of their mission.

The first recipient, Gloriella Gonzalez (’06) has had a flourishing career at Chevron ever since graduation. “The Frisons not only provided me with the scholarship,” she recalled, “but also allowed me to intern for the Houston Technology Center.” She added that Mr. Frison recommended her as Marketing Chair for the Houston chapter of Women In Technology International (WITI), and she served in that capacity for several years after graduating.

Other recipients report similar experiences, citing that the scholarship led to connections for their first internships and jobs. Many were grateful to have graduated debt-free, and others stated that they would have had to take time off to earn money for tuition without the scholarship. The Frisons’ generosity has even inspired many of them to give back to UH in the future to help afford the same opportunities to other students.

Originally from California, Mr. and Mrs. Frison have made their home in Houston since 1975, although Mr. Frison’s career has taken them all over the country and the world. Mrs. Frison recalls keeping an overnight bag packed at all times in case there was a sudden opportunity to accompany him on a business trip. Some of their extraordinary adventures include Hollywood acting (Mr. Frison decided to give it up at age 14 to have a “real” childhood) and playing competitive tennis (that was Mrs. Frison). Now, they focus on spending time as much time as possible with their children and grandchildren — who can catch one of their grandfather’s classic movies on TV now and then.

The dedicated Coogs who gathered at Eric’s Restaurant have, in a way, also become a part of the Frison family. “I have pictures of the scholarship recipients in my house,” said Mrs. Frison, “and I feel good whenever I look at them.” As the Frisons’ generosity sets students on track for success in their technological careers, it also gives them the foundation for their own life adventures — the chatter around the table includes new hobbies, babies on the way, work promotions, marriages and travel plans. With new recipients every year, it won’t be long before the Frison scholars need to reserve a bigger lunch table.

Asking All the Right Questions: Emily Leproust (’01), Top Global Thinker

Posted on: March 7th, 2016

emily leproust

What if crops could self-fertilize? What if gene therapy could cure some of our deadliest diseases? What if data from our hard drives could be stored in DNA? These are some of the questions asked by Dr. Emily Leproust (’01), named one of Foreign Policy magazines Top 100 Global Thinkers and Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People of 2015. With her illustrious work and growing company, Dr. Leproust is one of the top female executives in the world. She is the CEO and founder of Twist Bioscience, a company that manufactures DNA more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Despite the complicated, and sometimes controversial, nature of her work, she maintains a humble attitude, claiming that it is while on walks with her dog at the beach, near her home in San Francisco, that she gets her inspiration.

Leproust specialized in DNA chemistry as a student at the University of Houston (UH); now, she is a loyal donor who helps students to study at UH with their own chemistry fellowships. During her time at UH, under the professorship of Dr. Xiaolian Gao, she helped to create microarray technology that enabled thousands of small oligos (short pieces of DNA) to be synthesized in parallel. This was eventually patented. Born in France, her major epiphany while at UH was, “I’m not going back to France — I’m staying here!” The reason? She discovered just how receptive America was to the idea of one starting a company, as long as one worked hard enough. It was a spark she already had, as her parents had started their very own company when she was young. It seemed like the natural thing to do once she identified the need for DNA to be created more quickly and at a lesser cost than it was being manufactured. Soon, Twist Bioscience was born, and began manufacturing synthetic DNA using silicon instead of plastic.

Twist Bioscience has four major types of customers. The first group is made up of academics who need DNA to conduct research; the second group are medical researchers who use DNA at the beginning of experiments and use it to develop vaccines and drugs; the third group are those who make industrial chemicals; and the fourth are agricultural biologists who need DNA to increase crop yield.

The most important contributions to society that Twist Bioscience makes, in Leproust’s estimation, are threefold. First, she maintains that products, like plastics, can be manufactured in a sustainable way — without using oil — since her company’s customers use a yeast fermentation process which pulls carbon from the air. The second contribution is that Twist Bioscience contributes to human health through the development of new gene therapies that will cure many diseases. Thirdly, since these years are the golden era of biology by many scientists’ standards, Twist Bioscience is adding to the economic growth of the country. Genes are big business and as outlined earlier, there are many different uses and customers for this type of material.

So where does Leproust see her company in ten years? “I foresee a future where data is stored in DNA, as one of the market applications of our DNA synthesis.” Since data is a series of numbers, 0s and 1s, they can be sequenced in such a way that a building block of DNA corresponds with each number. That way, you would never have to be worried about your hard drive crashing. DNA stored data would always be accessible and could never be lost. “I also expect that we will integrate vertically within multiple market segments including industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and antibodies, among others.” she says. Leproust counts herself lucky to be able to make the world a better place. “DNA has a great potential to have a positive impact on humanity,” she says. She also believes in giving back, and has contributed to chemistry fellowship graduate students in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UH. “You help your family,” she explains graciously. “I received a fellowship while at UH and I want to encourage others to be their best.”

Her advice for current UH students is: “Try to be your best every day. Strive to be the best at whatever it is you do.” Leproust certainly takes this sentiment to heart as she attempts to better the living conditions of the planet with her work in synthetic DNA.

To keep up with the exciting work of Dr. Leproust and Twist Bioscience, please feel free to follow them at @emilyleproust or @twistbioscience. Or you can visit

Dean Earl Smith and Dr. Glenn Ellisor Named Among OM’s Most Influential Optometrists in the Country

Posted on: January 11th, 2016

By Sarah F. Hill

Dean Earl Smith

Dean Earl Smith

The University of Houston College of Optometry’s (UHCO) dean, Earl Smith, O.D., Ph.D., F.A.A.O. (’72, O.D. ’72), is no stranger to honors and accolades. In 2010, he won the most prestigious award the American Academy of Optometry bestows — the Charles F. Prentice Medal. This past year, Dean Smith received a congratulatory email from one of his friends letting him know that he had also been named one of the forty-five most influential optometrists in the country by Optometric Management magazine. This recognition came from Optometric Management’s 50th anniversary celebration. The magazine, known as the leading practice management resource for optometry, also listed UH alumnus Glenn Ellisor (’82, O.D. ’84), the founder of Vision Source, as one of the most influential personalities in the field of eye care. Brien Holden, Ph.D. — an influential donor to the UHCO who named two large, state-of-the-art classrooms on the second floor within the Molly and Doug Barnes Vision Institute — was also recognized. Sadly, Holden passed away before the list was published.

Optometric Management’s methodology for compiling the list consisted of contacting key opinion leaders (KOLs) and asking for nominations for eye care professionals who “have contributed, are contributing or are likely to contribute to the betterment and/or advancement of eye care.” With more than 400 nominations, narrowing down the list to a mere 45 was no easy feat — and a minimum of three nominations were needed in order to appear on the list.

It is interesting to note that the UHCO has one of the highest “capture” rates in the UH System, with more than 75 percent of those receiving letters of acceptance deciding to attend UH. This can be attributed, in part, to the exceptional leadership of Dean Smith. When asked how he felt about receiving the OM nomination, Smith recounted: “Of course it is a great honor to be among this diverse group of eye care professionals. It’s also very good to see that OM recognizes contributions from all parts of the profession — many academics were named to the list, in addition to those in private practice.”

Dean Smith currently holds the Greeman-Petty Professorship in Vision Development, in addition to acting as the dean of the UHCO. He has spent his career focusing on how peripheral vision plays a part in central refractive development of the eye. This research has contributed to strategies that have slowed myopia, or nearsightedness, progression in children. At the Brien Holden Lecture Series in 2010, Smith discussed his experiments that included peripheral vision as well as central-based vision techniques to combat myopia.

dr glenn ellisor

Dr. Glenn Ellisor

Glenn Ellisor founded Vision Source in 1991 to encourage independent private practices to compete and thrive. Today, Vision Source cites 3,200 locations and nearly 4,000 optometrists. His model has inspired other independent optometrists to form alliances and strengthen their forces, as well. Vision Source has achieved the second highest ranking in Vision Monday’s exclusive listing of the Top 50 U.S Optical Retailers, published in May, 2015. The Vision Monday annual report highlights the industry’s leading organizations, and Vision Source appeared for the second year in a row on this list with a collective $2.21 billion in members’ revenues spanning its more than 3,000 locations in the 2014 calendar year. In addition, Dr. Ellisor has served on numerous advisory panels, industry and charity boards. Currently, he serves as Executive Chairman on the Vision Source and Smile Source boards, is a member of Global Optometry Giving Sight and Sight Ministries International boards, and a member of the optometric advisory board for United Healthcare.

Dean Smith and Dr. Ellisor have much more in common than just the illustrious award they were given this past year. For instance, they both work with their family members. Dean Smith’s wife, Dr. Janice Wensveen, is also a professor in the UHCO. Dean Smith says it is “fantastic” to work with his spouse, and that they often get to travel to conferences together and speak the same “language” since their research often coincides. Dr. Ellisor recently “hooded” his son, Wade (O.D.’15), at his UH graduation ceremony May. Now he works alongside his son and says it’s amazing to see how much Wade cares for his patients. His youngest daughter is a second year optometry student and his eldest daughter works in health care, as well. Vision Source essentially began as a family empire that Ellisor founded in 1991, with his wife helping with various aspects of both the Vison Source network, as well as the practice. The similarities between the two men don’t stop there: Dean Smith and Dr. Ellisor also give back to their alma mater. Both are substantial donors who, in their free time, love to scuba dive.

Despite advances in optometric research, there is still plenty of work to be done. Dean Smith says that between 1970 and the year 2000, myopic disorders in Americans increased by 60 percent. We are well on our way to being in contest with East Asia, where 90 percent of high schoolers identify as nearsighted. Trials are being conducted currently in Australia and China with lenses that Dean Smith has developed and he has hopes that this trend of worsening eyesight in the U.S. will not continue. Interestingly, one of the things we can do to slow the myopia in children is have them be outside in nature. “Not being outdoors enough is contributing to poor eyesight in children,” said Dean Smith. He urges parents to get those young people outside more often!

As far as helping the younger generation, Ellisor has some advice for UHCO students, who work a rigorous schedule to become doctors of optometry: “Keep your head down and work hard. I promise it’s worth it. You will be the best trained optometrists once you’ve graduated.” Both Dr. Ellisor’s and Dean Smith’s careers in optometry are evidence of that fact.

Highlight Houston

Posted on: December 4th, 2015


Cougar pride is sweeping the nation during our Highlight Houston events! Check out our Highlight Houston blog for event details and profiles of attendees. We just posted Christine Argao-Voutsinas (’05), who manages events at one of NYC’s premier restaurants, and Steve Harris (’79), who was so inspired by President Khator’s message at our Dallas event, he became a Life Member almost immediately afterward.

The Lunar Cougar

Posted on: November 2nd, 2015

Introducing the Lunar Cougar

Cougars are making moves — read all about it in the Lunar Cougar, a new alumni blog that will be updated every Friday! To celebrate the launch, we’ve posted two alumni profiles and one story round-up, featuring J.L. Clark (’02), psychiatrist and YA author, and Woody Witt (’92, D.M.A. ’00), award-winning saxophonist and UH professor. More information about the Lunar Cougar’s mission can be found here.

Tommy Lott (’59): A “Helping Hand” for UH Students

Posted on: October 8th, 2015

Tommy Lott

Giving back to his alma mater of the University of Houston (UH) is important to Tommy Lott (’59) — and for good reason. He was the first of his family to attend college and he used his degree from Bauer to become a well-respected business leader. “A great deal of people helped me do what I’m doing today. I was given a lot of opportunities,” he says. “I didn’t do anything without help and now I’m trying to give back.”

Lott and his family left East Texas when he was a junior in high school. He arrived in the diverse, intimidating town of Houston, a self-proclaimed “country boy.” He enrolled at the University of Houston, paying his way through what was then a “commuter school” by working at a grocery store. He immediately found kinship as a part of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), a fraternity on campus. “The fraternity life was a tremendous asset to people like me, who were living off campus,” he says, “It introduced me to friends I still have today.” And he remembers coming from a small town to the city as an “enlightening” experience — “I met and went on to develop meaningful relationships with people from all over the country,” he remembers.

Lott graduated from UH and married his wife, June, three years later. He has worked in a variety of different positions throughout his life; during his newlywed years, he was working for a manufacturer. He was able to create a network of business mentors and partners — they gave him a “hand up” by guiding his decisions until he eventually founded his own food brokerage company with the help of a retail broker who he had worked for back during college. The company, Lott Marketing Company, opened seven offices across three states. When the industry consolidated in 2012, he sold, but he remains on retainer as a consultant to this day.

In light of his successful career, he has a key piece of advice for students at UH studying business: “Expose yourself to some sort of business during college.” In other words, real world experience is extremely beneficial to starting one’s career. “Even if you don’t have to work to put yourself through school, find a way to intern or volunteer so that you gain some type of business experience and begin to develop your network of relationships which can be every bit as important in your career as your degree,” he says.

Lott comes back to campus about once a month for a Cougar Lunch with his old buddies from UH, and he has a football suite with one of his fraternity brothers. He’s not sorry to admit that he believes that the better we are in Athletics, the more people come to appreciate a coach like Coach Herman, and the better UH’s national presence will be. It’s already gaining momentum: “I’m proud of our President’s vision,” he states.

That vision is what inspires him to give back — and he does so in a multitude of ways. The reason is simple: people once helped him. Lott contributes to Athletics, to the Pathways to Success Scholarship and to the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. “I want to help train the next generation of food service professionals,” he says. He also gives to Bauer, the Annual Fund and his TKE fraternity. Having a tie to the campus at the University inspires his giving. “Come back and take tours!” he encourages other alumni. He believes that there is no better way to stay connected to what is going on at the University and to want to support such an energetic expansion.

Aside from his penchant for investments and developing apartment complexes, Lott sits on the board of directors of the Community Bank, Enviro Water Minerals Company (EWM) and the Hermann Park Conservancy. He is proud of the work the Conservancy has done to improve the environment at Hermann Park. He loves the city of Houston and says it is a “well-balanced” place, with oil, real estate and the medical sectors all booming. He also enjoys golf, traveling and spending time with his two children, Ron Lott and Sandra Lewis, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He may be busy, but has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Conference calls, emails and meetings keep every day an exciting new adventure — just like the one he started many years ago, as a fresh-from-the-country, eager student at UH.

-Sarah F. Hill

Natalie Powell (M.S.W. ’14): Presidential Management Fellow and Social Justice Champion

Posted on: September 8th, 2015

natalie powell

by Sarah F. Hill

Applying for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) Program is not for the faint of heart. The first requirement is a graduate degree. Then, one takes a personality test with a writing portion that requires the applicant to complete multiple essays. It goes on to include hours of in-person interviews and, eventually, the number of applicants is whittled down from 7800 to 600. This past year, one of those 600 was Natalie Powell (M.S.W. ’14). Only then was she able to apply for a job as an analyst, making policy and budgetary recommendations for the federal executive branch of the U.S. government. For Powell, that included another exhaustive online application process followed by several interviews, some on the phone and some via Skype. She was finally awarded a two-year fellowship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington D.C. This program fast-tracks young professionals and allows them to work, not at the entry level, but as advanced degree-holding experts in their respective fields.

It is uncommon for the PMF program to accept social workers, yet so important. “The federal government is acknowledging that social workers have a unique perspective and are apt to understand how policies impact real people, every day,” says Powell. The rich experience she garnered at the UH Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) made her a perfect candidate for this challenging work in a specialty known as macro social work. Macro social workers focus on changing larger systems and deal in a variety of areas, such as policy, administration, and community organizing, instead of working in clinical settings. “I knew coming into the GCSW what I wanted to do (macro social work) and UH gave me the skills to achieve my goals.”

During her first year in the M.S.W. program Dr. Suzanne Pritzker helped Powell attain an internship with the Texas House of Representatives. This internship gave her the skills necessary to advocate for real policy changes. At the GCSW, Powell’s projects and research centered on immigration reform and advocacy for undocumented families. Her passion for this issue stems from her family who immigrated from Guatemala and El Salvador seeking to provide a better future for her family. “This issue is very personal to me,” Natalie admits.

powell texas house rep

You may have read one of Powell’s op-ed pieces on immigration, either for the Houston Chronicle or The Hill, out of Washington, D. C. Both were written during her tenure at the GCSW. When not advocating for those less fortunate, she is literally helping out at the ground-level, volunteering at shelters and hearing immigrants’ stories. “Families from Central America come to the U.S. with nothing – but they have no other choice. The other choice is certain death from violence,” she explains. And around campus, she found a way to give back, as well – by working for the Center for Student Involvement. “The most important thing I learned during my time at UH is that one individual can make a difference and my dedication to social justice wasn’t a distant dream, but an achievable goal,” says Powell. “This theme was present in every course and internship provided to me. Each small triumph towards this goal was celebrated and recognized.”

While her career is on an upward trajectory, this “triumph” she feels is sometimes overshadowed by the needs and the vulnerability of populations in U.S. cities and throughout the world. “Globally and in the U.S., access to basic rights are withheld daily. As a social worker, I see the struggle to uphold and equally provide these rights as the most important issue in our society. In my work I’ve witnessed the violation of these rights in many forms, including human trafficking, homelessness, and lack of access to drinking water, affordable healthcare and a fundamental education. I’ve also witnessed a broken immigration and justice system,” she explains. “I believe if each person takes a small step towards establishing these rights we can make a big difference. What you do matters.”

With the same intensity she approaches her important social justice work, Powell enjoys the outdoors. Powell moved to Alaska after her husband, who is also a PMF, received an appointment in 2014. She loved hiking Mt. Alyeska and being out and about in nature. She also enjoys all matter of creative endeavors, such as drawing and painting. She is now on her way to Washington, D.C. for the next chapter in her busy life. That’s not to say she doesn’t miss some aspects of Houston. She called Humble home for the majority of her life, and, after joking that she misses the food in Houston most of all, she says of the city: “It’s such a dynamic place. People in Houston come together as a community and support each other.”

Measuring the Results

Posted on: August 10th, 2015

Dr. Nathan Fowler

By Joelle Jameson

In his position as director of the largest lymphoma clinical research program in the world, located at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Dr. Nathan Fowler (’96) sees patients who have traveled from all over the world. “Half my job is connecting with a patient,” he says. “When you’re convincing them to try a certain therapy or to change their lifestyle, you have to be able to connect with them on a personal level.” When considering how he does this, Fowler recalls not only his scientific education as an undergraduate at UH, but the art, sociology and language courses that he still remembers. “Broadening your experience and background will allow you to connect with people in that way.”

As for the other half of his time at work: “We’re at the forefront of developing non-chemotherapy based approaches to treat lymphoma by harnessing the power of a patient’s immune system to target and destroy cancer cells. It’s a whole different way of thinking about treating cancer.” More literally, it involves researching and developing new cancer drugs, traveling to lecture about that research at Universities from Houston to Melbourne to Tokyo, and teaching students at M.D. Anderson, whether in the classroom or as they shadow him on his rounds. It’s the promise of those life-saving discoveries that captures Fowler’s enthusiasm and passion. “We’ve made spectacular advances in the past few years, and are really changing the way people think about treating lymphoma,” he says. “I’m lucky to be in a position at the cutting edge of what’s being developed for cancer therapy — I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about it.”

Many of the next generation of treatments are particularly exciting because patients remain cancer-free for much longer, with minimal side effects — a huge benefit over the chemotherapy normally used. “By combining immune-based therapies and antibodies targeting cancer cells, we have been able to eradicate lymphoma using a patient’s own immune system. My ultimate dream is to get rid of chemotherapy and cure lymphoma, and I believe we’re getting closer and closer to that goal,” Fowler explains. “That’s something we never could have imagined five years ago.” The immunological treatment he developed involves employing an antibody to flag the cancer cells, then bolstering the immune system cells to find and destroy the cancer. “We used this combination for the first time ever with slow-growing lymphomas, and we saw 98 percent of patients responding,” he says. “It’s very, very exciting.” Despite high success rates, the process for trials for FDA-approval is extremely long. Fowler recently led the first International study to compare this approach to chemotherapy and hopes to have preliminary results in the next two years. “If positive, this study will lead to a paradigm shift in the way we treat many lymphomas worldwide”

Fowler is also the president and co-founder of Halo House, a non-profit that provides affordable housing to blood cancer patients as they receive treatment. That inspiration struck in his second year at M.D. Anderson, when he worked with a patient about his age from Florida who was married and had a daughter. “Surprisingly, one of the things that he thought about most was the potential of leaving his family without any money, regardless of how the cancer turned out,” Fowler recalls. “He worried that he would be leaving them not only without a father, but without most of their savings.” The source of the drain, despite having a full-time job and health insurance, was traveling from Florida every other week for treatments for two years — a typical scenario for most patients. “I found that unacceptable. It’s ridiculous that folks either don’t come here or end up losing everything they have just based on travel and lodging.” In response, he and about six others decided to start leasing out apartments to blood cancer patients for $20 per night. The project grew from six to 60 volunteers, apartments continued to be added, and now Halo House is conducting a capital campaign to build a 22-unit building near the M.D. Anderson campus. “I never would have dreamed it would take off the way it has, but everyone we’ve approached has been so enthusiastic about helping us out, from local businesses to architects to nurses and patient advocacy groups,” he says, adding that they’ve provided over 9,000 days of housing for hundreds of families, and the wait list is usually two to three months. “We have been able to accomplish so much by simply pointing out a need, and asking the community for help — it really is the definition of ‘grassroots.’”

Between keeping busy with his research, seeing patients, traveling and heading up Halo House, Fowler is happy to be home in Houston. He moved here during high school from Youngstown, Ohio, and joined the army after graduation, studying nuclear biological chemical defense. “My job was to defend the unit against chemical and biological attacks,” he explains. “So, gas masks, protective chemical suits, decontamination: that’s when I first had the idea that medicine was something I could do.” He graduated as valedictorian of his class, which is understandable for someone who would “rather read about biology instead of watch TV.” He’d heard great things about UH, and applied while he was still in the service. Fowler developed an interest in cancer treatment at the University of Texas Medical branch in Galveston, Texas — which is where he met his wife, an occupational therapist — and during a fellowship at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., began working with a doctor who was researching lymphoma. When a position in lymphoma research became available at M.D. Anderson in 2007, he jumped at the chance to apply and move back to what he considers his hometown. “I still have family in Houston and keep in touch with lots of my UH classmates,” he says. “And it doesn’t hurt that the world’s largest research hospital for cancer is here.”

The Fowlers now have three children, ages seven, three and one, and recently paid a visit to the UH main campus — “They liked the fountains,” he says with a smile — which has changed significantly since Fowler’s time as an undergraduate. “I really enjoyed the campus experience, especially after being in the army,” he says, naming football games and Frontier Fiesta as stand-out memories. As for classes: “My experience with the basic sciences was first rate and prepared me very well for medical school,” he says. “I felt that in my first few years, I was well-equipped to handle the classes, often better than students who’d gone to other colleges. But UH also allowed me to get a really broad experience, and I really enjoyed a lot of the arts and history classes I took.” Fowler worked 34 hours per week as a server at Pappasito’s Cantina to pay for the part of his education that the army didn’t cover, and also volunteered to teach officers Spanish at the Houston Police Department. Even now, he speaks with Spanish-speaking patients without an interpreter, thanks to his Spanish minor. “Your undergraduate years are one of the few times in your life you can and take diverse classes and participate in activities that will broaden your outlook,” he says. “I would advise students to take advantage of the opportunities at UH. Try different things, because they will benefit you in the long term.”

Another piece of advice for students? “Don’t give up — that’s the most important thing,” he says. Not only does that mantra hold fast in clinical trials, but it plays into his first year at UH. “I had just come out of the army, and my study habits were not good,” he recalls. “I had a low GPA my first year, so the pre-med counselor suggested I try a different field.” That realization would be discouraging for any student, but Fowler took it as a call to action. “It motivated me; I was determined to prove I could do it. I taught myself how to study better, and I’d worked up to a 4.0 by my senior year.” In light of that experience, he advises students to pay close attention to their G.P.A.s . “Focus on subjects that you’ll do well at. It’s more important to show that you can focus on a task and complete that task successfully than take some upper level chemistry class and get a C.” That concentration ties into the home-printed statement taped to his office wall, which he says he saw in a hardware store: “We are measured by our results, not activity.” That laser-focused motivation is evident in Fowler’s work, with patients and in the classroom: accuracy, patience and working toward a concrete goal can lead to amazing results.

From the Army to the Classroom, One Cougar Alumnus Serves His Community

Posted on: July 6th, 2015

By Jeff Sutton

Kirk Chargois

Kirk Chargois (‘03) has always been one to chase, and achieve, his goals. Those goals have led him to join the United States Army, to earn multiple college degrees, practice law and teach middle school in the neighborhood where he grew up. Through all of that, a desire to serve has been a constant.

When Chargois was 18, he made the decision to join the army. “I was sick and tired of school and I didn’t feel like I was ready for college,” he said. “I just didn’t feel prepared. My goal was to jump out of airplanes, so I went airborne.” He spent four years as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.

After his time in the army, he returned to his hometown ready for school and he enrolled at the University of Houston. During the ensuing 12 years his education at UH would start and stop multiple times while a member of the US Army Active Reserve, working for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, getting married and welcoming two children to his family.

After earning his bachelor of arts in History in 2003, it was time to take on the next goal: becoming a lawyer. He resigned from the Sheriff’s department and devoted himself full-time to earning his J.D. from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. He recalled, “I clocked in and I worked all day studying. Friday afternoons were family time, Saturday morning I was right back at it.”

His hard work and dedication paid off when he took the Texas Bar Exam in February while still in school. He received word a few days prior to his commencement ceremony that he would graduate a licensed, practicing attorney. Chargois mused, “I graduated on a Saturday and on Monday I started working. I haven’t taken a vacation since.”

After seven years as a licensed lawyer, Chargois was ready for his next challenge. “I always wanted to teach,” he said. “I went to Teach for America because that was the fastest avenue I could get to a school I would want to work in.” With the knowledge that he wanted to work in an urban school, he jumped at the opportunity to return to the Sunnyside neighborhood where he grew up, accepting a position at Woodson Middle School teaching eighth graders.

Aside from crediting a family history of service, Chargois added, “I have a big heart for kids. I love teaching. It satisfies something in me that’s always been there, to make a difference in kids’ lives. I feel pride when some of the kids who people would have normally cast aside see potential in themselves. If I can be a part of that, and I see that I am for some already, that’s my real motivation.”

Chargois cited a 2013 study that ranked Sunnyside, where he spent his youth, the sixth most dangerous neighborhood in the nation. He sees a neighborhood that mostly resembles the one he remembers, albeit with some real differences. “It’s still quiet, during the daytime. At nighttime, it’s a different story.” He uses that familiarity to relate to the students he teaches, giving him the ability to say “Look, everything you have to say as far as excuses, I’m not going to listen. I grew up two blocks from Worthing High School, and I saw the same things you see.”

He notices how students react to their experiences, explaining that “they really appreciate doing things, anything. Field trips? They are totally engrossed in a field trip, because they haven’t been exposed to a lot. They appreciate when you show true involvement, and they reciprocate.”


When talking with Chargois, it’s clear his time at UH played a strong role in how he approaches teaching. He spoke fondly of the impact his professors had on him, adding, “I had great professors. I really enjoyed my experience at UH because I saw professors like Dr. Philip Howard and Dr. Sarah Fishman who were there to challenge students and not just be there for the sake of it. Once a professor or teacher sees your interest in learning, they’ll make the effort to push you and help you. I had that experience at UH.”

While spending the last two years teaching, he has also maintained the law practice he built. He has continued doing transactional work, including estate planning, probate, business transactions and contracts while teaching full time, saying, “I don’t sleep a lot.”

With plans to take on teaching beyond the two-year term with Teach for America, Chargois wants to remain involved with AmeriCorps even after he finishes teaching. Whatever this dedicated Cougar decides to add to a list that includes army veteran, peace officer, student, lawyer, teacher, and father, it’s sure to involve being of service to his community.