Spotlight on Research

How four Baylor professors blend groundbreaking research with student engagement in ways that shape the future.

Integrating academic excellence with a distinctly Christian worldview, Baylor faculty are intellectual leaders in their fields who invite undergraduate and graduate students, industry leaders and other faculty members to collaborative research.

The work of Baylor faculty extends beyond the halls of academia; it is designed to help people and communities thrive. This is central to Baylor’s identity as a Christian research institution, promoting all aspects of the human being—intellectual, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual. Baylor researchers are at the forefront of scientific discoveries that have the potential to profoundly change lives.

Challenging Cancer

Dr. Kevin Pinney, professor of chemistry in the Baylor College of Arts and Sciences, is working to solve the mysteries of cancer, a task he says is “daunting” and “extremely exciting.” He is considered an expert on the discovery of small molecules and vascular disrupting agents that inhibit growth and replication of cancer cells.

“Cancer, unfortunately, is clever. It’s smart, and it’s a formidable enemy,” Pinney says. “My laboratory is interested in wiping out cancer cells and tumors. We’re interested in new therapeutic agents that go after cancer specifically and selectively.”

It is estimated that approximately 38.5 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes. More than 15 million Americans at this time are living beyond a cancer diagnosis, and that number is projected to eclipse 19 million by 2024. Cancer is expected to surpass heart disease in a few years as the nation’s leading cause of death. Pinney and other Baylor researchers hope to contribute to cancer treatment and prevention.

“If you look at many of the stories of new drugs that have been developed, their early roots came from university settings, from graduate and undergraduate students, post-docs, faculty members, working collaboratively, coming up with leads and having those developed,” Pinney says.

Students often bring fresh ideas and perspectives to faculty members. Pinney relies on students to take ownership of projects, drive them in new directions and enhance lines of thinking already underway. The learning process expands beyond a lecture format and takes shape as an intellectual puzzle, trying to figure out answers, seeking solutions and furthering lines of inquiry, with the goal of making a positive difference on a real-world problem. Baylor students are invited into the discovery process alongside their teachers and benefit from it in numerous ways. 

Each semester, Pinney involves seven to 10 graduate students, five to 10 undergraduate students, and one to three postdoctoral research associates in his studies.

“I like to think of research as the purest form of teaching,” Pinney says. “Research is certainly not done in a vacuum in any sense. It’s a hugely collaborative effort.”

Balancing Work and Life

Dr. Dawn Carlson, The H.R. Gibson Chair of Management Development in the Hankamer School of Business, helps individuals and organizations manage competing work and life demands. In her time at Baylor, Carlson has published more than 75 studies that further the understanding of how the worlds of family and work intertwine. This scholarship has established Carlson as an authority on dynamics many people balance daily. 

Carlson’s research centers around work-family balance. She helps organizations set policies and create cultures that are supportive and family friendly. 

“We know that people who are fulfilled personally make better contributions to the organizations,” she says. “Individuals, families and organizations are all quite complex systems requiring me to study them from many different perspectives. My work helps to find the workplace conditions under which humans can flourish.”

Carlson does this by researching the role of healthy conflict resolution, interplays between work enrichment and balance on productivity at work and engagement with family. She notes that while there are times when work and family are in conflict with each other, there are also times when lessons learned from parental and family dynamics make you a better manager or vice versa. 

“Individuals, families and organizations are all quite complex systems requiring me to study them from many different perspectives.”

 - Dr. Dawn Carlson

While studying cellphone habits among employees, she found that being tethered to work during family time creates a range of problems. Employees who feel tied to their mobile devices during family time may experience burnout or choose to leave a job more quickly. The behavior often causes relationship tension with their spouse and affects job performance and satisfaction.

Carlson’s research found that the impact of work-related activities during family time creates a resentment in the spouse toward the employee’s job that may be the greatest contributor to an employee’s desire to leave an organization.  

“The inability to separate work and family time due to the ubiquitous nature of mobile device use, comes at a cost, not only to you, but to your family and the organization you work for. Learning to set boundaries around work and family domains allows a person to fully engage in each domain,” she says. 

MBA students assist with her research, which leads to benefits for the community. Students select a community organization and then determine the company’s applications of its human capital by completing interviews, collecting survey data, and conducting a comparative analysis. The resulting feedback is designed to help the organization develop and employees thrive, assisting all to grow.

Proving Religion Benefits Society 

Dr. Byron Johnson, Baylor Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, pursues scientific studies on how religion impacts society and the global common good—to quantify the effects of religion on such areas as education, civic engagement and volunteerism.

Throughout his career, Johnson has found that religion is largely overlooked by the social sciences. He points to faith-based responses to disaster relief that are often viewed in the moments as “unbelievable,” yet the breadth and scope of such responses frequently remain undocumented. 

“We feel a responsibility, especially here at Baylor, to highlight that kind of work and to document it as well as we possibly can so people can understand the impact that faith can have for good,” he says.

Johnson’s studies look at societal issues of crime, delinquency and drug addiction, and the results have led him to believe religion is integral to developing solutions for these societal problems. Johnson and his team conducted surveys and in-depth interviews over a five-year period at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the nation’s largest maximum-security prison. 

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, is located on an 18,000-acre farm that used to be a slave plantation, tucked along the muddy banks of the Mississippi River in West Feliciana Parish about 40 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. The majority of the prison’s 6,000-plus current prisoners are serving life without parole.

“In the middle of the swamps of Louisiana, you now have correctional leaders and policymakers from around the U.S. and the world coming to find out what’s happening in this place.”

 - Dr. Byron Johnson

Angola was once considered the nation’s most violent and corrupt prison; however, a Bible college was planted in the prison in 1995. Since then, inmates have founded 29 different congregations—independent churches with complete church staffs, all led by inmates. No other prison in America is structured like this. 

Johnson’s study found that inmates who attend the Bible college and those who participate in these congregations are less likely to get in trouble and more likely to help other inmates. Suicide, violence and assaults have decreased since the introduction of organized religion at Angola. Inmate ministers are now being transferred to other prisons as missionaries. They have created a hospice unit and grief-counseling services as inmates lose family members on the outside. Many of the staff attend the churches led by the inmates, and their families are allowed to worship with them.

“In the middle of the swamps of Louisiana, you now have correctional leaders and policymakers from around the U.S. and the world coming to find out what’s happening in this place,” says Johnson, who has documented this in a book—The Angola Prison Seminary. “We’ve also written popular essays and opinion editorials because we want the news to be read by people other than academics.”

Johnson’s findings have been published in 10 articles so far with several more in development. Prisoners are now flourishing because researchers better understand the role of religion in society, and he says these findings are important beyond the walls of this particular prison.

“What we found in Angola is that faith and service matters,” Johnson says. “Isn’t it special, that at a place like Baylor faith and service matter, as well?”

Johnson involves undergraduate and graduate students in his work. From the opportunity to interview prison inmates to quantifying faith-based responses to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Johnson encourages students to participate on his team. 

“The mentoring piece is huge,” Johnson says. “I was the beneficiary of mentoring, and it changed my whole career. The opportunity to invest in other people like that can be life-changing.”

Combating Hearing Loss

Dr. Dwayne Simmons, The Cornelia Marschall Smith Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Biology, is a cellular and molecular mechanisms expert who came to Baylor in 2015. His research seeks to better understand the connections between the sensory system and the brain, sensory system responses when overloaded, and communication between the immune system and the brain.

“As a child, I was interested in the brain and how it perceived all of these amazing inputs coming into it,” Simmons says. “How do we see colors, how do we hear pitch, how much do our brains talk to our immune systems when we’re sick? My research is focused on how our sensory systems basically get connected together with our brains.”

One aspect of Simmons’ research looks at the wiring between a person’s brain and inner ear; another studies sensory overload and its impact on hearing. Research shows that around 25 percent of Americans ages 20 to 70 have significant hearing loss. He is researching the biological role of protein buffers that “mop up” excess calcium, sodium and potassium ions in our inner ears. 

“What’s fascinating about this hearing loss we’re experiencing right now, people are not aware of it,” Simmons says. “They’re not aware that they lack the ability to hear certain sounds. We propose this is because we have very noisy environments.”

The buffer proteins provide a level of protection against sensory overload. By engineering mice that do not have these proteins, Simmons has identified a marked sensitivity to noise and accelerated age-related hearing loss. His studies of calcium signaling regulation is producing research that extends beyond the laboratory.

Simmons invites students to participate in cutting-edge neuroscience research. He was mentored by a Christian research professor who allowed him to “engage science head on” and that set the course for what he wanted to do and be. 

“Research is fundamentally the best way to teach what science is all about.It becomes a great teaching opportunity and tool. It opens their minds. Instead of it being this closed state of facts, it becomes a world that’s open to curiosity and to questions.”

 - Dr. Dwayne Simmons

When teaching his first class of Baylor freshmen in spring 2017, he polled the group to determine how many had previously completed research. Only 10 students in a class of 30 raised their hands. He offered the freshmen an opportunity to help further his own research. Within hours, 15 students expressed a desire to be involved. 

“Research is fundamentally the best way to teach what science is all about,” Simmons says. “It becomes a great teaching opportunity and tool. It opens their minds. Instead of it being this closed state of facts, it becomes a world that’s open to curiosity and to questions.”

Global Impact

The four professors and many of their Baylor colleagues are fanning the flame of commitment for Baylor to become a leading research university. Growing Baylor’s scale and deepening the University’s impact on research capabilities means furthering Baylor’s mission: to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.

Mission-aligned research is one way to prepare tomorrow’s leaders. Baylor faculty whose research is changing the way the world understands complex problems and developing solutions that can improve the human condition provide a strong foundation to meet the mission. As Baylor continues to invest in contributions to scholarship, the desires to become a preeminent Christian research university and to impact the world for good intertwine. 

Medical breakthroughs are a needed source of Christian compassion and intellectual insight. Throughout history, many advances came from student and faculty collaborations at university campuses. For Pinney and his colleagues studying cancer, this drives their approach to research and their hope for progress against a malicious disease.

“Over the last 20 years, and even before that, Baylor has been building a solid foundation of research excellence in sciences and across the spectrum,” Pinney says. “The combination of the faculty, students, centers and collaborations, and our location here in Central Texas—I say look out for the future. We’re well-positioned.”


For Carlson, working for a Christian university allows her to bring a faith-based perspective to conversations with scholars, politicians and business leaders in her community. She is able to be herself, intellectually and spiritually, without apology. 

“By creating this unique environment, it brings us to the table,” Carlson says. “It brings a Christian perspective to the table of decision making, to the table of policy making, to the table of scholarship. We can have an impact on lots of people beyond the Baylor campus because we’re creating such outstanding scholarship here.”

Baylor has a distinctive opportunity to prove that faith impacts scholarship in a positive, quantifiable way. The University looks to deepen the impact of its scholarship and research over the coming years, an aspiration that excites Johnson.

“Everywhere I go, people say to me we’re pulling for Baylor because the tendency is to become secular, not to double down on the mission,” Johnson says. “People are looking far and wide, not just here in the U.S., but around the world to see if we can fulfill that vision.”