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Richard Willson, PhD

Full Affiliate Member, Research Institute
Houston Methodist


After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Willson joined the University of Houston as an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering in 1988. He became Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in 1993 and by 2003 he was full professor of both Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry. He is on the editorial board of several peer-reviewed journals and continuously mentors and trains undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. Prof. Willson has been co-founder of three companies based on technology developed in academic institutions, and has 15 patents licensed to industry. He was awarded the prestigious van Lanen Award in 2001 by the American Chemical Society and is currently the president of the International Society for Molecular Recognition. He is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and in 2005 he received the Senior Faculty Research Excellence Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Houston.

Description of Research

Richard Willson´s laboratory works on biomolecular recognition, and its applications in separations and molecular diagnostics. Professor Willson is interested in the structural determinants of molecular recognition in complexes of proteins with recognition agents such as monoclonal antibodies and aptamers. The primary techniques used in the laboratory are expression, mutagenesis, fluorescence anisotropy (kinetics), and titration calorimetry. Topics of current interest include the recognition of hen egg lysozyme by a ´homologous series´ of antibodies differing in combining site rigidity and cross-reactivity (with S. Smith-Gill of NIH), and the biophysical chemistry of aptamer/protein recognition (with A. Ellington of UT-Austin).

A second main focus of the lab is the formulation of novel molecular diagnostics and sensors. Professor Willson´s group, in collaboration with UH´s George E. Fox (co-discoverer of the Archaea), is funded by NASA´s National Space Biomedical Research Institute. The project centers on the development of molecular labels and computationally-derived probes for organisms of interest to crew health in long-duration space flight. The Fox lab identifies signature sequences associated with different regions of the phylogenetic tree, and an array of probes is developed that would allow approximate classification of nearly any organism independent of prior identification. Other applications of the technology include terrestrial infectious disease diagnosis and biodefense.

Professor Willson´s group is also collaborating with Dr. Paul Ruchhoeft in the UH Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering to design 1- micron retroreflectors to enable the ultra-sensitive detection of a label bound to a target or reporter molecule to detect an analyte or other binding event. These 1-micron cubic retroreflectors will be used as labels in 1-step assays based on self-assembly. For a complete summary of current research projects in the Willson lab, please see the Willson home page at the University of Houston

Areas Of Expertise

Molecular diagnostics Molecular labels Affinity separation Sensors
Education & Training

, California Institute of Technology
, International Society for Molecular Recognition (Program of 2005 and 2007 meetings)
, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
, NIH Western Regional Center of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases

Enzymatic conversion of magnetic nanoparticles to a non-magnetic precipitate: A new approach to magnetic sensing
Kolhatkar, AG, Jamison, AC, Nekrashevich, I, Kourentzi, K, Litvinov, D, Brazdeikis, A, Willson, RC & Randall Lee, T 2016, Analyst, vol 141, no. 18, pp. 5246-5251. DOI:

Nanofluid of graphene-based amphiphilic Janus nanosheets for tertiary or enhanced oil recovery: High performance at low concentration
Luo, D, Wang, F, Zhu, J, Cao, F, Liu, Y, Li, X, Willson, RC, Yang, Z, Chu, CW & Ren, Z 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol 113, no. 28, pp. 7711-7716. DOI:

Flotation Immunoassay: Masking the Signal from Free Reporters in Sandwich Immunoassays
Chen, H, Hagström, AEV, Kim, J, Garvey, G, Paterson, A, Ruiz-Ruiz, F, Raja, B, Strych, U, Rito-Palomares, M, Kourentzi, K, Conrad, JC, Atmar, RL & Willson, RC 2016, Scientific Reports, vol 6, 24297. DOI:

PH-dependence of single-protein adsorption and diffusion at a liquid chromatographic interface
Kisley, L, Poongavanam, MV, Kourentzi, K, Willson, RC & Landes, CF 2016, Journal of Separation Science, vol 39, no. 4, pp. 682-688. DOI:

Elimination of contaminants from cell preparations using aqueous two-phase partitioning
González-González, M, Willson, RC & Rito-Palomares, M 2016, Separation and Purification Technology, vol 158, pp. 103-107. DOI:

Ensemble and single-molecule biophysical characterization of D17.4 DNA aptamer-IgE interactions
Poongavanam, MV, Kisley, L, Kourentzi, K, Landes, CF & Willson, RC 2016, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta - Proteins and Proteomics, vol 1864, no. 1, pp. 153-163.

An embedded microretroreflector-based microfluidic immunoassay platform
Raja, B, Pascente, C, Knoop, J, Shakarisaz, D, Sherlock, T, Kemper, S, Kourentzi, K, Renzi, RF, Hatch, AV, Olano, J, Peng, BH, Ruchhoeft, P & Willson, R 2016, Lab on a Chip - Miniaturisation for Chemistry and Biology, vol 16, no. 9, pp. 1625-1635. DOI:

Ensemble and single-molecule biophysical characterization of D17.4 DNA aptamer-IgE interactions
Poongavanam, MV, Kisley, L, Kourentzi, K, Landes, CF & Willson, RC 2016, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta - General Subjects, vol 1864, no. 1, pp. 154-164. DOI:

Aptamer-Phage Reporters for Ultrasensitive Lateral Flow Assays
Adhikari, M, Strych, U, Kim, J, Goux, H, Dhamane, S, Poongavanam, MV, Hagström, AEV, Kourentzi, K, Conrad, JC & Willson, RC 2015, Analytical Chemistry, vol 87, no. 23, pp. 11660-11665. DOI:

Sensitive detection of norovirus using phage nanoparticle reporters in lateral-flow assay
Hagström, AEV, Garvey, G, Paterson, AS, Dhamane, S, Adhikari, M, Estes, MK, Strych, U, Kourentzi, K, Atmar, RL & Willson, RC 2015, PLoS ONE, vol 10, no. 5, 0126571. DOI:

Enzymatic synthesis of magnetic nanoparticles
Kolhatkar, AG, Dannongoda, C, Kourentzi, K, Jamison, AC, Nekrashevich, I, Kar, A, Cacao, E, Strych, U, Rusakova, I, Martirosyan, KS, Litvinov, D, Lee, TR & Willson, RC 2015, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol 16, no. 4, pp. 7535-7550. DOI:

Detection of viruses by counting single fluorescent genetically biotinylated reporter immunophage using a lateral flow assay
Kim, J, Adhikari, M, Dhamane, S, Hagström, AEV, Kourentzi, K, Strych, U, Willson, RC & Conrad, JC 2015, ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, vol 7, no. 4, pp. 2891-2898. DOI:

Label-free monitoring of individual DNA hybridization using SERS
Qi, J, Zeng, J, Zhao, F, Santos, GM, Lin, SH, Raja, B, Strych, U, Willson, RC & Shih, WC 2015, . in Progress in Biomedical Optics and Imaging - Proceedings of SPIE. vol. 9337, 93370D, SPIE, Nanoscale Imaging, Sensing, and Actuation for Biomedical Applications XII, San Francisco, United States, 9-12 February. DOI:

Transmissive nanohole arrays for massively-parallel optical biosensing
Wang, Y, Kar, A, Paterson, A, Kourentzi, K, Le, H, Ruchhoeft, P, Willson, R & Bao, J 2015, ACS Photonics, vol 1, no. 3, pp. 241-245. DOI:

Persistent luminescence strontium aluminate nanoparticles as reporters in lateral flow assays
Paterson, AS, Raja, B, Garvey, G, Kolhatkar, A, Hagstrom, AEV, Kourentzi, K, Lee, TR & Willson, RC 2014, Analytical Chemistry, vol 86, no. 19, pp. 9481-9488. DOI:

The presence of nitrate dramatically changed the predominant microbial community in perchlorate degrading cultures under saline conditions
Stepanov, VG, Xiao, Y, Tran, Q, Rojas, M, Willson, RC, Fofanov, Y, Fox, GE & Roberts, DJ 2014, BMC Microbiology, vol 14, no. 1, 225. DOI:

Microretroreflector-sedimentation immunoassays for pathogen detection
Garvey, G, Shakarisaz, D, Ruiz-Rui, F, Hagström, AEV, Raja, B, Pascente, C, Kar, A, Kourentzi, K, Rito-Palomares, M, Ruchhoeft, P & Willson, RC 2014, Analytical Chemistry, vol 86, no. 18, pp. 9029-9035. DOI:

Label-free, in situ SERS monitoring of individual DNA hybridization in microfluidics
Qi, J, Zeng, J, Zhao, F, Lin, SH, Raja, B, Strych, U, Willson, RC & Shih, WC 2014, Nanoscale, vol 6, no. 15, pp. 8521-8526. DOI:

Monolithic NPG nanoparticles with large surface area, tunable plasmonics, and high-density internal hot-spots
Zhao, F, Zeng, J, Parvez Arnob, MM, Sun, P, Qi, J, Motwani, P, Gheewala, M, Li, CH, Paterson, A, Strych, U, Raja, B, Willson, RC, Wolfe, JC, Lee, TR & Shih, WC 2014, Nanoscale, vol 6, no. 14, pp. 8199-8207. DOI:

Retroreflective imaging system for optical labeling and detection of microorganisms
Bergen, MH, Nichols, J, Collier, CM, Jin, X, Raja, B, Roberts, DJ, Ruchhoeft, P, Willson, RC & Holzman, JF 2014, Applied Optics, no. 17, pp. 3647-3655. DOI: