Leading-Edge Researchers Lauded at Innovation Day

Leading-Edge Researchers Lauded at Innovation Day

By La Monica Everett-HaynesUniversity Communications
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Charles M. Higgins
Charles M. Higgins

The work of six University of Arizona faculty members deemed "Leading Edge Researchers" includes testing drugs to ward off Valley fever, improving the capability of scientists studying DNA and advancing medical information in the hands of physicians practicing in rural and remote parts of the world.

The researchers were honored yesterday during The University of Arizona's Innovation Day, held in the Student Union Memorial Center. Two others were presented with a Technology Innovation Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Innovation Day, now in its fifth year, spotlights technological and scientific developments and innovations created by UA students, faculty and staff. The developments are emergent, sometimes unconventional and often serve to improve the day-to-day lives of people around the world.

Developments of this kind keep the United States competitive, said Raphael Gruener, director of technology initiatives in the UA’s economic development office and a physiology professor. That has a direct influence on the education and livelihood of the greater population, which encouraging others to enter science and technology fields.

The award ceremony, called "UA at the Leading Edge" was moderated by Jim Gentile, president of Research Corporation, a Tucson-based foundation that supports scientific endeavors. The presentation included video interviews with each of the recipients.

"We do research because what we want to do is to drive the edge forward," Gentile said. "When you see innovation, you know it," he said. "In every one of us, we can come away from these talks and say, 'I can see how we can move these things forward." That, he said, leads to innovation.

The six faculty members who were honored are:

John N. Galgiani
The College of Medicine professor is a BIO5 Institute member as well as director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence. He was recognized for his work in developing a vaccine – nikkomycin Z – for Valley fever, a type of lung disease caused by inhaling fungal spores. Development of the drug and the first two phases of clinical trials have been funded by numerous awards, including a recent Food and Drug Administration grant awarded last year totaling more than $1 million (see related video at uanews.org/node/18977).

Charles M. Higgins
An associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and also an associate professor of neurobiology, Higgins is figuring out ways to merge biological systems with robotics. His chief interest is in autonomous robotics, and he is figuring out ways to use the living brain of a moth to control a robot (read more at uanews.org/node/17034).

David E. Nix
An associate professor in the pharmacy practice and science department at the College of Pharmacy, Nix is also an associate professor of medicine and a BIO5 Institute member. Nix, who co-leads a team with Galgiani, was recognized for his work helping to improve medical treatments for patients diagnosed with Valley fever, which is most commonly found in Southern California, much of Arizona, the southern regions in New Mexico and Texas and the northern tip of Mexico.

Ronald S. Weinstein
The Arizona Telemedicine Program director and pathology professor, highly regarded for his work in telepathology, was honored for leading efforts to improve medical care in rural communities. The program uses telemedicine technology to educate physicians throughout Arizona and in other parts of the world about disease prevention and medical treatment.

Rod A. Wing
Wing directs the Plant Genomics Institute and is a plant sciences professor and BIO5 Institute member. He is also one of the principal investigators on the Oryza Map Alignment Project, which is working to unlock the genetic code of one dozen species of wild rice, which is one of the major food crops around the world. The project will help researchers understand the evolution of rice through domestication and aid in figuring out ways to improve food production and crop yields (read more at uanews.org/node/18571).

Mary J. Wirth
A chemistry professor and BIO5 Institute member, Wirth focuses on protein separation on microchips. She is developing more swiftly functioning instruments and also working to commercialize high-sensitivity slides that will help scientists to better detect proteins, DNA and messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA. All this is in an effort to improve the discovery of new drugs, which should be more effective in combating diseases.

The other awards presented yesterday were the Technology Innovation Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award. The first was presented to Jay F. Nunamaker Jr., director of the UA Center for Management of Information. UA President Emeritus Henry Koffler was given the second.

Nunamaker, also a Regents' Professor, arrived at the UA in 1974 and eventually founded the University’s management information systems department. Today, his research is focused on ways to figure out when someone is lying – called "deception detection" – and he is helping to develop computer-assisted tools to advance detection technology, which could be used in in airports, at border stations or corporate interview rooms.

He recently was named head of the newly created Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration. The center includes dozens of partners, including research universities, Mexican and Canadian institutions, government agencies, companies and laboratories centered on developing new technologies, including surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles. The center was established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the UA was chosen as its co-leader, heading up the center's research functions (read more at uanews.org/node/18515.

Koffler is the first UA alumnus to serve as the University's president. His tenure spanned 1982 to 1991 and during that time external research spending tripled from $60 million to $192 million and more than 30 new laboratories, centers and research-focused divisions were created, including the Center for Computing and Information Technology (now called University Information technology Services) and the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.

Videos about the research presented during Innovation Day will be available at www.innovation.arizona.edu.

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