UA Innovation Day Honors Three in CALS

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Tuesday, March 6, the University of Arizona (UA) hosted its ninth annual Innovation Day at the UA. The event, attended by over 300 people, celebrated the UA's success in technology development and innovation by highlighting the research achievements of students, staff, and faculty. 

Three of the honorees were from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: Dr. Leslie Gunatilaka, director of the Natural Products Center and professor, School of Natural Resources and the Environment; Dr. Sharon Megdal, director, Water Resources Research Center and Modene Neely Endowed Professor, Distinguished Outreach Professor; and Alexandra Armstrong, final year Ph.D. candidate, Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology.

Dr. Leslie Gunatilaka joined the UA in 1997 and assumed the leadership of the Southwest Center for Natural Products Research and Commercialization (Natural Products Center) in 2002. His research focuses on the exploration of novel compounds synthesized by exotic plants from the arid zones of Asia, South America and the Sonoran Desert, and evaluation of these compounds for medicinal value. , explores novel compounds synthesized by exotic plants from the arid zones of Asia, South America and the Sonoran desert, and evaluates these compounds for medicinal value.

Dr. Gunatilaka is identifying how to utilize arid lplant and microorganism resources to develop natural-products-based pharmaceuticals to treat cancer, AIDS, infective (bacterial, fungal, viral) diseases, and biocides to control insect and plant organisms. His ultimate goal is to establish links with scientists from academia and industry working in areas of natural products development. He actively collaborates with scientists from the UA, Arizona State University, Translational Genomics Institute, Whitehead Institute, Harvard University, Josephine Ford Cancer Center, and several biotechnology companies.

His group has recently used an innovative soil-less aeroponic technique to grow plants under a controlled environment for efficient production of potential pharmaceuticals and structural diversification of plant-based natural products. This and a number of other discoveries have resulted in provisional patent applications and intellectual property disclosures. 

Dr. Leslie Gunatilaka: Leading Edge Researcher

Dr. Sharon Megdal focuses on applied research related to resolving real-world water management challenges. She places particular emphasis on how to achieve desired policy objectives in terms of institutional structures. Her current projects include comparative evaluation of water management, policy and governance in growing, water-scarce regions; meeting the water needs of the environment; water pricing; and transboundary aquifer assessment.

A major strand of Dr. Megdal's research focuses on assessing environmental water needs and developing mechanisms for incorporating the demands of all sectors into water planning. Funding has come from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Walton Family Foundation and the UA Technology Research Initiative Fund. In partnership with several others, her team at the WRRC has implemented a Conserve to Enhance (C2E) pilot in Tucson. C2E is an innovative mechanism developed at the WRRC that connects voluntary water conservation with on-the-ground environmental enhancement projects.

Dr. Megdal spends much time in her laboratory--the real world of water--where she gathers information crucial to her analyses. Her research, such as that on aquifer assessment at the border shared by Arizona and Sonora, emphasizes the importance of understanding the context for policy-making. 

Dr. Sharon Megdal: Leading Edge Researcher

Alexandra Armstrong is a leading force in the area of preventing bacterial food borne diseases. Her doctoral project resulted in a novel, reproducible, effective vaccine to reduce Campylobacter jejuni in chickens. The commercial potential of this vaccine is enormous. Campylobacteriosis is currently the number one bacterial food-borne disease worldwide, responsible for an estimated 2.4 million illnesses per year in the United States. It can also lead to serious complications, as with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralytic autoimmune disorder, in some patients.

Campylobacter is an exceedingly difficult organism to work with, which is why there has not yet been a viable vaccine, despite its demand in the poultry industry. Armstrong has cloned a putative Campylobacter virulence gene and expressed the protein in an attenuated Salmonella Typhimurium vector. She has conducted two separate vaccination trials which demonstrated significantly reduced numbers of C. jejuni in birds when compared to the non-vaccinated control birds. Results from her project served as preliminary data for a BIO5 Request for Application for Innovation Seed Grants. The proposal on this vaccine has been chosen for funding.

Successful vaccination of chickens would lead to compliance with new USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service performance standards for Campylobacter in chickens by improving the safety of poultry, thereby significantly reducing or preventing human Campylobacteriosis. Armstrong, along with her co-inventors, plans to start a company that will license the vaccine.

Alexandra Armstrong: Student Technology Innovation Award Winner

For more information on Innovation Day 2012, see and

Thinking the Impossible

 UA honors innovators for ideas to save lives: