Winter 2022

Building for Research

Creating the capacity for innovation: A conversation with Betsy Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation

Imagine a world where human potential is realized and we’re all working together to create solutions to big problems. Where life in our communities, in Arizona and on our planet can thrive. At the University of Arizona, scientists and researchers bring this vision to life. Our continuously expanding infrastructure is responsive to new and emerging challenges, enabling cutting-edge research with real-world impacts. Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell leads the charge through the Office for Research, Innovation & Impact where she oversees $761 million in research expenditures, placing UArizona at No. 20 among public universities. Read on for insights into what drives Cantwell as she leads the work of research “future-casting” at UArizona.

Betsy Cantwell

Betsy Cantwell Assembles the University's Research Puzzle

I am a long-time fan of science fiction. My father, a geophysicist, first introduced me to it. Growing up, he was often away doing fieldwork, but, when he was home, a tradition of ours was to watch the original “Lost in Space” together. As a young girl, “Lost in Space” gave me permission to think about where we’re going and how we’ll get there. It gave me permission to greet change and the unknown enthusiastically. 

To this day, science fiction is a lens through which I’m able to see challenges with fresh eyes and dream up creative solutions. At a societal level, I think the genre creates a narrative around the new and different — inviting audiences to venture into uncharted territory and imagine a faraway future. I call it “future-casting,” and it’s a particularly useful way of thinking in my role as a scientist and as the senior vice president of research and innovation at the University of Arizona. 

Our job as scientists, in large part, is to develop, continuously revisit, and communicate a narrative around our research that allows nonexperts to not only envision the future, but to understand how we’ll get there. Strong narratives make our work accessible to those our research impacts and allow us to engage with fundamental, all-important questions about scientific research: “Is it valuable? Is it worth pursuing?” 

The narrative of research at the University of Arizona happens to be built right into its name: The Office for Research, Innovation & Impact is called such because we believe in expanding the historic approach to research as a set of activities that impact real people. We lead with genuine curiosity by studying topics we’re passionate about, from the origins of our solar system to disease prevention to climate change. After we’ve uncovered new information, we innovate — for example, through commercialization of technology — and, lastly, we take our innovations out into the real world where they make an impact. As the state’s designated land grant university, the notion of “impact” is an ethos and a moral obligation to our community.

And with greater than $760 million in annual research and development expenditures, our researchers put this ethos into action every day. 

I’ll share an example.

Roughly 5.5 million Americans and 50 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The university’s Center for Innovation in Brain Science offers critical infrastructure and expertise to the field of neurodegenerative disease, focusing on four age-associated diseases including Alzheimer’s. With expertise spanning discovery, translational, regulatory, and clinical science, the center takes a patient-inspired, data-driven approach to finding cures. In September 2019, the center received a $37.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research a potential regenerative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.

That funding has already yielded significant progress. Recently, a University of Arizona-developed therapy for Alzheimer’s disease designed to restore cognitive function in early-stage patients was permitted to proceed through a clinical trial involving rigorous efficacy testing for hundreds of patients. 

The team, led by Regents Professor Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of our Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science and a member of the BIO5 Institute, found that the steroid prescribed to women with postpartum depression also promotes connectivity between neural networks required for cognitive function.

Brinton would tell you that her vision “is to do what no one else has done” and “change the way we do brain science.” Her fearlessness toward change and the future, I believe, plays a critical role in the success of her research. Happily, she is just one shining example of how UArizona researchers across disciplines leverage their passion and innovative spirit to future-cast and change the world. 

Today, we’re incredibly well-positioned to grow even more in the areas we already excel in — climate, space sciences, quantum networks, personalized medicine and technology — and all things related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

My job, fundamentally, is to bridge the gap between the university’s bold vision for Arizona’s future and our path toward getting there. 

For example, my office is developing a comprehensive plan for the university to reach $1 billion in annual research expenditures by 2028, providing our researchers with the funds they need to advance their work. We’ve created an entire office dedicated to the translation of research into societal impact. We’ve appointed a new associate vice president for resilience and international development, Greg Collins, to create opportunities for faculty to be in direct conversation with policymakers and practitioners in the field.

This summer, we began construction on a new $85 million, three-story Applied Research Building to house research related to applied physical sciences and engineering. Scheduled for completion in January 2023, the building’s cutting-edge facilities will include a large area for assembling stratospheric balloons and nanosatellites as well as a chamber that simulates environmental conditions in space to test their performance. (See photo on Page 18).

Each of these actions was inspired and informed by future-casting — by continuously asking myself and our researchers, “Where are we going and how do we get there?” 

In 1969, I watched American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the surface of the moon on television. It was an astonishing feat, and one that I’d like to see happen on Mars in my lifetime. And just as University of Arizona researchers helped enable that successful moon landing by publishing the Rectified Lunar Atlas including the first images of undistorted features on the side of the moon, I am certain UArizona researchers will contribute to a successful Martian landing, too.

Indeed, all real progress starts first with imagination and a willingness to consider all possibilities. That’s why future-casting is at the heart of University of Arizona research.