Feature Stories

Eminent possibilities

Groundbreaking scientific research not only tackles grand challenges facing the world, it also has the potential to create jobs. These two goals fuel the work of the 17 Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars
at UGA.

Since 1990, the nonprofit Georgia Research Alliance has partnered with the state's research universities to recruit world-class scientists who foster science- and technology-based economic development. At UGA, these scholars have enhanced the university's research capabilities and impact.

For Georgia to create "high-value, knowledge-based jobs," the state's leading universities must produce the kind of research outcomes that can develop new industry, said C. Michael Cassidy, GRA president and CEO.

"We're building the pipeline of pre-eminent research to generate ideas that can be launched into new companies, create jobs, and build the economy for the state," Cassidy said.

GRA faculty bring expertise in subjects ranging from bioinformatics and crop genomics to vaccines and viral immunity, and they establish major programs like the Center for Molecular Medicine, led by Stephen Dalton, GRA Eminent Scholar of Molecular Cell Biology.

Since 2015, UGA has recruited five GRA Eminent Scholars; such rapid growth has contributed to an astounding 33 percent cumulative increase in research expenditures during that period. 

While finding discoveries that can create new jobs is the priority of the GRA program, there is an added benefit for students. Eminent Scholars' labs create high-caliber learning environments where students get hands-on research experience to help them become the next generation's leaders in science.

C.J. Tsai — GRA Eminent Scholar in Molecular Biology

I think trees are the most complex and amazing organisms on Earth," said C.J. Tsai, former director of the UGA Plant Center. "They are immobile yet resilient, and their longevity means that they can be unwavering while also highly adaptable to a changing environment."

Much of Tsai's work centers on the question, "What makes a tree a tree?" She uses genomics and bioinformatics to study how trees work at the genetic and molecular levels. In practice, her research can lead to breakthroughs, such as making plants more economically viable sources of fuel.

Her philosophy: "I think trees are the most complex and amazing organisms on Earth. They are immobile yet resilient, and their longevity means that they can be unwavering while also highly adaptable to a changing environment."

Scott Jackson — GRA Eminent Scholar in Plant Functional Genomics

How do you make a better peanut? Jackson, director of the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies, works at the intersection of modern genetics and agriculture to do just that. He led an international research team that completed the peanut genome sequence in 2014. That team is now using the sequence to identify genetic markers that could make the crop more drought tolerant or disease resistant. Georgia — the nation's top peanut-producing state — stands to benefit from these findings, which could improve the sustainability and profitability of peanut farming and create a better quality of life for farmers.

Stephen Dalton — GRA Eminent Scholar in Molecular Biology

Stephen Dalton is a leader in UGA's emergence into the frontiers of biomedical research. He studies how stem cells can be used to cure degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, or repair brain and spinal cord injuries. Dalton is also the founding director of the Center for Molecular Medicine. The center's new facility, which will open later this year, will host teams of researchers exploring diseases at the molecular level to understand the effects of drugs and genes. "The emphasis is on translating this information into something practical and useful that can impact the health of people in Georgia and beyond," Dalton said.

Dennis Kyle — GRA Eminent Scholar in Antiparasitic Drug Discovery

Arriving in January, Dennis Kyle is UGA's newest Eminent Scholar and the new director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. Kyle, one of the nation's leading infectious disease researchers, focuses on the mechanisms of antimalarial drug resistance and drug discovery.

He was part of international research teams that identified the new antimalarial drugs ELQ-300 and SJ733. ELQ-300 not only treats the disease but also blocks the transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans. SJ733 works to eliminate the malaria parasite when it infects blood cells and is currently in Phase II clinical trials.

Karen Norris — GRA eminent Scholar in Immunology and Translational Biomedical Research

Karen Norris is working with a team of scientists to move a promising vaccine that treats pulmonary disease from the lab to clinical trials-a critical step toward improving health and saving lives.

As a member of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology, Norris' research focuses on infectious and chronic diseases, including HIV, inflammatory diseases, and diabetes. She has developed a number of disease models, which help researchers learn about, prevent, and develop treatments for diseases.

Arthur Edison — GRA Eminent Scholar in NMR Spectroscopy

Sometimes there's a lot to be gained by sweating the small stuff. Arthur S. Edison uses powerful nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which non-invasively generates images at the atomic level, to study chemical reactions in cells. These pictures of miniscule biological processes may one day provide a snapshot of a person's health.

Edison's lab is developing improved techniques using one of the world's most powerful NMR tools at UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. His work enables interdisciplinary collaborations exploring topics ranging from the nature of biological clocks to the mechanisms underlying myeloid leukemia.

Ted Ross — GRA Eminent Scholar in Infectious Diseases

There is one season everyone dreads: flu season. Ted Ross, the director of UGA's Center for Vaccines and Immunology, and other UGA researchers have partnered with Sanofi Pasteur to develop a vaccine that protects against
multiple strains of both seasonal and pandemic influenza using animal models.

"One of the problems with current influenza vaccines is that we have to make predictions about which virus strains will be most prevalent every year and build our vaccines around those predictions," Ross said. "What we have developed is a vaccine that protects against multiple different strains of influenza viruses at once, so we might be able to one day replace the current standard of care with this more broadly cross-protective vaccine."

Ross is collaborating with Moderna Therapeutics to create and test a vaccine to prevent infections of the Zika and Dengue viruses.

Published Thursday,