Her trailblazing nature-based inventions are helping create a cleaner and healthier world.
TAMPA (April 29, 2021) – USF Professor Norma Alcantar—who engineered an ancient practice of cleaning water with cactus mucilage to create modern technologies—is among seven new inductees to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame announced today.
Alcantar joins noted inventors Dean Kamen, often referred to as the modern Thomas Edison due to the breadth and scope of his inventions, and Mark Dean, who holds three patents on the original IBM personal computer and is the co-inventor of the ISA bus which revolutionized modern computing. The full list of inductees can be found here.
Alcantar was lauded by the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame selection committee for her pioneering work in engineering natural products to create sustainable and non-toxic technologies for a wide range of applications. She holds 22 patents, 12 of which are related to using cactus mucilage as a purification system—a folk practice she first learned from her grandmother in Mexico who boiled the pads of the prickly pear cactus, known as nopales, to produce clean drinking water for her family.
A professor of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering at USF since 2003, Dr. Alcantar is also recognized for her support, mentoring and advocacy for women and people of color in the engineering fields. She is the first woman faculty member and first woman of color to start her professorial career as an assistant professor and navigate the ranks to full professor in the history of the USF College of Engineering. She also is the founder of the startup company Water, Health and Sustainability, LLC.
“I was humbly surprised to have found out that I was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. Thank you to Dr. Judy Genshaft, my nominator, and the selection committee for granting me this great honor,” she said. “I would like to dedicate this honor to my grandmother, Balbina Zamora, who whispered in my ear how we should learn from nature to solve practical problems. I would also like to recognize my mother, Arcelia Alcantar, who was instrumental in my education and energized me to pursue a career in science.”
Dr. Alcantar expressed further gratitude to USF’s Office of Patents and Licensing and the National Academy of Inventors for their ongoing support for her inventions.
Dr. Alcantar’s novel water filtration system has attracted worldwide attention for its ability to remove contaminants, sediments, bacteria, and heavy metals such as arsenic and oil. Soon after establishing her lab at USF and curious to whether there was science that could explain the folk remedy, Dr. Alcantar found that carbohydrates in the cactus pulp binds to contaminants, allowing them to separate and be removed, producing clean water. She tested her invention in Port-au Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake when there was little to no drinking water access for victims. The system also has been used in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Mexico.
Dr. Alcantar also has adapted the mucilage technology to other critical needs, such as cleaning water in aquaculture, which is important in developing countries highly dependent on fish farming; and as an agent for cleaning up oil spills, a discovery made in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Her research in the use of the mucilage in the fight against Parkinson's disease focuses on α-synuclein aggregation, a protein abundant in dopamine neurons that becomes toxic in Parkinson’s patients when it misfolds and aggregates into clumps. Low concentrations of the cactus extracts inhibited the aggregation process.
Her research group has also developed a localized, highly specific drug delivery system to treat ovarian cancer by increasing the chemotherapeutic drugs' effectiveness against cancer cells while reducing the adverse effects of the treatment. The drug delivery system has led to the development of other effective treatments for brain and lung cancers.
“With 22 patents, Dr. Alcantar is a leading engineer in critical environmental areas such as clean drinking water, sustainable crops, and transformative health care delivery for ovarium and brain cancer treatments,” said Robert H. Bishop, professor and dean of the College of Engineering. “Her groundbreaking cactus research has produced inventions essential to clean water through the removal of heavy metals and crude oil from the ocean.”
Dr. Alcantar received her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000 and soon became recognized for her dedication to mentoring and promoting students, engineering professionals and faculty members from underrepresented minority groups. She supported and guided her female graduate students to win prestigious grants and awards that changed the trajectory of their careers and helped them shatter glass ceilings. Dr. Alcantar is the recipient of the 2010 Hispanic Pathways Award.
She is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors, a senior member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and recently was named a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award among many other honors. Dr. Alcantar’s distinguished national service includes currently serving as Chair of the Committee of Underrepresented Minorities, AIMBE; and Member-at-Large, Engineering Section, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She is also a member of the USF Research Foundation Board.
The 2021 class also includes Roberta Goode, whose valve designs for vascular catheters have saved countless lives; Susann Keohane, whose advances in Artificial Intelligence are transforming technology for people with disabilities and the aging population; David Kotick, whose work integrating digital communications across live and virtual training environments has advanced simulated training for the U.S. military; and Rajiv Singh, whose process for chemical mechanical polishing for mechanically hard advanced electronic materials has significantly improved manufacturing of electronic devices and electric vehicles.
“It is an honor to announce such a remarkable class of Inductees who have proven that world-changing innovation comes from tackling challenging situations—something we are all very familiar with right now,” said Paul R. Sanberg, Chair of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame Advisory Board.
“These seven inventors are not only known for their groundbreaking inventions, but
also for their breakthroughs in education and training for students, the military,
and our aging and disabled populations,” said Sanberg, who also serves as the President
of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).
About the University of South Florida
The University of South Florida is a high-impact global research university dedicated
to student success. Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country
has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than
USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee,
USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of
Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities.
USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented
minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher
income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.
About the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame
The Florida Inventors Hall of Fame (FIHF) recognizes and commends Florida inventors whose achievements have advanced the quality of life for Floridians, the state and the nation. Founded in 2013 and located at the University of South Florida Research Park in Tampa, FIHF was recognized by Florida Senate Resolution 1756 in April of 2014. FIHF encourages individuals of all ages and backgrounds to strive toward the betterment of Florida and society through continuous, groundbreaking innovation, and, by commending the incredible scientific work being accomplished in the state, to further the growth of Florida’s innovation sector. FIHF is supported, in part, by the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.