FL Women in Science - Part 2

Dr. Norma Alcantar
Dr. Norma Alcantar
TAMPA (2009-03-18) -

WUSF's series: Florida Women in Science crosses three generations. In part two, we visit with a University of South Florida chemical engineer who is working to solve a wide spectrum of ills from Alzheimer's to arsenic polluted water.

Dr. Norma Alcantar received her PhD in chemical engineering. Her specialty is surfaces and how they interface. The science may sound simple, but she's applying it to very complex problems.

For instance she is working with Dr. David Morgan from USF's Department of Pharmacology researching ways to remove Alzheimer's Disease plaques from the brain.

She's also collaborating with researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center on a more effective and less evasive way to deliver chemotherapy to tumor sites. But, the assistant professor at USF's chemical and biomedical engineering department may become best known for her work with the common cactus.

"The cactus is one of the edible vegetables in Mexico and is very nutritious," Alcantar says. She recalls her grandmother saying how the water was used to cook the cactus was then used to clean sediment from drinking water.

At USF, Alcantar began testing the filtration properties of the gooey substance inside the cactus called mucilage. Her research found the mucilage not only filters out sediments, it removes arsenic from the water.

The cactus mucilage is ideal because it's natural, biodegradable, abundant and sustainable. She has identified several Mexican communities whose only water source is contaminated with arsenic.

"It was really a need for something they can use in a low income community to clean their water," Alcantar says. "Especiall,y it's so bad right now that some of those communities have a genetic transformation due to the high arsenic content."

Her process is now patent-pending. Alcantar also is collaborating with civil and environmental engineers and anthropologists looking at water in society. She was invited to speak in Bangladesh and is mentoring students in Canada and Mexico interested in her research. She even helped an eighth grader in Oregon who asked permission to use mucilage in his science project.

"He's actually been selected to go to the state fair," Alcantar says. "So that's very important it's not only can we do something for science, but can we do something for our community for the students out there. And this project has really reached a lot of people."

And that's what makes Alcantar proudest as she remembers her grandmother Balbina Samora - the inspiration for it all.

"She was very excited that there was something that she passed along," Alcantar says. "She was a wonderful person. She couldn't read or write and for her to make an impact on all her grandchildren I think was very important."

And as a young chemical engineer, Alcantar is just beginning to scratch the surface of scientific discoveries embedded in her grandmother's folklore.

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