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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Making the UA a research powerhouse over 125 years takes efforts in all fields

    Over the course of its 125-year history, the UA has established a solid position in various fields of knowledge, achieving significant scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. Today, university research brings in over $600 million from outside sources every year.

    The UA set its place as a major research institution during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the federal government pushed for investments in universities across the country.

    At that time, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory was established by Gerard Kuiper, paving the way for what has been one of the fields for which the UA has been best known: space research.

    Head and Director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Michael Drake joined the UA as a graduate student over 30 years ago. He witnessed the period of research expansion that “”catapulted regional universities serving a local population to (become) great research universities.””

    From 1979 to 1989, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory led the Voyager Missions. This was a decade of spatial discoveries; they took the first picture of Saturn with its two moons, causing a media frenzy. The LPL researchers alo led the landing on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

    “”We were designed to parachute into it only. We were not designed to land and take pictures, but we did. You’re not to supposed to actually survive landing,”” Drake said.

    The universe was opening in the 1980s, Drake said. One of the most important aspects of it was, to him, “”the notion that there are places where life can exist with conditions that on Earth we find (it) impossible to.””

    In the 1990s, the focus turned to Mars. The Phoenix Mars Mission made the university the first to actually run a spacecraft mission, and it was done on campus.

    During this mission, UA discovered the existence of ice on Mars. Previously, it was believed water existed on Mars but none had ever been found.

    UA professor paves way for heart transplants

    In 1979 expertise in heart transplantations grew and precedents were set, changing the way insurance companies and hospitals deal with transplants nationwide.

    That year, the university became the sixth program in the world to do heart transplantation with a “”formal plan of attack on heart disease,”” said Dr. Jack Copeland, a professor of surgery who pioneered the artificial heart. Although the procedure is now common, with over 90,000 transplants performed to date, according to Copeland, in those days, only 100 or so had been done.

    The delicate mission had to overcome barriers to perform what was deemed an experimental study. The university had misgivings about “”a small center in the middle of the desert starting a world class attempt”” to do it when many had failed, Copeland said.

    “”There were people saying we might get valley fever or there weren’t enough candidates,”” Copeland said. “”Cardiologists from Tucson were standing up and saying, ‘I’ll never send a patient to the (UA) because they won’t be able to do it. They’re not qualified.’ And anesthesia said, ‘We will not give anesthesia for heart transplantation’ because they were afraid of the medical legal implications.””

    Once it was done successfully, the first recipient of a heart transplantation faced yet another barrier. Since it was still an experimental procedure, Medicare didn’t cover costs of the surgery, and the patient was left with a large bill to pay. Copeland and his patient sued the government and won. The suit established the precedent for heart transplants to be covered by Medicare and eventually insurance companies all around the U.S.

    The first heart transplant patient became “”a hero”” in the whole region, Copeland said, because virtually no center in the country was performing it. “”We were right there in the top three or four hospitals in the U.S. in heart transplantation from the very start,”” he said.

    In 1985, with the heart transplantation program established, Copeland set up another goal. Having lost a few patients in the transplants because their donor hearts didn’t work, he got the idea for an artificial heart that would sustain a patient who was in an extremely fragile state until they could get a real donor heart.

    Once he had such a patient, Copeland got an artificial heart from a center in Phoenix but was not successful. The team — most of whom had been a part of the heart transplant endeavor — trained in a center in Salt Lake City. A few months later, they succeeded in putting a total artificial heart to “”bridge”” the patient to transplantation.

    That was the first time the procedure was successful anywhere in the world. Nine days later, the patient received a donor heart. Now, thousands of people are getting artificial hearts of various kinds to sustain them or help them permanently, Copeland said. He has spent the last 25 years working on improvements of various kinds dealing with the artificial heart, its procedure and patients’ quality of life.

    “”We’re really helping people in major ways that weren’t possible before,”” Copeland said. “”It is a lot of fun to know that we’ve done something that’s been helpful to a lot of people. I feel like the university has allowed me to make a difference for people, and that’s very rewarding.””

    “”One of the many reasons for the UA’s uniqueness in several fields of studies is its interdisciplinary ability, according to Andrew Comrie, associate vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College, as well as Drake said.

    “”The characteristics of this university has been that, unlike many universities where departments are very parochial, for whatever reason, here we always looked at academic departments more as administrative conveniences and not as barriers to influential activity,”” Drake said.

    In order to achieve success with great scientific discoveries as the university has, often “”the overlap of two or three sets of expertise, sometimes more”” is needed, and the cutting edge projects conducted over 125 years attest to the endurance of solid research institution, Comrie said.

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