Michael Cusanovich, pioneer of Arizona biosciences, passes

April 14, 2010

By hammersmith

Michael Cusanovich, a biochemist and Regent’s Professor who served on the University of Arizona faculty for more than 40 years, guided the university’s research endeavors for a decade, and helped launch Arizona’s bioscience enterprise, died April 12 at the age of 68.

“He was one of those people who may not have gotten headlines but was truly a powerhouse behind the scenes,” said Ron Shoopman, executive director of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, and vice chair of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, in the Arizona Daily Star.

Dr. Cusanovich officially retired in 2007, but continued to direct UA’s interdisciplinary Arizona Research Laboratories. In the community, he served on the board of directors of the Arizona BioIndustry Association (AZBio) and as president of the Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona, the regional trade group he co-founded in 2002 and helped to integrate with AZBio in 2008, unifying and strengthening the voice of Arizona’s bioscience industry.

“Mike’s leadership and influence spanned the whole life-sciences spectrum, from basic science at the university through to the industry,” wrote Nina Ossanna, a fellow UA faculty member and AZBio’s board chair,, in an e-mail to colleagues. “Never one to sugar-coat anything, he challenged us to grow, strive for the best, and build our community. We have come a long way since those early days of Arizona bioindustry with Mike leading the way.”

When Dr. Cusanovich joined the UA faculty in 1969, the university was a strong regional engine for research, but far from what it has since become–one of the nation’s top-15 public universities in terms of research expenditures, reaching $565 million in 2009.Dr. Cusanovich’s 10-year tenure as vice president for research, from 1988-1998, contributed significantly to that evolution.

“I think he’s been an outstanding vice president for research, and he’s succeeded in part because of his rather deep understanding of the research enterprise,” said Michael J. Drake, director of the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab, in a 1998 Daily Star profile of Dr. Cusanovich as he announced his return to the UA faculty. “He seemed to instinctively understand how to do the right thing–it helps to be a scientist and to know what’s involved. He’s one of the success stories in the university administration. He will be sorely missed by many of us.”

In 2007, Dr. Cusanovich said in the Daily Star that he remained a part of the UA community because he loved his work.

“I stick around because I really enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s not for financial reasons; I’d actually make more money if I quit. Most of my colleagues who are in the retirement regime all still enjoy what they’re doing.”

At the Arizona Research Laboratories, Dr. Cusanovich directed an interdisciplinary research model that led to the creation of projects and collaborations including the Biomedical Engineering Program; the Center for Insect Science; the Division of Neural Systems, Memory and Aging; and the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth. And he continued to pursue his own research, most recently helping to lead a UA team that won a share of a $44 million federal grant to develop new sources of algal biofuels and bioproducts.

“It’s rare to find a faculty member who loves doing research and does it well, loves working with students, and enjoys being a member of the faculty,” said Vicki Wysocki, UA biochemistry and molecular biophysics professor, in the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

In 2008 at AZBio’s annual awards dinner, Dr. Cusanovich received the Jon W. McGarity Leadership Award in recognition of his career-long leadership within the state’s bioscience sector. 

“Over the years, Mike generously shared his time and wisdom as a teacher of undergraduates and graduate students, as a prolific investigator, as vice president for research and as provost, and as a mentor for many faculty members, including me,” said Leslie Tolbert, UA’s current vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. It will take a long time to absorb his loss.”

For more information:

Prominent scientist at UA, Michael A. Cusanovich, dies,” Arizona Daily Star, 04/14/2010

Two major losses to the UA community,” Arizona Daily Wildcat, 04/14/2010

ARL Director Michael Cusanovich: 1942-2010,” UA news release, 04/12/2010

UA braces for surge in faculty retirements,” Arizona Daily Star, 05/06/2007

UA’s chief of research leaving post,” Arizona Daily Star, 04/21/1998